Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Jab Tak Hai Jaan 2012

Yash Chopra - a name that any one with the slightest interest in Hindi films will have come across a few times in their lives. If the multiplicity of Hindi cinema can be unfairly categorised as a genre called "Bollywood", then Yash Chopra is to this genre what Hitchcock is to mystery, Scorsese is to gangster and Luhrmann is to grandeur.

Having directed his first film in 1959 (Dhool ka Phool) and his last in 2012 (Jab Tak Hai Jaan), Yash Chopra has at least one film to his credit in each of the last seven decades. That may be a feat in itself, but what is far more noteworthy is that he moved with the times, changed his style over and over again, and never once compromised on quality. It used to be said that while other directors would film in India and pretend it was Europe, Chopra would film in Switzerland and pretend it was Kashmir. Despite his tremendous success with social dramas like Waqt (1965), Deewar (1975), Trishul (1978) and Kaala Patthar (1979), he is best known for his romantic films. He defined 'real love' for more than one generation - and it is Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Silsila (1981), Chandni (1989) and Lamhe (1991) that people instantly associate him with. He created a world of beautiful poetry, memorable music, idyllic walks in the park and snow-capped mountains; he gave us graceful women in chiffon saris, who are as bold as they are beautiful and dashing men, who can be just as rakish as they are ethical - smart people all of them, with a taste for the finer things, be it lifestyle or literature. When you bought tickets to watch a Yash Chopra film, you knew you were entering a different world - conservative and yet unconventional, dripping with class but grounded in reality - and you would not be disappointed.

At age 65, he directed his 'youngest' film, Dil to Pagal Hai (1997) and raised the bar even higher for what would be considered hip and cool in Bollywood. Then nothing for seven years and out came Veer-Zaara in 2004, one of the very few films of his career that I did not like. It was old-fashioned, boring and strangely out of step with the times. Had the king finally lost his touch? I had to wait another eight years to see this trailer (anyone who has visited my blog before will know that I do not post pictures or embed videos, so this is a special concession for the grandest of directors):

And then we heard the news - only a month after his 80th birthday, and less than a month before the release of his latest film, Yash Chopra passed away. Such is his legacy that he will never be forgotten. But it is with a heavy heart that I review his last film - one I hoped would be his crowning glory, but is instead one of the weakest contributions to his vault of exceptional films.

Jab Tak Hai Jaan is the story of Samar Anand (Shah Rukh Khan) and his undying love for Meera (Katrina Kaif), a girl he meets in London, while he busks, waits tables, sells fish and runs errands to make a living. Meera is the daughter of a rich man and is ostensibly strait-laced, but Samar recognises the playful imp within her and that is who he falls in love with. Complications arise when Meera's unwavering faith in God, and her insistence on bartering with Him, leads to her ending her relationship with Samar. Heart-broken and dejected, he returns to India and, with a death-wish, joins the bomb disposal unit of the Indian Army. While posted in Ladakh, he meets young and bubbly Akira (Anushka Sharma), who falls head over heels in love with him, a feeling that Samar is no longer capable of reciprocating to anyone but Meera. Hence, we get a love triangle, one that does not have an easy solution - and that is what the film is about.

If my description of the plot sounds flat and uninteresting, please remember to place some of the blame on Aditya Chopra, who is responsible for the story and dialogue, and part-responsible for the screenplay. It is shocking to imagine that he is the man behind one of the most successful and entertaining Hindi films of all time - Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995). For this film, he has simply put together snatches of Hurt Locker (2008), Kabhi Kabhie and Trishul, and fleshed up the basic triangular structure of Veer-Zaara. 

Anushka Sharma plays the quintessential go-getter, a wonderfully 'alive' daredevil - and a rather annoying character most of the time. She looks, for lack of a better word, hot, dressed in the shortest of shorts and cotton vests, but she has gone a bit too large in her acting. Katrina Kaif, who had just started showing some promise in her acting, has delivered one of her most placid performances in recent times. Her facial muscles seem incapable of showing subtle expressions, and in this film, she is not even trying. But, she too, looks beautiful (though a bit chubby around the waist) and so all is well in the world. Shah Rukh Khan, on the other hand, is all charm and emotion, and at 46, he pulls off the mid-thirties look with aplomb. Unfortunately, in half of the film, he is meant to be in his mid-twenties and roughly three decades of smoking and drinking have left too many tell-tale marks on his face that undermine all his efforts at looking young. Still, it's SRK, the King of Bollywood, and his acting more than makes up for his appearance. With just his eyes, he conveys a thousand emotions. My only problem with his performance was the fact that after 20 years of vowing never to kiss his heroines onscreen, his cringe-worthy attempts in this film were a big mistake - resulting in many an awkward moment between him and Katrina. His scenes with Anushka were much better handled and they have far more chemistry than he and Katrina ever achieve.

There are way too many flaws in the execution of this film. The story is archaic and the twists are straight from the 80s. The scenes with the army almost always had a couple of soldiers carrying their rifles in the most comic manner. The scenes with Anushka carrying a video camera were even worse. Had a lesser director been at the helm, this would have been forgivable, but when Yash Chopra blunders, who do we turn to? This is a weak film in parts, and simply awful in others (yes, I am referring to the London bomb disposal scene and the unnecessary cameo-infested sequence at the vineyard). The audience keeps waiting for it to lift, to go somewhere - but it never does.

The music is good in general - but considering it's AR Rahman we are talking about, it is fairly mediocre. The choreography is excellent though - and Katrina is mind-blowing in the salsa-capoeira-street-inspired dance sequence. 

There is one thing in the film that I can not fault at all - and that is the cinematography. Anil Mehta is pretty much a genius with the camera, but in a seriously flawed film, he has delivered shot after impeccable shot. His work deserves a review of its own! Also, the location scout(s) should get a special mention. London has never been this well-explored in a Hindi film before and it was gratifying to see not only the typical tourist spots, but also the areas that only Londoners go to. 

All in all, it absolutely breaks my heart to give my final verdict on this film: it is sub-standard. But the colours, the actors, the style and of course the fact that it's a Yash Chopra film, his last at that, will ensure that Jab Tak Hai Jaan will be seen by all Bollywood fans and will be generally enjoyed, and possibly praised.

Hell, even I may go and watch it again!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Skyfall 2012

I had no intention of reviewing this latest James Bond offering, but I keep hearing from people how wonderful this film is, and I really can't take it anymore. So, here are my thoughts:

It has been 50 years since James Bond made his first appearance in an Eon Production (Albert R Broccoli and Harry Saltzman). Dr No (1962) established the Bond character we have come to know and love for six decades, and set standards that we still measure the 'sequels' by. In this time, the face of Bond has changed (from Sean Connery to George Lazenby to Roger Moore to Timothy Dalton to Pierce Brosnan to Daniel Craig), but the concept of the 'suave spy' has remained constant. Yes, he may not exactly be the secret agent that Ian Fleming had created when he started writing the novels but, like Sherlock Holmes before him, James Bond was re-imagined for the audio-visual medium. Unlike Holmes though, Bond's film characterisation has been fiercely protected by the Broccoli family, and has been far less arbitrary since his first screen appearance.

After 40 years and 20 films and 5 actors, Bond got a reboot. Daniel Craig stepped in and we went back, all the way back, to Casino Royale (2006). I was one of those who were quite apprehensive and unconvinced about the choice for this lead. Yes, Craig is a decent actor, has a strong screen presence and is fairly attractive, but he just did not look like Bond. It wasn't just that he is blond. It was the fact that if I wanted Roger Moore replaced, I'd opt for someone like Pierce Brosnan (and we had him)! And if I wanted Sean Connery replaced, I'd go for Clive Owen. Daniel Craig seemed like a replacement for Timothy Dalton, who, let's face it, was just a little less forgettable than George Lazenby. What's worse is that the trailers showed Daniel Craig pouting sexily in all his scenes, whether they were romantic, stylish or action.

Anyway, the film came out and I grudgingly went to watch it. Pouty or not, Craig put my fears to rest. The characterisation had been adjusted to suit his persona and with a little more hand-to-hand action thrown in (as per post-Bourne blues), this Bond was fresh, spirited, intelligent, suave and yet somehow inconspicuous, as a spy should be. The flamboyance was toned down, the dialogue un-cheesed and the storyline simplified to create an engaging, more believable film. Casino Royale and Daniel Craig won me over, in spite of myself.

That is why when Quantum of Solace (2008) came out, it actually hurt my feelings. I had finally opened my heart and mind to a new Bond, accepted the differences between him and Brosnan and I then got served an exceedingly boring, unbelievably irritating film, giving me no reason to root for the world's most famous spy.

So, I waited another four years, in the hope that the magic of Casino Royale will be recaptured in Skyfall. Alas, I was so very, very wrong.

Opening Scene: Fans of the past films will remember some of the more iconic opening sequences from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and GoldenEye (1995). Casino Royale had a perfect, stylish, brilliant opening scene as well. Skyfall's opening was lengthy, boring and trying too hard. As much as I love Istanbul, it seems to be the filming location of choice for way too many films these days, and I'm getting a little tired of the rooftops of the Grand Market now (see Taken 2). Even the lengthy, over-the-top boat chase scene from The World Is Not Enough (1999) was classier in comparison!

Theme Song: Bond films have given us some very popular theme songs over the years. Nancy Sinatra's You Only Live Twice, Shirley Bassey's Diamonds Are Forever, Paul McCartney's Live and Let Die, Tina Turner's GoldenEye, Garbage's The World Is Not Enough and Madonna's Die Another Day to name just a few. Chris Cornell's You Know My Name (Casino Royale) wasn't amazing, but it was still good enough to set a tone for the film. Skyfall's song, despite having amazing Adele's vocals, is really no great shakes. It's too reminiscent of an age past, but is a little all over the place. I'm not about to download it in a hurry.

Gadgets, Cars, Guns: These have been signature items for Bond films, but with the reboot, there has been a concerted effort to tone these elements down. In Skyfall, this being the 50th year and all, there are corny references, for the aficionados, to past films' gadgets: a pen that explodes, an ejector seat in a vintage Aston Martin DBS, etc. And finally, in this third instalment of the renewed franchise, Q is re-introduced (played by Ben Whishaw). He will probably develop into a character less disdainful of Bond, than previous Qs (Desmond Llewelyn and John Cleese). But, in this film at least, all he offers is a radio transmitter and a personalised gun. *Yawn*.

Villain: This is probably the most disappointing factor of Skyfall. Raoul Silva is meant to be deranged, out of control and very dangerous because he knows all the inside secrets. He seems to have been modeled on the Joker and Moriarty, a true nemesis for our protagonist, created from the same mould as Bond, but one who took a different turn when abandoned by M. But for some reason, he is not scary; he is simply annoying. Javier Bardem, how ever brilliant he may be considered, has given one of his worst performances, by completely over-acting in all his scenes. Considering how outrageous some of the previous Bond villains have been, it actually feels strange to say this, but this character was not very 'believable'!

Women: Another essential for Bond films: beautiful women. In recent times, especially in Brosnan's films, they became actual characters that moved the story forward, rather than the helpless, irritating damsels they used to be previously. This is why Skyfall's female 'lead' Severine, (Berenice Lim Marlohe) was such a disappointment. Not only is she completely useless, she is not even the most attractive distraction! And the twist with Naomie Harris's Eve character was so blatantly inspired by John Blake's revelation at the end of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) that I actually groaned in the cinema.

Recurring Characters: Laying the overdue groundwork for the arrival of new recurring characters and departure of old ones in the third film, is just lazy. And that's what this new Bond series is: lazy. Since Casino Royale, I have wondered why Judi Dench stayed on to play M for this new Bond. She seemed out of place and almost out of her depth, which is a strange thing to say about such a legendary actress. There has been no chemistry between her and Daniel Craig. She has just appeared tired and haggard and very disinterested in him, and he has always seemed uncomfortable in her presence. She abandoned Brosnan's Bond during a mission once (Die Another Day, 2002); his reaction to that was pain, but a grudging understanding and respect. When she abandons Craig's Bond, he really seems not to care. There has never been a connection between them. If only they had replaced her when they rebooted the franchise, we wouldn't have had to go through three films of uncomfortable moments.

Title: I've seen better. The mystery created around 'Skyfall' during the word association test Bond has to take, fizzles out so badly when you finally find out what that word means to him. Come on guys...think of titles like 'You Only Live Twice' or 'A View To A Kill' or 'Octopussy'...then think 'Skyfall'. Ho-hum.

Story: Ah what a patchwork job this was. Scenes and themes have been lifted directly from previous (recent) Bond films (Bond gets abandoned by M, Bond breaks into M's house, MI6 building blows up, etc etc). Then there's the lack of consistency. So Bond can't really shoot straight any more, he fails his tests, he can't kill Silva who is right in front of him in a tunnel; less than a week later, he is a sharp-shooter again and is able to kill an army of men in a dark house. What? Despite having the most advanced medical facilities at his disposal, Bond sticks a knife into his shoulder, pulls out remnants of a shattered bullet lodged there for months, and delivers these to the afore-mentioned facilities. Why the drama? Don't ask. Kincade (Albert Finney), the gamekeeper of Bond's estate is oh-so-wild and clever, and saws a rifle off for better you do. Couple of scenes later, like an idiot he uses a bright torch in an open field, while trying to escape the enemy, who can now obviously see him a mile away. WHAT? Was this script written 50 years ago, when cinema logic used to be a little bit skewed?

The problems with this film are not Daniel Craig's fault. HE is not the worst Bond ever (Lazenby and Dalton have ensured that), but the promise he showed six years ago is now wearing thin. The writers and directors really need to work harder to keep the Bond tradition alive - and yet, keep the premise palatable for a new generation. What they seem to be doing is mixing old Bond, with new Bourne, with future Bond and making some weird concoction, which will not withstand the test of time. This 50th anniversary offering is weak and unfortunate.

Instead of the terrible references they pulled, it would have been so much better if the producers had got all 5 previous Bonds together (they're all still alive), dressed them in dinner jackets, and sat them around a card table in a casino. Even without a single dialogue, just an exchange of looks, between them and Daniel Craig, would have delivered a scene to remember for ever. That would have been an homage.

Skyfall is a fairly tedious, interminable film, devoid of logic and grace. It's not the worst action film ever, but it is definitely one of the lesser Bond films.

Do watch it though. I hear it is 'brilliant'.