Monthly Archives: March 2019

Photograph’ is about love & longing in the time of introspection

Time has come to a standstill at the quaint café where middle-aged widower Saajan Fernandes, essayed by Irrfan Khan, sits at a table near the exit, his eyes fixed on a woman at another table, frantically searching for him. The woman Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is stuck in a loveless marriage. She chugs glasses of water, eyes glued to the entrance, looking for the stranger she daily sends letters to in a lunchbox, unaware that Saajan is the man.

By now, that scene of Ritesh Batra’s 2013 gem, The Lunchbox, has come to define quiet heartbreak. Ila and Saajan spend the whole film without actually meeting each other. Sadness rests heavy on every little second of the frame, as longing and love find expression through an unusual plot pusher — the lunchbox.

Photograph is about love & longing in the time of introspection

Batra’s cinema has so far thrived on setting up longing as a bedrock of romance, and one is transported to the cafe scene of The Lunchbox while watching his latest, Photograph. Like The Lunchbox, Photograph follows two strangers — whose romance would never have blossomed — but for an unlikely plot device.

If a lunchbox became key to triggering off a relationship between strangers who never meet in Batra’s first Hindi feature, his new film makes a photograph the tool for an unusual romance.

Like The Lunchbox and Batra’s English 2017 film Our Souls At Night, Photograph primarily concerns itself with examining how the simple desire to long — for attention, company, affection, or even to be understood — consumes every one of us.

In Photograph, Rafi, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, is a lower-class street photographer who works at Gateway of India. He convinces Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a meek upper-class CA topper, to let him photograph her. He promises to capture “the wind in her hair” and the “light on her face”. It’s not just the promise that entices her, it’s the way he sees her. For, Miloni’s robotic existence has stripped her of the ability to recognise herself.

Photograph leads up to a momentous moment midway when Miloni tenderly reaches out for Rafi’s hand inside a cab. In that fleeting moment, she reveals — like Saajan did in the cafe — just how much she longs for someone to make her loneliness less unbearable.

In the real world, Miloni and Rafi would never get the luxury of a happily-ever-after, which is why witnessing them longing to get away from their isolated existences feels so rewarding.

Kesari movie review: Akshay Kumar does a Sunny Deol in this Gadar-style drama with gusto and zero nuance

WARNING FOR PARENTS: This is an extremely violent film filled with Game of Thrones-grade bloodshed, beheadings and impalements. It is curious that the Central Board of Film Certification, which has issued A (Adults-only) ratings for far less gore and the use of swear words in recent years, found Kesari fit for a relatively mild UA. In the Indian system, UA stands for “unrestricted public exhibition subject to parental guidance for children below the age of 12″. For some perspective, please note that Udta Punjab was rated A for its abundance of expletives, the Rani Mukerji-starrer Mardaani was rated A for colourful language and violence that is tame compared to what we see in Kesari which has got a UA despite heads being chopped off, an eye being mutilated in close up and, among a zillion instances of bloodletting, a clear, lingering shot of a dead Sikh soldier’s body pierced by multiple swords that have been driven into the ground to hold him up almost horizontally. (Warning ends)


Kesari movie review: Akshay Kumar does a Sunny Deol in this Gadar-style drama with gusto and zero nuance

Imagine a real-life battle in which a band of 21 soldiers defended a fort against about 10,000 opponents and managed to inflict heavy casualties on the enemy. This, according to records, is what happened at the Battle of Saragarhi in 1897 in which men of the British Indian Army’s 36th Sikh Regiment warded off Pathan troops for several hours till their last breath at a small British outpost that falls in modern-day Pakistan.

There is enough drama in the truth to merit a nail-biting, breath-stopping film. The truth is not enough for too many filmmakers though.

So, in the hands of writer-director Anurag Singh — creator of Punjabi blockbusters making his Bollywood debut here — Saragarhi gets embellished and twisted to please the communities it means to pander to and play along with the current dominant national discourse.

There can be no doubt about the bravery and skills of the 36th Sikh Regiment, but co-writers Girish Kohli and Singh seem to consider it an inconvenience that these men were, after all, fighting for the British Empire. In their bid to turn the 36th Sikhs into a cause that viewers of Independent India could root for, Kohli and Singh divert attention from Her Majesty and write conversations into the screenplay that position Saragarhi as a campaign by brave Sikhs for their qaum and for India’s azaadi.

Then, to cash in on the prevailing nationalist frenzy steeped in Islamophobia, they present the Pathans with an absolute lack of nuance as hordes of bloodthirsty, regressive, cowardly, unethical barbarians fighting a jihad in Allah’s name against a civilised, liberal, gutsy, noble force.

When Havildar Ishar Singh (Akshay Kumar), head of the 36th Sikh Regiment at Saragarhi, opens his mouth and roars, the Pathans, though armed to the teeth, cower before him as the Pakistan Army did nearly two decades back when Sunny Deol hollered at them and threatened them with a handpump he had uprooted with his bare hands. Like old-style Hindi film villains, the Pathans are often stupid to boot and in at least one scene are shown assaulting a solitary Sikh one by one instead of in unison. If this film’s version of events is to be believed, the Pathans’ only strength lay in their numbers and their utter amorality.

Kesari takes its time to get to the battle, spending its somewhat slow-paced first half establishing Ishar’s unwillingness to accept orders from British seniors that go against his principles, acquainting us with his wife (Parineeti Chopra) through a long flashback and fantasy sequences in which he holds imaginary conversations with her, and building up the bond between him and the men newly under his command at Saragarhi. This segment is equal parts funny, mushy to cringe-worthy levels and trite.

Still from Kesari trailer. YouTube screengrab

The momentum picks up post-interval as does the tension, despite a Sikh soldier breaking into song at a crucial moment in the battle. But as much as the combat is executed skilfully and is designed to set pulses racing, the clichéd, populist portrayal of the Pathans, the Sikhs and vintage Bollywood heroism robs Kesari of all finesse and intelligence.

Far from being a war drama based on actual events, it then becomes just another Die Hard in which the ever-invincible Bruce Willis is replaced by the ever-invincible Akshay Kumar. When an explosion occurs in the midst of tents, sending them up in flames and consuming everyone within touching distance, only Akshay a.k.a. Ishar emerges unscathed. The Pathans are so intimidated by him that even when he is completely surrounded, it takes them time to attack him all at one go. As it happens, Ishar is also a saint.

The manner in which Kesari stereotypes the Muslim Pathans — the marauding mob, the evil mullah, the wily and campish sniper — fits the narrative being pushed by the present Indian establishment. (And for the benefit of discerning viewers who might object, two ‘good’ Muslims are thrown into the mix for good measure.) While this aspect of the film merits a discussion considering the wave of Islamophobia sweeping across today’s world, it is equally important to focus on  the positive othering of Sikhs.

Bollywood categorises Sikhs into two clear-cut groups: the undiluted boisterous buffoon and the undiluted braveheart. Kesari deals in the latter. The positive  stereotyping of marginalised and minority communities tends to lull liberals and members of those communities into complacence, but needs to be viewed with concern for what it is: a sugar-coated form of othering, a manifestation of the filmmaker’s inability to see that community as “one of us” or, at worst, a mask for prejudice. If you find your heart warming up to the routine pedestalising of Sikhs in Hindi films, remember that pre-2000 Hindi cinema was marked by a positive stereotyping of Muslims, with the golden-hearted, all-sacrificing Muslim being a regular in stories back then. What did that trope seek to hide?

Blanket statements and blanket characterisations of communities in films should always give us pause.

To say none of this matters if a film is entertaining amounts to denying the power of cinema. Yes, Akshay’s natural charisma does come through in Kesari when he is not over-acting. Yes, the men under his command are well cast, with Suvinder Vicky and Vansh Bharadwaj particularly making a mark as the supportive Lal Singh and the rebellious Chanda Singh respectively. Yes, the cinematography by Anshul Chobey is impressive and the battle scenes are more technically polished than the recent Manikarnika. And yes, the passing reference to caste discrimination among Sikhs is a greater acknowledgement of caste than we are used to from Bollywood. But none of this should distract us from the sad reality that Kesari’s makers do not have faith in the very story they claim to tell.

Early in Kesari, a British officer taunts Ishar Singh — the soil of Hindustan births only cowards, he says. His contempt sparks off a rage in Ishar and a desire to demonstrate that Indians are valiant. He spouts a line around this time about how he is tired of the enslavement of his people, first by Mughals and now by the British. This entire portion is written to indicate that the 36th Sikh Regiment fought at Saragarhi for their own self-respect and, in the long run, India’s freedom, not because they were paid to do so nor out of loyalty to Her Majesty the Queen of England. What a perfect example of mindless cinematic patriotism — it seems not to have occurred to the writers, that at the end of the day, what their film is saying is that Ishar’s goal was to prove himself to his white master.

Irrespective of what the 36th Sikhs’ actual motivations were, obviously theirs was a historic last stand worthy of a film. When an honest army procedural could have had an impact, the team of Kesari chose instead to be a barely disguised propaganda vehicle and to chronicle this remarkable episode with self-defeating twists. A spot of exaggeration here and there could of course be explained away as cinematic licence, even the loudness and initial tempo could have been excused, but this goes way beyond that. It is as if Team Kesari were dissatisfied with the truth about the 36th Sikh Regiment who, ironically, they seek here to lionise.

Badla, Total Dhamaal and Uri: The Surgical Strike’s box office success reinforces the power of word of mouth

Popular folklore in Hindi film trade suggests that nearly everyone in and around the Mumbai suburbs has a script to pitch. An updated version of this could very well be how nearly everyone not only in the Andheri-Versova belt, but across the country is a critic whose word counts when it comes to films. This can probably be seen in how potent a tool word of mouth has become in the success or failure of a film. Irrespective of the budget or the level of publicity, nearly every single film released in the first few weeks of 2019 reveals how word of mouth has played a significant role in the way it has performed at the box office.

In the world that existed before the multiplex era, the so-called smaller films relied heavily on word of mouth to survive a few weeks at the box office. This offered a sense of ‘visibility’ to the film and at times, actors even purchased all the tickets for a few weeks to create a buzz. Jeetendra had advance booked Farz (1969) for weeks, and his father who went to a cinema hall to watch his son’s film with the public was shocked to learn that the entire hall was empty despite a houseful sign. Later, curiosity saw people throng to the theatres and the film picked up. Unlike earlier, when positive reviews from the viewers would nudge a film a little in terms of ticket sales, like in the case of Sudhir Mishra’s Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (1996) which became a small-time hit in the morning show slot, thanks to college students talking about it, off late, audience recommendation has begun to translate in a massive windfall in the box office collection, a trend more than visible in the case of Uri: The Surgical Strike, Total Dhamaal and Gully Boy.

Amidst the numerous parameters to gauge the success of a film, the opening weekend haul continues to be important but the manner in which films like Badhaai Ho (2018), a slow starter that benefitted immensely from the positive word, found themselves in the year’s top grosser list suggests a slight shift. A few years earlier, the Ayushmann Khurrana and Bhumi Pednekar-starrer, Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015) also grew with the help of positive word of mouth and set the cash registers ringing. Similarly, Tanu Weds Manu (2011), Queen (2013) and The Lunchbox (2013) shifted gears once people began talking about them and urging more to catch them on the big screen. A recent illustration of the impact of this is how Uri: The Surgical Strike made more money in its second weekend than its opening weekend. The film’s collections refused to slow down, thanks to the manner in which people spoke about the film amongst themselves and it’s hardly surprising that the film not only raked in 243.50 crore (nett) but is also at present the year’s highest-grossing film.

The role of the informal word has only increased in the last few years. In 1999, studio executive Chris Pula relied on positive word of mouth as a marketing tool for Walt Disney Pictures’ The Sixth Sense and designed a campaign around the now iconic “I see dead people” quote by Haley Joel Osment to push people to talk about the film. The film had enjoyed glowing reviews from the critics but it was the audience that continued to talk about the film long after the people who left the cinema halls transformed the film into a word-of-mouth phenomenon that made US$ 672 million. A considerable bump in the collections of Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, Gully Boy, and the more recent Luka Chuppi and Badla can also be squarely attributed to good word of mouth.


Word of mouth becomes a little more important in the age of social media. A study conducted as part of a School of Communication research course at Emerson College, Boston, Massachusetts, analysed thousands of tweets to show how buzz influences films. Remember how a tweet from Josh Trank publicly denouncing his own film, Fantastic Four (2015), sealed its fate?

What makes word of mouth a potent tool, which studios and production houses have finally come to realise, is that it’s the only way a film can overcome negative reviews. No one would have expected a Pyaar Ka Punchnama (2011) — which did not attempt to hide its blatant misogyny — to become a roaring success or Total Dhamaal to make a killing at the box office. Some would credit the star power of Ajay Devgn, Anil Kapoor, and Madhuri Dixit to be a factor at play in Total Dhamaal’s case but it can only get people to the screens for the opening weekend. In fact, the reason some of the biggest star-driven films underperformed last year – Shah Rukh-Anushka Sharma’s Zero, Salman Khan-Anil Kapoor’s Race 3 and Aamir Khan-Amitabh Bachchan-Katrina Kaif’s Thugs of Hindostan – also has to do with negative feedback from the audiences.

Ayushmann Khurrrana-starrer Andhadhun to open Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles

Megha Ramaswamy’s The Odds, starring Abhay Deol and Priyanka Bose, will close the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA) on 14 April.

The film is a coming-of-age story about two teenagers who skip school on important exam day and go on a fantastical journey through Mumbai. The film also stars Yashaswini Dayama and Monica Dogra

Ayushmann Khurrrana-starrer Andhadhun to open Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles

Anand Patwardhan’s acclaimed documentary Vivek (Reason), which examines India’s slide away from secular democracy, will also be screened at IFFLA.

Vivek premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, won the grand jury prize at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, and recently had its US premiere at the True/False Film Festival.

Andhadhun is the opening film of the festival. The latest from thriller master Sriram Raghavan, won rave reviews and box office success upon its release last year in September. The film revolves around Tabu’s Simi, a desperate small time actor-turned trophy wife who is caught disposing of her husband’s body in front of a presumably blind pianist Akash (Ayushmann Khurrana).

The story follows Simi, Akash, and Akash’s suspicious girlfriend (played by Radhika Apte) in a wicked story of ambition, romance and organ harvesting.

Tabu will also be honoured at the film festival. “We have discussed honoring Tabu for a long time, and this year felt like the right time,” said Christina Marouda, IFFLA’s Executive Director.

“Her work and personality embody everything that IFFLA is about – being fearless, versatile, independent in spirit, unwilling to compromise, brilliant in the range of her performances, and simply beautiful. With half of the festival’s 2019 line-up directed by female filmmakers, this couldn’t be a stronger celebration of women in Indian cinema,” Marouda said.

IFFLA will host a panel featuring successful South Asian professionals working across various fields in the television industry.

The lineup of the panel includes names such as actor/comedian Nik Dodani, director Meera Menon (The Walking Dead, GLOW, The Magicians), writer Fawzia Mirza, writer Chitra Sampath (Good Behavior, Southland), writer Roshan Sethi and actor Dhruv Uday Singh.

Photograph, Milan Talkies, Hamid, Mere Pyare Prime Minister: Know Your Releases

This week releases at the box office are off-beat films relying strong on emotions. While Milan Talkies celebrates the charm of single screens, Photograph feels like an ode to old-world Bombay. Among the releases is also Hamid and Mere Pyare Prime Minister, both films having poignant storyline, which may evoke empathy for the characters.

Photograph, Milan Talkies, Hamid, Mere Pyare Prime Minister: Know Your Releases

What’s it about: A struggling street photographer in Mumbai, pressured to marry by his grandmother, convinces a shy stranger to pose as his fiancée. This unforeseen alliance transforms them in ways they did not expect.

Who’s in it: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra

Why it may work: Directed by The Lunchbox fame Ritesh Batra, Photograph has impressed audience in the international film festival circuit. With an unconventional pairing, interesting narrative and raving early reviews, the film might just astonish the public.

Milan Talkies:

A still from Milan Talkies trailer. YouTube screengrab

What’s it about: An aspiring filmmaker and his girlfriend are in a fix after facing opposition from her family members.

Why it may work: Milan Talkies has been in the making for almost six years and had several Bollywood names attached to it. While Fazal will be paying tribute to yesteryear actors Prithviraj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar, the film itself seems to be a homage to “old world charm of single screen cinemas.”


A still from Aijaz Khan's Hamid which closed the Dharamshala International Film Festival. Image via Twitter

What’s it about: Eight year old Hamid learns that 786 is God’s number and decides to reach out to Him. Eager to know about his disappeared father, Hamid wants to ask God about what went wrong. One day his call is answered.

Who’s in it: Talha Arshad Reshi, Vikas Kumar, Rasika Dugal

Why it may work: Set against the backdrop of Kashmir conflict, Hamid’s trailer is a moving tale of loss and longing.

Mere Pyare Prime Minister:


What’s it about: Eight year old Kanhu writes a letter to Prime Minister of India after his mother gets sexually assaulted.

Who’s in it: Anjali Patil, Om Kanojiya, Atul Kulkarni, Makrand Deshpande, Niteesh Wadhwa, Rasika Agashe

Why it may work: The Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra directorial premiered at the Rome Film Festival. It was the only Asian film which was screened at the film festival and also received a standing ovation from the audience. Not only this, after the 91st Academy Awards, some netizens opined that the film had the potential to go for the Oscars. Hashtag