Sunday, July 21, 2013

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag - Another Story

So my review of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag showed up last week here and recently, one of my friends from my alma mater, The Ohio State University, also saw the film and wrote to me expressing his thoughts in detail about the film which I am posting here. Before you delve in, there is one thing you need to know or be reminded of. In the film, they mention Jesse Owens, a famous athlete, in the Australia sequence. Over to my friend!

Not too far in the distant past was a great athlete, Jesse Owens, who was invited by Hitler during Berlin Olympics. Possibly, he might be watching the recent release Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and saying, next time I want to be born an Indian. Five days after the release of the movie and it being a run-away success (no kidding), BMB is still raking in the applause and the stars. If I had diamonds, I would make it rain as well! The question is, does BMB do justice to the protagonists story? It has its share of action, drama and a tonne of emotions. The music isn’t exactly a trance track that the auntyji’s are used to listening on the treadmill run at a local gym but definitely desi-fied version of Eye of the Tiger, in the form of ‘Ab tu Bhaag Milkha’. Without twiddling around, let me jump to the key features of the movie

The story is just great and the actors chosen to play every single role make a perfect fit like a bespoke suit. It portrays the rise of the legend Milkha Singh from the ‘nehars’ of Kot Addu through the painful partition years and finally as a rising athelete who goes on to become an indian legend. The script isn’t exactly a straight path, more of a flashback-ke-andar flashback-zoom out-flashback approach! It is shot at some very eye pleasing locales of various ‘pinds’ in Punjab, majestic mountains of Ladakh region and arguably eye pleasing bluewaters passed off as Australia. The camera work is fantastic especially the part where the camera follows the sprinting Milkha.

The main lead- Farhan does a miraculous job of becoming the protagonist Milkha Singh, both in body and spirit. Rarely do actors work so hard to get into the skin of the character as much as we have seen Farhan undergo during his well documented transformation. Hats off to his hard work and training. Yes the women folks can surely ogle at his 6-8 packs, more than just once, during the 2.5hr movie! My only take is that his voice could have been trained better. Some parts of his dialogue delivery remind me of his uttering the dialogues from ZNMD. The dude runs like a star athlete. His best scene is when Milkha returns to his village and breaks down seeing his old house. Farhan has just raised the bar of his best performance to date.

Seated comfortably in a foreign theatre, one does surely miss out on the usual chattar-pattar, cell-phone jabbering, pop-corn munching annoyance which is accepted back in motherland. During the shots of  partition years and refugee camps, I heard mellow sobs coming from few seats away. They were coming from a well dressed suited-booted uncleji, who most likely was reliving the trauma that young Milkha went through during the partition. It was a very touching moment to silently witness the impact of cinema. Perhaps the NRI uncleji can only elaborate on the state of his mind. The partition scene with Young Milkha (Japtej Singh from Mohali) and Divya Dutta are sure to make your eyes moist. The scenes between the brother and the sister exude the word 'emotion'.

Milkha's army days are very well shot, and a large part of the credit goes to the brilliance of actor Pawan Malhotra, cast as Mikha Singh’s coach. One of the promos of the movie show Farhan being slapped by Malhotra and saying “ India da coat kamana padta hain, mehnat karni padti hain”. Some brilliant acting by Malhotra in here. There were scenes and characters who could have been gotten away with, but I guess you need time to absorb the entire impact of whats going on. The detailing especially Air India’s onboard conversation between Milkha and the national coach Ranvir Singh, made it look like surreal 1950’s. The sloppy part comes in the guise of flashbacks. Enough ink has been spoilt on the 300/Jaane tu ya Jaane na (Ranjor-ke-rathor) flashback similarities. Honestly, the flashbacks could have been easier on the palate of the audience if it was one long continuous scene. I believe the editor chose to don the directors hat and got away with what looks like a bad spaghetti, and to his surprise, the director just uttered “darling, kya spaghetti hain!” The director, the actors, the cinematographer, the musicians everyone were superb in their efforts. I would either blame the writer or the editor with the marvelous wonder of turning a fantabulous story into a baigan da bharta. Not to compare but there are better flashback examples and their placements in Bollywood movies lately. Mehra’s previous offering RDB was much better off when it came to flashbacks. Mehra does an overall a fantastic job of re-creating the bygone era.

What you do take away in an awe-inspiring story of a humble boy, who never thought he could become a legend one day? Kids will talk about it, the old timers will reminisce the days of the All India Radio coverage of Milkha Singh and the young would simply continue to be zombified with the cult of T-20. The biggest takeaway from the movie was that it takes a lot to earn the respect while playing for a country, something which is being taken for granted these days. Thankfully the movie doesn’t make a mockery out of the coaches or managers, I am saying this at a time when cricket as a game has lost its charm, but the sheen seems to cover the muck underneath – tainted ‘national level’ players and club managers who have possibly never held a bat in their hands. Milkha Singh’s record will be broken and he would be happy to see an Indian kid do it. He would be happy to say ‘Ab tu bhaag Milkha’!

For lovers of history, Franklin D Roosevelt publicly never acknowledged the way Jesse Owens ought to be felicitated for bringing medals to USA. Thankfully we were able to do something magical with Milkha Singh when we had a chance. Go watch the movie to believe in the story of a living legend – Milkha Singh and find out what I mean.

The author has ‘vested’ interests in writing this review and shares his alma mater with Jesse Owens.

Christopher Columbus

Jesse Owens, incidentally, was also a graduate of my university and we have the honor of having met him personally, once. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

D-Day is a compelling film, poignantly crafted and marvelously acted

D-Day, directed by Nikhil Advani, started making all the right noises earlier this week when previews started for the cast and crew's friends, family and media. I went into the theater with really high expectations conjured by the name tags attached to the film, mainly, Rishi Kapoor and Irrfan. 

Cut To

A wedding song performance is brilliantly intercut with a woman fighting with her supposed husband intercut with an agent trying to take down a dreaded gangster who is entering the same building intercut with the gangster entering the same building with his entourage.

A father leaves his beloved son to school and his expressions, as his son walks away, are captured through a rear view mirror. Or the father sheathing his tears as he bids his son adieu at the airport.

A gripping replay of a merciless murder over a song sequence that talks about a personal loss

A man embracing death with the voiced imagery of his wife accepting his marriage proposal

and many many more such instances.

Advani's D-Day is a tremendous display of taut storytelling appropriated efficiently by craft and detailing. A compelling action drama profuse with emotional wrangling, Advani often twiddles with his script, showing much skill with his metier, to deliver a sound film, if not a flawless one. Like a raging river in flood, he attempts a genre unlike any of his previous ventures (Kal Ho Naa Ho, Saalam-E-Ishq, Chandni Chowk To China, Patiala House) and seems completely at home here. As I am back home, the images of from that one song, Alvida, still haunt me and I can only smile when I think of the burgeoning growth of Indian cinema. We have come so far and this, is a rollickinginly awesome time. 

D-Day boasts of a gestating fresh premise when India's secret agency, R&AW, daringly decides to take down the most wanted terrorist, Dawood Ibrahim (whose name is not mentioned even once in the film), by sending four special agents on a mission to Pakistan to bring him back alive, inspired by America's huntdown of Osama. Without much ado, the plot dives into the operation and the build up to it, brillliantly juxtaposing each of the agent's backstories and weaving them seamlessly as it chugs along. The operation fails and the agents are left on their own to save their lives or their loved ones or complete the mission. Credited for its story and screenplay, Ritesh Shah, Suresh Nair and Advani himself, shoehorn a lot of meat in the 140-150 minute runtime, and stir up a spotless first half. The second half sets up the specter with much aplomb. But somewhere towards the end, they frustratingly lose sight of reason to replace it only with shock value. Tying all the loose ends, D-Day does not get scrappy but one could complain about a minuscule smut of a twist thrown in the climax just for the heck of it. Yet, D-Day works well as a blistering assured film with much to talk about and most significantly, to exhibit the exact way to make a nationalistic movie. 

Produced by DAR Motion Pictures and Emmay Entertainment, D-Day is mounted on a large scale which can boast of one of the best Editing hands in a long time, fleetingly perfected by Aarif Sheikh. Music by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy is a peachy effort with some of the best lyrics by Niranjan Ayengar. Tushar Kanti Ray's cinematography is well honed to the mood and tone of the film. Tom Struthers' action set pieces are not snazzy and work stunningly well. But the piece of cake is taken by casting director, Mukesh Chhabra who puts together a pantheon of actors that play their parts to the T, magnetized by their captain, Advani, who uses all the technical talent he has at his disposal to a applause-worthy ability. 

Despite Irrfan being India's best actor in ages, D-Day belongs to the long pauses and quiet looks of Arjun Rampal. Nihilistic of any of his critics, Rampal's Rudra, the suspended army officer turned R&AW agent, is a portrayal he will be remembered long for. The restrain, the anger and the droning charm he brings out to Rudra is incredible. Irrfan, effectively leading the film, is always a delight to watch, and his Wali Khan, a man with many weaknesses, is done with surgical precision. Shri Swara, playing Wali's wife Nafisa, is Chabbra's latest find. A rare attraction is what she brings to the table and is really the surprise package of the film. Akash Dahiya and Huma Qureshi do not get the same scope as the previous two but they add to the ensemble with nifty performances. Rishi Kapoor is indulgently having the time of his lives effervescently redefining the negative leads in many films. His portrayal of the unnamed terrorist is menacing largely, yet he brings a humane side to the character and there is barely anyone who could have done it better. Chandan Roy Sanyal, as the eccentric nephew of the don, is first-rate, once again. Veteran actor Nasser redeems himself from his forgetful villainous act in Rowdy Rathore as the R&AW chief, Ashwini Rao, and lends a matured effort to a primal character. Shruti Hassan looks bespoke for a vulnerable Suraiya, and pulls off a commendable act. K K Raina hams up his act for most parts but it fits in with the character.

Irrespective of your first opinion of the film from its trailers and the starcast, D-Day is a significant work of fiction that will erode your inner self with a scythe and whisk you away to a high of nationalism with a thrum. Despite its minor shortcomings in the second half, Advani has kept this difficult film in ample grasp and deserves many accolades for it. It has taken a slow start at the Box Office but I expect the word of mouth to help the film. Undoubtedly, the action and gore will turn off a major section of the audience, but then, you would rather see a well-made film than another campy hokum. For me personally, I am a sucker for thrillers, and this is possibly the best mainstream film I have seen this year. DO NOT miss this one!

Rating - 4/5

Originally published for MadAboutMoviez here

Monday, July 15, 2013

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is a well-made biopic, albeit a manipulative one

Milkha Singh, India's most famous track and field athlete, ran for Rome Olympics in 1960 and missed winning a medal. Despite many attempts before and after that year, Indian athletes have never come closer to an Olympic medal in running, notwithstanding the various successes in other sports. To cover an eventful life of Milkha Singh and to inject inspire a young nation to pay attention to this sport, pretty much the surefire idea running in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's head to make this film. Milkha Singh himself resonated this notion in an interview when the film was announced. Constantly magnetized by themes of nationalism, Mehra has proved his mettle with the flawless Rang De Basanti and the well-intentioned Delhi 6. Not nearly running half as fast as its central character, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is an enduring viscous tale of a sportsman that clocks in at 3 hours 10 minutes. But is it worth all the patience?

Having read and heard many harsh views and juvenile bashing of the film, I am happy to tie in a thread of hope by saying that BMB is actually a competently made film, albeit not flawless. I watched the film twice this weekend, and there must be something about it that lured me back to the theaters, or maybe I am just cine-dumb. Oh well, I am plain befuddled by the disconcerting realization that a lot of cinephiles have renounced the film due to the hangovers of their own expectations on what they would have wanted the film to be. Sigh! Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is made like a biopic, in its true sense, with anecdotal accounts of bullet points from Milkha's life, and we have to suspend our disbelief in the fictionalizing of some accounts, considering Milkha Singh himself supported the script. In this dramatic re-enactment of his life, screenwriters Prasoon Joshi and Mehra could not have really helped it if Milkha's life actually played out like a cliched emotional trope and the situations are fairly ill-used in Bollywood. What could have been helped is heaping on an effort to become a compulsive tear jerker and the loud theatrical tone of the narrative. But I guess thats the reason it is working with the mainstream audience. 

Keeping in mind just the objective of the film, that is, to capture the first 20 something years of the life of an acclaimed athlete, the film serves its purpose to concoct a heart-wrenching tale. Despite the lack of an Olympic medal, Milkha Singh is hailed because of the circumstances under which he won 77 out of the 80 races he ran, as well as the lack of infrastructure and resources in independent post-colonial India, in which he grew up. There are constant leitmotif-laden references viaa repetitive metaphor to Milkha's past, beginning from the first scene itself where he loses at the Rome Olympics. This scene plays out Milkha running to save his life from a horseman carrying a sword, which triggers everytime he is told to 'bhaag' from a horrifying situation. Mehra reveals more of this dreaded flashback incident, bit by bit, jutting in and out of flashback, as the story reaches its conclusion to discover the troubled memories of Pakistan in Milkha's head. The film is pivoted around this memory, and maybe a little more focus on the shame that ensued after Olympics loss as well as his fight to resurrection would have helped the purpose better and lent a way better insight into Milkha's psyche towards the end. A simple reconciliation with the horrors of the past and soapy breakdown doesnt reason as well and the resurrection looks sudden and the inspiration behind the persona a tad bit underwhelming. 

The flashback sequences, and the flashbacks within flashbacks, are juxtaposed efficiently, taking simple cues from the present ongoings and organically cutting into Milkha's life many years ago, Mehra himself taking a leaf out of his earlier venture, Rang De Basanti. However, Mehra falters in rendering an old-fashioned treatment to the film, the loud dramatic escalations, the beaten-to-death background cues and the constant emotional tugging. What he does succeed in creating the buildup of Milkha's resilience - the kid running on hot sand when his friends advise him not to, the brilliantly shot race before intermission in which the camera only focuses on his injured feet and there is no score, or the sprawling training sequences in Ladakh. Taking his time to setup the story, Mehra does overstay his welcome by a few extra minutes I believe but it does not get jarring due to its highly charged after-effect, one that will definitely bring a wave to pursue athletic excellence to your head. 

Binod Pradhan uses the now much famous techniques of sepia soaked flashback screens and murky nightmare and killing scenes in his cinematography. Produced by Viacom 18 Motion Pictures and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra Pictures, BMB wears its cost in its high production values,but the editing by P.S. Bharathi could have been crisper. National Award winning costume designer Dolly Ahluwali does very well to make Farhan look like Milkha Singh. But it is the Music by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy that scores an ace amongst all technical departments. Loaded with buckets of fervor and dosages of amphetamine to stir you up. All songs come out well and seamlessly woven into the narrative, save for one romantic number with Sonam Kapoor in the second half. 

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is a film that belongs to Farhan Akhtar, more than even Rakeysh Mehra. Despite being a full-time director himself, Akhtar immerses himself in Milkha's character and obliterates the bar by wide margins to deliver a rare performance that will stay in your head for long. Apart from working assiduously on his chiseled physique, he displays the wide paradigm of Milkha's emotions with a fresh grasp. Take a bow, Farhan! Matching up to him neck to neck is the veteran Pavan Malhotra, who speaks Punjabi like a charming spitfire. Effective and admirable, Malhotra is the standout act of the film. Prakash Raj does well in a small role as a cantankerous army officer, while Art Malik is impressive as Milkha's dad. Divya Dutta, a highly underrated actress, plays Milkha's sister, and despite being waxy and soapy, will most positively tear you up. Sonam Kapoor lands an extended cameo in BMB and does well to not ruin it. Rebecca Breeds is largely pretty in another cameo, while Meesha Shafi does not get much scope. Dalip Tahil does the worst impression of Nehru while Yograj Singh is melodramatic, much like the predominant tone of the film.

On the whole, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is not a Chak De India, largely because Mehra did not handle it like a Shimit Amin would. Yet, it has all the ingredients of an inspiring biopic with this year's strongest central performance till date. A lot of masala and a lot of drama will make BMB work well with the audiences despite its overlong runtime. It is a human saga from adversity to success and the varied experiences of an athlete and should be viewed in that anecdotal perspective. It may not be a bad idea to be manipulated by this one, as it worked in both the viewings for me. Give it a shot, you may be inspired to do something bigger in this trade-off. Here is an extra half-star for the phenomenal lead effort!

Rating - 3.5/5

Originally published for MadAboutMoviez here