For Spectacular Cinema, Hop Off the Chennai Express Train and Head to Madras Café

Over the last year Bollywood has seen a revival of espionage movies centered around the trials and tribulations of *Research & Analysis Wing agents. The resurgence came about with the slick but slightly prolonged Agent Vinod. About five months later arrived a spy flick graced with the grandeur that is Salman Khan, Ek Tha Tiger. More recently there was the propaganda-ridden yet entertaining D-Day.

Now Madras Café takes a few pages out of history textbooks for inspiration through the eyes of a fictitious protagonist (a la James McAvoy-Forest Whitaker starrer The Last King of Scotland). Plus, when the lead star who also happened to be the Producer, touted the intense fare as India’s Argo, expectations only soared.

Will this new political thriller be able to hold its own with Shah Rukh Khan’s latest release still dominating the box office and stiff competition from a similar genre, Satyagraha, lurking around the corner?

The answer is an emphatic yes albeit the numerous set backs in Tamil Nadu and the United Kingdom.

While the film does depict the LTTE groups in a violent light, it does not take a pro or anti stance. Protesters feel otherwise.

While the film does depict the LTTE groups in a violent light, it does not take a pro or anti stance. Protesters feel otherwise.

The film commences with former RAW agent Vikram Singh (John Abraham) during his state of self-imposed exile where he constantly drowns his sorrows in alcohol. He then ventures to an Anglican Church where he recounts his experiences as an agent who spearheaded covert operations in Sri Lanka. Through clandestine means, he was tasked with dismantling the guerilla *LTF faction that his government helped advance during the *Sinhala-Tamil conflict.

As Vikram delved deeper into his mission, he learned of a larger conspiracy amidst the Sri Lankan Civil War to assassinate the *ex Prime Minister. Aiding him in his pursuit of truth is idealistic British journalist Jaya Sahni (Nargis Fakhri). The mission’s consequences also began to take a toll on the RAW officer’s personal life which further motivates him to uncover the conspiracy. The fact that Vikram’s bureaucratic handler Bala (Prakash Belawadi) makes life difficult for him only adds another layer to the conflict.

First and foremost, John Abraham deserves great adulation since he banked on the brilliant script written by Somnath Dey, Shubendu Bhattacharya, and Juhi Chaturvedi. His cinematic acumen is clearly serving him well in that he has switched gears from the delightful comedy Vicky Donor to this unorthodox political thriller. The screenplay keeps you hooked from the get go especially considering the lack of stereotypical Bollywood elements. Whether you are an avid politico or apathetic towards international relations, thankfully the film does not presuppose too much familiarity with the Sri Lankan civil war. The writers cleverly depict the vested commercial/diplomatic interests rampant in world affairs.

Director Shoojit Sircar was the right choice to man the ship because his vision  complements the screenwriters’ historical research and watertight plot. He effortlessly tests the political waters like he did in his directorial debut, Yahaan. However, this time romantic sub plots or colorful song & dance sequences are nowhere to be seen. Chandrashekar Prajapati’s crisp editing is worthy of praise as assembling material chronicling a decade long war into two hours is no laughing matter.

For those who have visited Sri Lanka or lived in India during the 80s/90s, Madras Café will take them back into time. Such is the authenticity of the production design, camerawork, and locations.

In his previous outing, Action Abraham delivered the most bludgeoning performance as Manya Surve. This time as Vikram Singh, he enacts his part with the right mix of subtlety and intensity. New Yorker Narghis Fakhri clearly has a long way to go before her Hindi becomes flawless. Luckily she only speaks English throughout the movie even when the whole cast predominantly converses with her in Hindi and Tamil. Nonetheless with the linguistic barrier taken care of, Fakhri’s histrionics, not her dubbed Hindi, speak volumes. Prakash Belawadi’s portrayal of the antagonistic and compromised RAW Director is enough of a reason for major award functions to bring back the Best Performance in a Negative Role accolade. Ajay Ratnam resurrects brings slain LTTE chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran back to life via his rendition of *Anna Bhaskaran. Raashi Khanna does well in her brief but important role.

The movie’s only blemishes lie in minute details though. For instance, one of Madras Café’s central themes elaborates on the negative consequences of *blowback resulting from intervention in other countries’ affairs. This was briefly touched on in the first half when Jaya states, “initially we supported and furthered the LTF, now we have switched sides to the *TNA out of opportunism.”

Not to justify Rajiv Gandhi’s slaying, but it was his turncoat behavior that planted the seeds for his untimely death. Madras Café downplays that fact and instead attributes the overall blame for his killing solely to Machiavellian entities that felt threatened by the leader of an upcoming nation. Additionally, why does Nargis Fakhri’s character have an American accent despite being a British national?

All in all, this is a treat for those who enjoy the interweaving of historical fact and fiction. Get off the train(wreck) that is Chennai Express and head to Madras Café for some appetizing South Indian filter coffee.

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*Research & Analysis Wing – India’s external intelligence agency

*LTF– aclear reference to the LTTE

*Sinhala-Tamil conflict – The ethnic demographics of Sri Lanka consist of the Sinhala majority, roughly 70 percent of the population and the Tamil minorities, 30 percent of the population. After independence from the British in 1948, Prime Minister Solomon Bandranaike implemented certain language policies and educational legislations that began the gradual process of marginalizing the Tamil population. The Sinhalese believed that prior to independence they had been disenfranchised by the British while the Tamils rose to prominence. Hence the special interests (certain backward Sinhala communities) pushed for policies that the educational gerrymandering and unfair ‘Sinhala-Only’ Language Policy. As Tamils’ were relegated to the sidelines, a militant group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (which was the breakaway faction of Tamil nationalist parties/movements) used guerilla tactics to advocate for Tamil rights. Yes, the LTTE may have legitimate qualms, they resorted to terrorist tactics for the Tamil Agenda. India furthered the group by providing arms and training to them. India did this while acting both as a mediator between the LTTE and Sri Lanka and simultaneously propping up the group. All this just to appeal to the Indian Tamils who were also a major voter base. Eventually the Indian government deemed the LTTE of no use were of no use which is why they the group was rebuffed.

*ex Prime Minister – the ex PM was modeled after former PM Rajiv Gandhi

*Anna Bhaskaran – a character heavily based upon LTTE chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran

*blowback – unintended consequences of a covert operation that are suffered by the civil population of the aggressor government

*TNA – Tamil National Alliance, a rival group of the LTTE

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Shootout at Wadala: A Welcome Overdose of Bombay, Brutality, and “Bhai-giri”

Note: To those unfamiliar with names/events/terms specific to South Asian culture & gangland history, there is a glossary of terms in the post before this one. The word preceded by an asterisk  word will be elaborated upon in the entry ‘Glossary for SAW Movie Review.’

Whenever a novel or a portion of it is adapted onto celluloid, the book is always better 80 percent of the time. The same goes for last weekend’s release Shootout at Wadala which selectively draws from 65 pages of S. Hussain Zaidi’s book, Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia.

Upon viewing the first SAW trailer via YouTube and reading reports of factual inaccuracies, I dropped all hopes for a truthful adaptation. Wishing for an honest cinematic depiction of events remotely connected to the years *1992-1993 is like writing a long letter to Santa Claus.

Back in February I devoted a whole post regarding the authenticity of the second Shootout feature. Initially Director Sanjay Gupta claimed that the film contained no fictionalization, but stories citing former *ACP Isaque Bagwan’s disapproval of excessive dramatization prompted character name changes and a disclaimer before the start of the movie (which fortunately stated ‘the film is a hybrid of fact and fiction’). Therefore, I will not delve into the myth vs. reality facets of the motion picture. Read Dongri to Dubai and Mafia Queens of Mumbai if you want to separate the fact from flack.

The spectacle starts off with gangster Manya Surve (John Abraham) being thrown into the back of a police van after taking 11 bullets from Afaque Bagran (played by Anil Kapoor, modeled upon Bagwan). Thanks to his immense strength, Manya still has some endurance to converse with the ACP during his final moments. Through flashback, he narrates how a broken justice system coupled with unfortunate circumstances transformed him from a brilliant college student to a ruthless, cunning hoodlum. Bagran also recounts the raging gang warfare between the *‘Mastan’ syndicate and the *Haksar Brothers (Manoj Bajpai as Zubair and Sonu Sood as Dilawar) amidst the backdrop of the same corrupt justice system. The audience watches the story of how the very first encounter came to be from the perspective of two men on opposite sides of the law.

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SAW is not for the faint of heart as the colorful language, grandiose violence, and lewdness would even make Quentin Tarantino squeamish. While the obscene language will require adults to earmuff their kids, viewers will also be treated to the most eloquent lines that any thespian would die to deliver. Thereby, Milap Zaveri’s dialogues are alone worth the ticket price.

The stunt sequences choreographed by Tinu Verma and Allan Amin take you back to the action of the 80s minus the ridiculous sound effects and high flying antics. The sheer physicality and violent blood baths have become staples of Sanjay Gupta films. Do not go into the theater expecting anything less.

The screenplay is fast-paced but it lacks the in depth analytical examination of the Mumbai Underworld featured in the 11 chapters from the source material. Although Surve’s image as Bombay’s first educated gangster is highlighted, his status as “Mumbai’s Hadley Chase” is completely ignored. Through inspiration from James Hadley Chase books, this Master Strategist robbed money from a government milk scam and plotted the assassination of the stealthiest Dons. Then again with SAW being a commercial flick for the masses, the tactician attribute of Manya’s personality would not resonate with every moviegoer.

Sanjay Gupta does a fabulous job of recreating the seedy Mumbai of the 70s and 80s. A grittier and comparatively realistic interpretation of the underworld’s formative years was long overdue for hardcore crime fiction buffs. He has done away with the awesome yet fantasized renditions of the mafia, a la Once Upon a Time in Mumbai. The slick editing (Bunty Nagi) and cinematography (Sameer Arya) make for some visually appealing cinema.

The performances will bring tough competition at numerous awards ceremonies next year. John Abraham has catapulted himself to the big leagues with his explosive portrayal of Manya Surve. Action Abraham puts his money where his mouth was when he compared his acting to that of Sanjay Dutt’s in Vaastav. Anil Kapoor offers the most powerful yet nuanced performance and he shows why he is still around. Sonu Sood is fantastic and really shines in the second half. Earlier Manoj Bajpai declared that he did not put much work into his role. That should come as no surprise as he naturally sinks into the skin of Zubair Imtiaz Haksar.

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Even though Tushar Kapoor enacts his part with gusto, he just does not physically fit the bill of *Sheikh Munir with his boyish looks. His role was tailor made for someone like Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Kangana Ranaut delivers a controlled performance as the object of Manya’s affections. Ronit Roy, Sanjeev Chadha, Siddhanth Kapoor, Karan Patel, Raju Mavani, and Raju Kher lend able support. The music is definitely memorable but the risqué item songs are totally redundant. Only one item number was necessary but as always, nothing sells like sex these days.

Whether you reside in Jersey City, NJ or Dadar, Mumbai, head to the nearest theatre to catch this compelling fare which offers a cinematic take on history. Aside from the truth which was promised awhile back, you cannot ask for more from this flick. A third Shootout film installment based on the incident that turned one of Mumbai’s premier hospitals into a mafioso warzone seems inevitable. Shootout at JJ Hospital? Bring it on!

Commando: Stylized Random Violence at it’s Best

This past Friday I realized I no longer need to re-watch the Rambo movies to vicariously relive the 80s/90s. Nor do I have to sit through noble but overcooked attempts to revive such awesome cinema (cough cough, The Expendables).

Besides the past two Die Hard movies which kept the fading genre alive, nothing has come close to recreating the magic found in high-octane 80s/90s action movies. Alas I decided to check out Commando. No, not the fantastic Schwarzenneger-starrer.

Instead I am referring to the new Bollywood release whose trailer got me nostalgic and excited. With the presence of Force villain Vidyut Jamwal and Jaideep Ahlawat from Gangs of Wasseypur, it was natural to expect competent action and performances. Besides, as much as I was anticipating the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, I needed a break from baseball after the Blue Jays’ dismal Opening Week.

The story follows Captain Karanvir Dogra (Vidyut Jamwal) after his army jet crashes into the Chinese territory during a routine training. He then becomes a prisoner of the Chinese government as they assume he is an Indian spy. Karanvir protests that his arrival on Sino territory was due to an accident during a routine flight, not because he was sent by the Indian government to infiltrate China. Due to the absence of the crash wreckage, the Chinese brand him a spy to embarrass the Indian Government. Instead of shedding the false label that Dogra is a spy through substantial evidence, the Indian Defense Minister also decides to play politics by wiping out every record of the elite Commando’s existence. After suffering as a prisoner for a year, Karan then escapes by crossing into Himachal Pradesh from the Lepcha Border.

Upon entering Punjab from Himachal Pradesh he saves the talkative Simrit (Pooja Chopra) from A.K. Singh’s (Jaideep Ahlawat) thugs. A.K. is the head of a political mafia that oppresses its constituents. Forcibly marrying a girl from a respectable family, Simrit, would do wonders for his rising political career. When finding out that the men after Simrit are of immense political stature, Karan decides to make Simrit’s battle his own. This is because the type of public official who left Karan to rot in China usually begins his political career as a tyrannical criminal. Hence, by defeating A.K. he feels the corrupt system can slowly be cleansed. Plus the fact that the Police only guarantee the safety of such thugs and not people they oppress further motivates Dogra. How the hero rescues the damsel in distress and her tyrannized town forms the rest of the story.

First off, Commando is a movie for die-hard action fans. While there are some political overtones, it is not Doug Liman’s Green Zone. This film is perfect for a bro-out session so keep your wives and girlfriends away. If they can digest Chinese torture tactics and gruesome combat, by all means this would be the perfect date movie.

The stunts done by Jamwal, the dialogues, and slick direction more than make up for the predictable plot. However, there is nothing wrong selling the same goods in a different package especially since nothing like this has been attempted in Indian cinema. Clearly the Director grew up on a steady diet of Sly Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenneger movies. While in Hollywood this genre is barely surviving, the Screenwriter and Director deserve props for making the old new again.

The real technical star of the film is Cinematographer Sejal Shah who makes the rural locales, jungles, and great stunts visually enticing. Action Director Franz Spilhaus’s stunt coordination and fight sequences are second to none. Don’t believe me? Just watch the trailer above. With the exception of the Daler Mehndi song, the music and background score are not all catchy.

As for the performances, Vidyut Jamwal shows why Producer Vipul Amrutlal Shah has banked on him for the second time. His acting is praiseworthy as he effortlessly encompasses both the hard and soft sides of Karanvir Dogra. Jaideep Ahlawat is simply flawless as the creepy and sadistic A.K. He holds his own against an already mainstream star; much like Jamwal did in Force against John Abraham. Debutante Pooja Chopra will either evoke memories of the chatty Basanti from Sholay or she will come off as irritating to some. The supporting cast does its job aptly. Jagat Rawat as A.K.’s right hand man M.P. and Sohrab Handa as Simrit’s father are superb.

After being the one who could stand eye to eye with Action Abraham in Force, Vidyut Jamwal has set the bar high for Desi action heroes. With the ability of Tony Jaa and the suaveness of Jason Statham, VJ is here to stay. Do not miss Commando if you call yourself a true action buff!

Shootout at Wadala: Once again, another round of ‘true’ rumors

“January 11 1982, till that day nothing so memorable like this ever took place between the Bombay police and the underworld. I had that longing to rewrite history. My name, Manya Surve.” Manya’s Achilles-like wish to etch his place in history would come true through his own death. A death which gave birth to the brutal but necessary and sometimes abused evil euphemistically dubbed as the ‘encounter.’ Now comes a motion picture rendition of arguably the most formative years in the history of the Mumbai underworld which predated the first ever police extra-judicial killing.

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The minds behind Shootout at Wadala (namely Director Sanjay Gupta and Producer Ekta Kapoor) will attempt to chronicle nine years of the Bombay underworld’s history based on the S. Hussain Zaidi authored novel pictured above. For the full 60 years and beyond, grab a copy of Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia. It is worth a read for anyone fascinated by the multi-national enterprise that is D-Company and the Indian law & order landscape. While Zaidi is an accomplished crime journalist due to his vast networks comprising of the stewards of Mumbai’s underbelly, some will take his narrative with a grain of salt. With the movie however, I am definitely going to take the whole salt shaker as the book’s cover contains endorsements from the glamorous Shootout at Wadala star cast rather than distinguished intelligence/law enforcement figures. To be fair though, the talented crime reporter’s buddy and brilliant author, Vikram Chandra, wrote a glowing legitimate preface for the book. Why wouldn’t he? Chandra’s marvelous novel, Sacred Games, drew heavily fom Zaidi’s research and repertoire.

There were numerous myth versus reality complaints after the first awesome Shootout movie, Shootout at Lokhandwala. Will this upcoming film be the truthful outlier among the police-underworld dramatizations even with Gupta’s friendship with seal of approval from S. Hussain Zaidi? That is highly debatable because early reactions from the trailer have prompted the name changes of pivotal characters such as the Kaskar brothers and Isaq Bagwan. Even Bagwan, the man who carried out the first encounter claims that the film is not devoid of inaccuracies.  Apparently, Ekta Kapoor deliberately kept the original character names when filming in spite of Gupta’s protests that the names ‘Dawood’ and ‘Sabir’ would rub new salt on old wounds. This new buzz concerning these changes makes me second guess Gupta’s due diligence with respect to the facts. Well, it certainly would not be the first time. Plus, the first trailers with original names may have been used only to create a fake controversy so that news of these changes could further publicity.

As crazy as this may sound, it is almost as if pre-production for this movie began before the completion of Dongri to Dubai. For all you know, the fictionalized version of the 1992 JJ Hospital shooting (where D-Syndicate Lieutenants Sautya and Chota Shakeel turned one of Mumbai’s premier hospitals into a battleground to assassinate the killers of Dawood’s brother in law) is in development right now. Another interesting piece of information is Hussain Zaidi’s disdain for Bollywood itself as explained in a New York Times India Ink Blog Interview. When asked by blogger Malavika Vyawahare regarding his writings that divulged the Bollywood-Underworld nexus, he replied, “The film industry people are shameless people — anything they do or say is like water off a duck’s back.” This is the same film industry that has cemented Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar as the national Bin-Ladenesque villain indirectly associated with most terrorist activity in India.

Look no further than Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, a very ‘fantasized/non reality based’ account (according to Gupta himself when he proclaimed that Shootout at Wadala is more geared towards the truth) of the monster named Shoaib created by the Mumbai police to topple principled smuggler Sultan Mirza. Shoaib was obviously nothing more than an alias for Dawood whereas Sultan Mirza was modeled after Haji Mastan with shades of Madrasi gangster Varadarajan Mudaliar and Pathan Don Karim Lala. Who produced that movie? That person would be none other than Ekta Kapoor. Mastan, Mudaliar, and Lala did stick to their ‘old-school’ values by not crossing the lines Dawood did, but their Robin-Hood images have always been exaggerated. On celluloid, they are portrayed as: 1) thieves with principles 2) the voice of the voiceless and 3) averse to drugs and prostitution, a la Vito Corleone. The Varda Bhai-Haji Mastan duo made fortunes not just from smuggling goods imposed with unnecessary import duties, but from anti honorable thief operations like prostitution and illicit liquor. This by no means detracts from their philanthropy and generosity towards the underprivileged nor does it absolve Dawood of his crimes.

Nonetheless, Bollywood never fails to cash on old school gangs’ legacies as the lesser of the two evils forsaken by the police for the greater evil that is the D-Company. When asked who Mumbai’s misunderstood gangster was in another interview, even Mr. Zaidi reluctantly retorted, “Misunderstood and gangster don’t go hand in hand. Gangsters make themselves understood very well! If you insist, then Haji Mastan who was Scrooge personified but portrayed as a magnanimous Raja Harishchandra of his times.” While Dawood may have initially been the illegitimate child of the police’s agenda to subdue the Pathan stronghold on Mumbai, politicians are just as guilty of nurturing the D-Company regime (cough cough Sharad Pawar). You never see Bollywood depicting that do you?

Zaidi’s first book Black Friday: The True Story of the Bombay Bomb Blasts and its cinematic adaptation were not the usual desi-masala fares. Although same cannot be said for Dongri to Dubai and Shootout at Wadala. Regardless of whether Director Sanjay Gupta and Producer Ekta Kapoor may be exceptions to his stance on the Indian film industry, Hussain Zaidi’s journalistic and literary profile is sure to receive a boost on May 1, 2013. Not in the slightest way should this be interpreted as a knock on the S.A.W. team’s cinematic talents or efforts as it looks like one heck of an action flick. If not for the facts, this movie will be one to watch for some solid entertainment.