Friday, October 21, 2016


Release date:
October 21, 2016
Shivaji Lotan Patil

Soha Ali Khan, Vir Das, Deepraj Rana, Vineet Sharma, Lakhwinder Singh, Baby Anika, Baby Arohi, Sezal Sharma, Daya Shankar Pandey, Aksshat  Saluja
Hindi and Punjabi

X happened. Then Y. And then Z. Director Shivaji Lotan Patil’s 31st October is nothing more than a parade of facts about the anti-Sikh riots that followed the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. It is a perfect example of a film on a sensitive issue completely bereft of imagination and subtlety.

31st October stars Soha Ali Khan and Vir Das as Davinder Singh and Tejinder Kaur, a happy Sikh couple living with their three children in West Delhi. She is stern but loving, he a virtual saint. She feeds him and argues with him about his excessive goodness. He walks an extra mile for his Hindu neighbour. Everyone is nice to everyone and the world is all sweet and honey and sugar ‘n’ spice ‘n’ all things nice until Beant Singh and Satwant Singh shoot Indira at point-blank range.

The story opens on the morning of the PM’s murder and everything in the early scenes is an in-your-face set-up for what is to come. So, when we see Davinder run out of blood pressure meds, we know he will later be weak without medication in the middle of the pogrom. Since one of his little sons repeatedly asks him about the significance of a Sikh’s long hair and turban, we know at some point they will be driven to shear their heads to hide their identity from mobs.

As if the lack of nuance is not bad enough, 31st October subjects us to mediocre production quality, third-rate dialogue writing and bad acting. An array of terrible extras are rolled out for the bit parts and even for significant satellite roles. Two irritating girls are cast as the lead couple’s sons. Sezal Shah is unbearable as a shy young Sikh woman gazing googly-eyed at a camera-wielding NRI. She cannot act for peanuts. Others are worse – so bad in fact, that peanuts look profound in comparison.

I’ve always enjoyed watching Vir Das on screen, but his facial expressions in 31st October make me wonder whether what I have liked so far has been the suitability of his personality to comedy, the genre that has dominated his filmography so far. This film is not funny, it is not meant to be funny, and his expressions seem incongruous on the riot victim Davinder whose Hindu friends put their lives on the line to save him and his family. Soha Ali Khan does a fair job of his wife Tejinder who witnesses horrors that no human being could possibly recover from. Although her Punjabi accent slips on occasion, she makes their interactions tolerable.

The supporting cast contributes greatly to this film’s overall air of tackiness. The only two who rise above the mediocrity surrounding them are the always-reliable Deepraj Rana and Vineet Sharma, playing men who risk everything so that Davinder, Tejinder and their kids might live.

31st October is based on the experiences of a Devender Pal Singh Sachdeva and Tejinder Sachdeva. The credits call it “a tribute by (producer) Harry Sachdeva”. In truth, this film does them an injustice. The Sikhs who were targeted after Indira’s death from her bullet wounds, deserve a better homage than this. What the producer and his director have put together instead is a disservice to a community that is still being denied justice by the authorities 32 years after humanity died on the streets of India’s Capital.

In the moments preceding the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in the US during World War II in Michael Bay’s 2001 Hollywood film Pearl Harbor, pretty little girls with golden curls are shown playing together in slow motion against a picturesque backdrop. This is the kind of offensive stupidity that distinguishes cliched films on violence from the ones with depth. If those children were not picture perfect, would their fate be less tragic or Japan’s actions less condemnable?

31st October slathers bowlfuls of treacle on to the ordinary Sikhs who are attacked by rioters. Why? Would the butchery have been any less inexcusable if the victims had not been uniformly fantastic people, kind, gentle and dedicated to the service of others? In one scene, the suggestion that some Sikhs celebrated after Mrs Gandhi’s killing is brushed aside. Why? Does the filmmaker realise that by not acknowledging this element in the ugliness that pervaded Delhi following her assassination, he unwittingly implies that individuals who lit candles and distributed sweets that day could rightfully be seen as a justification for the slaying of innocent Sikhs?

Glossing over uncomfortable facts does more harm than good to survivors, even when you do so to please and appease them. Human beings do not have to be flawless or belong to a flawless community to deserve the right to live, to not to be robbed, to not be sexually violated, to not be forced to witness the brutalisation of their loved ones.

This kind of self-defeating storytelling plays into the hands of people like that chap in the hall where I watched this film who turned to another during the interval and said: “Ab agar ek qaum ko lagega ki voh kuchh bhi kar sakta hai, toh doosra qaum badla lega hi.” (Now if one community thinks they can do anything, then the other is bound to take revenge.)

There are many people like him in the world out there who are filled with hate. They are among the million reasons why the human species’ history of massacres needs to be chronicled repeatedly by cinema. Thousands of Sikhs were slaughtered, raped and driven out of their homes in the riots of October-November 1984. Their story needs to be told with delicacy and intelligence, not with the sloppiness and hollowness that are the hallmark of 31st October.

Apart from the fact that actors styled to resemble Congress politicians H.K.L. Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar are shown engineering the riots, there is little worth noting in this film.

Rating (out of five stars): 1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
102 minutes 18 seconds 

A version of this review has also been published on Firstpost:

Poster courtesy: Epigram Digital PR and Magical Dreams Productions

Friday, October 14, 2016


Release date:
October 14, 2016
Sanjeev Sharma

Manoj Bajpayee, Aditi Sharma, Kay Kay Menon, Vijay Raaz, Aparshakti Khurana, Nitin Bhasin, Jatin Sarna, Vipul Vig, Annu Kapoor, Anupam Kher, Lushin Dubey

There is a moment in the short film Taandav that went viral on Youtube early this year, in which a policeman watches a video of himself doing a frenzied dance in full uniform on a Mumbai road. His face melts into a confused mix of amusement and embarrassment. Manoj Bajpayee is nowhere to be seen in that middle-class, middle-aged Maharashtrian cop.

In Aligarh, which was released three weeks later, when a reporter asks Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras of Aligarh Muslim University about his male lover, the old man looks away shyly, withdrawing further into his slouching figure. Manoj Bajpayee is nowhere to be seen in that gray-haired academic in an ill-fitting suit.

And now, on a moonlit night in the darkened corridor of an Old Delhi haveli, a shalwar-clad Pappi stands with his foot on a balcony railing as he peers into the courtyard below. He is an intruder in a wealthy home, his thin body alert yet comically poised for flight, and in one brief shot he conveys everything that his character is: all bluff and bluster and limited guts. Manoj Bajpayee is nowhere to be seen in this foul-mouthed small-time crook either.
Bajpayee’s defining quality as an actor – the ability to lose himself in the people he plays – is a highlight of the week’s Bollywood release, Saat Uchakkey. Like Pappi, director Sanjeev Sharma’s film too is cracked, colourful, crude, intentionally loud and insanely over the top. Everyone in the story is slightly if not completely nuts, the actors are so unaffected that they come across as non-actors drawn from these streets by casting director Vicky Sidavv, and the filmmaker seems to be having a blast as he takes us through chaotic and crowded Purani Dilli.

Saat Uchakkey revolves around the amoral Pappi’s keenness to get rich quick and marry his girlfriend Sona (Aditi Sharma). He is not alone in his desire to cut corners in life. His partners in crime are keysmith Haggu (Nitin Bhasin), metalsmith Khappe (Aparshakti Khurana), knick-knacks seller Babbe (Jatin Sarna), a gambler called Ajji (Vipul Vig) and the multi-talented petty criminal Jaggi (Vijay Raaz). They are the seven rogues of the title.

In the first half, Sandeep Saket’s screenplay draws neat, well-defined sketches of each of the seven in addition to their bête noir, the local policeman Tejpal (Kay Kay Menon) who is smitten by Sona. When this disparate group comes together, they are hilarious and hold out a promise of brilliance. When John Jacob Payyapalli’s camera snakes its way through the bylanes of the old city, it entices us into their world. The opening scenes in a mental institution, the presence in the story of the hypnotist/fraud/mad man Bichchi (Annu Kapoor), the art design and the beautifully shot scenes in a dungeon in the second half give the film an interesting mystical-mythical air.

It takes more than a great concept though to make a great film, and at some point Saat Uchakkey loses itself in self-indulgence. The abuses that flow off the vile tongues of these bizarre people, for instance, are initially believable. As time moves on though, too many ugly words feel like they have been forced into the dialogues for effect – as it happens, to jarring effect.

Nothing illustrates this better than Pappi’s use of kutiya (bitch) as a term of endearment for Sona and her unblinking response. Yes, the street lingo of India’s capital is often steeped in profanity, but it becomes easy to tell when abuse comes naturally to a character in this film and when the writing is saying, “Hey, see how clever I am. Be impressed with my use of invective. I’m so smart and outrageous, no?”

The spoken lines (credited to director Sharma) are a metaphor for Saat Uchakkey as a whole: energetic, side-splittingly comedic and convincing at first, revved up and raring to go, but failing to lift off in its entirety. I confess I spent a considerable part of this film giggling to myself and enjoying the performances of the wonderful lead cast, but I also left the theatre with a feeling of incompleteness.

Saat Uchakkey clearly aspires to rise above absurdity for absurdity’s sake, but the writing is not strong enough to pull off the depth it is aiming at (as is evident from that scene in which a divine being appears to the seven central characters). God is as crazy as us humans and/or possibly a figment of our imagination; s/he is what we want her/him to be and/or is playing games with us, we are told. Point taken. Now take it further, please. This is a film that could have been a lot more than it ends up being – it obviously wants to be more.

To be fair, Saat Uchakkey stands out for its excellent casting, excellent acting and – when it is not self-conscious – excellent humour. Now if only that had been enough...

Rating (out of five): **1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
139 minutes

A version of this review has also been published on Firstpost:

Poster courtesy: Culture Creations

Sunday, October 9, 2016


Release date:
October 7, 2016
Johny Antony

Mammootty, Mamta Mohandas, Andrea Jeremiah, Kaviyoor Ponnamma, Salim Kumar, Renji Panicker, Alencier Ley Lopez, Suresh Krishna, Akshara Kishor

Here’s a quick question for the pan-India film buffs among you: What do Mammootty comedies, Akshay Kumar comedies and Prabhudeva-directed comedies in all languages have in common?

Answer: Each one merges with the other until an indefinable cinematic haze floats around in the ether of the mind; each features some cheap jokes plus some genuinely good humour cashing in on the hero’s natural comic abilities, with the proportion varying from film to film. Heroines are usually marginal to the proceedings in these films, their function is to be pursued and loved – if not outrightly molested – by the hero, and they are played by much younger actresses indistinguishable from each other due to the general indistinguishability of their roles. The hero invariably inhabits an unapologetically patriarchal world. He or his cohorts make prejudiced pronouncements ranging from borderline sexist to criminally misogynistic, sometimes also targeting other marginalised groups. And ultimately he marries a woman.

Director Johny Antony’s Thoppil Joppan is on the relatively inoffensive side of this spectrum – emphasis on the word relatively, considering that the context is Mollywood where rape jokes are staple fare, the most prominent of the lot this year having come in Mammootty’s own Kasaba. The setting and situations in Thoppil Joppan are deeply patriarchal, of course, but it does not venture far into ugly territory. For the most part then, it is silly fun and oh so forgettable.

In short, yet another generic Mammootty comedy.

The Malayalam superstar is the film’s titular hero, a kabaddi-playing, middle-aged/elderly, unmarried alcoholic. As a young man, Joppan was in love with a woman called Annie (Andrea Jeremiah) who he lost when he left home to make his fortune. Ever since, his mother (Kaviyoor Ponnamma) and siblings have tried to get him married but failed because no woman they set him up with compares to his Annie in his eyes.

Many years and bottles of booze follow, before his heart does a little somersault for Dr Maria (Mamta Mohandas).

Never mind the romantic elements in the story. This film has two primary purposes. One, to provide a showcase for Mammootty’s comic timing, which it does effectively. Two, to draw attention to his imposing personality and remind us of how attractive he is, which it does distastefully by getting the women in Joppan’s life to gravitate towards what the writer considers ‘inadequate’ men (for instance, a woman he falls for hooks up with a physically challenged man, a circumstance that invites harsh swipes from Joppan and gang).

Let’s not mince words about this: Mammukka looks odd as always playing a boyfriend to actresses 30-plus years his junior, the angle about him being a senior singleton in successive films is getting tired, and those wisecracks about his character’s age do not neutralise the women-specific ageism in the casting. To be fair to him though, his comic timing remains faultless and he retains the ability to tickle the funny bone, a job for which writer Nishad Koya’s screenplay here gives him sufficient material.

There is much stupidity and hypocrisy all around mashed into this mix with some actually laugh-worthy episodes. In the theatre where I watched Thoppil Joppan, some people went into paroxysms of mirth because a young woman whose family proposes marriage to Joppan turns out to be fond of the bottle herself. Apparently it is okay for a man to be a drunk, but a woman swilling alcohol is hilarious and unacceptable. Unsurprisingly, Joppan is shocked and rejects her.

At 65, Mammootty remains a megastar of Malayalam cinema in particular and Indian cinema as a whole. It is a pity that instead of providing incentive to Mollywood’s comedy writers by biding his time till an intelligent script comes his way, he is willing to settle for passable fare. Thoppil Joppan is kinda amusing in large parts while it lasts, but so unmemorable that just hours after having watched it, I am already struggling to recall the plot and the gags.

C’mon Mammukka, would you not at least now consider quality over quantity? Or is it wrong to expect nothing short of rousing fare from you?

Rating (out of five): **

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
129 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost: