Bollywood

Udta Punjab (2016): !THIS IS AN EMERGENCY!

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“Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
Danny Boyle’s masterful 1996 film opened with Mark Renton running through the streets. It caused a small revolution encircled by all things political, moral and societal; at the center of it, a dizzying, unholy spiral of drug addiction. Lives lost, families destroyed, human wills broken: this war on drugs escalated so fast it became as individual as it was encompassing.
And its victims need our help.
Abhishek Chaubey’s fearless and absolutely terrifying Udta Punjab turns the mirror on us. How we failed our nation’s youth. This failure isn’t carried only by corrupt police officials who take their cut and let the drugs be sold without prescription or control. The failure isn’t just on the part of a government whose workers are more bent on profiteering than on saving actual human lives. The failure is ours. Every single one of us, who stood by and let our brothers and sisters in the beautiful, holy land of Punjab suffer. They suffered for our mistakes. But we can start mending it. Little by little, starting now.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that in a film full of electrifyingly authentic performances, Alia Bhatt’s acting stands out. Everything her character is subjected to, every fight she puts up; it is a horrible, brutally honest, emotionally naked playing field. And her acting chops elevate its uncomfortable crudeness into something damn near spiritual.
This is an urgent film. It borrows the unrestricted anger and fist-shaking intelligence at injustice from Spike Lee (WAKE UP!). It borrows the metaphorical light at the end of the toilet from Trainspotting. It borrows dark, DARK humour from Tarantino. But it is explicitly and fearlessly Indian. I’ve been to Punjab with my family, and believe me when I tell you, it is a state whose people, culture, faith and language are beautiful and kind and generous and have hearts of gold. And now this wonderfully magical place has turned into a literal warzone because of a menace we can’t seem to get a hold of.
Udta Punjab’s status as a work of art cannot be judged solely based on aesthetic merit. This film is WAY too important for that. After crossing through so many hurdles of censorship and right-wing propaganda, the film has finally released in a theater near you. Please go and watch it. It needs to be seen.
And afterwards, in place of being film critics and poking around for plot holes, maybe we can have a discussion about helping our countrymen who are wasting away at the hands of this monstrosity through no fault of their own.
Maybe Udta Punjab is the last push we need to say ‘enough’ and start doing something about this. Hats off, team Phantom. The country owes a great debt to you.
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Finding Fanny

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So rarely do we see our actors going though a Renaissance of sorts in Bollywood. The novelty of finding an excellent script with beautifully rounded characters in the hands of an uncompromising director is a near impossibility. There is always something that gets in the way ‒ the laughably stupid Censor Board of India being the leader of the wolf pack ‒ that reduce an earnest effort to rubble. Thank heavens, then, that Homi Adjania’s Finding Fanny breaks through unscathed to grace our screens and shower us in its unforgiving charisma. Let’s put our hands together for India’s very own Little Miss Sunshine.

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During his month-long village stay near Goa, Homi Adajania wrote the first draft of the film’s screenplay and added some wonderfully off-the-wall characters. He set them up in the fictional village of Pocolim. According to him, Pocolim is a hybrid Marquezian Indian village: a place where its residents feed on infectiously trivial gossip, passed around by people whose own lives could inspire a dysfunctional novel. The unmissable touches of the Indianness of it all are vivid; they trickle down a ramshackle house, or flash their age in the iron oxide of the rust on old government post boxes. Fitting rather, for the story begins with a wailing postman called Fernando, who receives a letter which he sent to his sweetheart Fanny more than four decades ago. The letter never reached her. He mourns the bygone era of the love he never found, the love for which he spent his entire life waiting. Angie (Deepika Padukone) is a young widow whose arc starts when we see her muttering “sorry” under her breath before beheading a chicken. She urges Ferdie to go find Fanny. Circumstances take a toll on their questionable amount of sanity when Angie’s mother-in-law Rosie (Dimple Kapadia), Angie’s old flame Savio (Arjun Kapoor) and a perpetually tipsy painter called Don Pedro (Pankaj Kapoor) join in on the trip. Word of caution: cat lovers will be laughing through their tears.

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Don Pedro finds his muse in Rosie: her prosthetic posterior adding up as a list of reasons for his wildly funny gazes. It is neither love nor lust, just an artist’s lost etiquette upon finding the inspiration for his next wondrous creation. All the five actors give excellent performances. Pankaj Kapoor, Dimple Kapadia and Naseeruddin Shah are valued assets of our industry ‒ in a time of falling standards and selling out to greedy producers ‒ their veteran glow of beautifully nuanced acting shines. Arjun Kapoor is excellent, too, as the misfit in the group whose feelings for Angie may not have subsided completely. He minces his words carefully in fractured but clean dialogue and brings the house down when reacting to the inexplicable finger gestures he gets from strange kids. Deepika Padukone’s effeminate charm, when paired with a delightful performance of a well-conceived character, borders on miraculous. She distinguishes the slight room between the individual quirks of the five characters and wiggles a way for her own with terrific control. As the traveling circus stumbles around in the dark looking hopelessly for love and life, we guffaw.

ff05-jul9Full points to cinematographer Anil Mehta, whose camera succeeds in seizing the wistful longing of the film’s narrative. Adajania directs as if under a spell, putting his characters’ emotions on the line, and then driving them home with a chirpy, befitting background score. The film’s music has been composed by Mathias Duplessy, with Sachin Jigar and Sachin Gupta who aided to compose the song “Fanny Re”. The music, the acting, the warm intelligence of the script and the direction: all come together like prancing ponies and fit each other’s cracks like magic. The film pays its homage to the time when laughter in the cinema could be summoned at anyone’s expense by incorporating one scene that Pulp Fiction fans will immediately recognize. I say goddamn.

I don’t recall the last time I felt like watching a Bollywood film again on the same day. Oh how times have changed.