10 years of Raja Sen: His Most Controversial Reviews
Raja Sen completes 10 years of film-reviewing for Rediff.com. In the first of a special series, we look at his most controversial reviews!
Ten years of writing reviews.
That sure is a sobering thought, both for me, a man who ended up a critic purely by accident, and for Hindi cinema, which promised change much more dynamic than it actually delivered over the last decade.
Here at Rediff, we’ll be doing a few lists this week in which I revisit my work over the last 10 years and pick out some stuff that stands out -- for all kinds of reasons.
Considering the way I started reviewing weeks before Rediff threw open the messageboard floodgates, let’s start with the way I ticked you off.
To kick things off, then, here’s my list of 10 reviews that generated the hottest debates and arguments, reviews that a lot of you disagreed with and reviews I still hear complaints about.
I adored Rajkumar Hirani’s first two films (Munnabhai MBBS and Lage Raho Munna Bhai is, in my book, the best mainstream Hindi film of the last 10 years, easily) but I was utterly let down by the overtly manipulative 3 Idiots, a film I classified as barely average in my review.
'Rajkumar Hirani's one of the directors of the decade, a man with immense talent and a knack for storytelling. On his debut, he hit a hundred. With his second, he hit a triple century. This time, he fishes outside the offstump, tries to play shots borrowed from other batters, and hits and misses to provide a patchy, 32*-type innings. It's okay, boss, chalta hai.'
Please click Next to see more.
Image: R Madhavan, Aamir Khan, Sharman Joshi in 3 Idiots
Danny Boyle’s breathless sprint through the squalour-ridden streets of Mumbai may have seemed like 'poverty porn' to many an Indian viewer wary of exploitation but, for me, the Oscar-conquering Slumdog Millionaire broke through because of its powerful underdog story and its fantastic spirit.
'You know a director is a true master when he can turn shit into dreams.
'And if a man can do it twice over, he's a true bloody genius.
'In Danny Boyle's 1996 masterpiece Trainspotting, Ewan McGregor's Renton pours himself disgustingly yet poetically through the worst toilet in Scotland for a handful of pills. The search goes from squalid to surreal as the filth is scavenged and the pills found, and for a brief hold-your-breath moment, the film becomes a beautiful ode to joy, before the patently polluted protagonist emerges into harsh reality.'
Image: Dev Patel and Freida Pinto in Slumdog Millionaire
Don’t get me wrong, director Habib Faisal’s Ishaqzaade had a lot going for it: authentic local flavour, good performances, memorable visuals, nice music.
Alas, it also had a hero lying to have his way with the heroine before his mother conveniently gagged her to save her boy.
Ghastly, regressive, sickening, this film.
'The film's post-interval descent into pointless gunfire and melodrama, with smiles only to be found behind the blouses of golden-hearted prostitutes, marks cinema of a different time. A time that needs no celebrating.
'There is much craft on display, and some lovely moments, but the immense promise shown by the first half turns out as hollow as a politician's.
'Soaked in sloppy sexism, the second half has the heroine repeatedly tortured -- cheated, slapped, bound, gagged, shot at and abused -- and yet the film decrees that she forgive. In the heartlands the film is set in, maafi is an all-absolving concept, an irretractable token of instant forgiveness, like a church confessional. Ishaqzaade, despite its artistry, deserves no pardon.'
Image: Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra in Ishaqzaade
It’s hard not to be swayed by the all-powerful Christopher Nolan, but his first Bat-movie didn’t impress me much.
With a grim film taking itself too seriously, Nolan sucked the comic right out of the character and gave us something dull and plodding with incoherent action scenes and a hero doing a Vijay Dinanath Chauhan impression.
The Dark Knight was amazing, this was filler.
'Aargh. It's all right for a comic-book character to be hammed and over-the-top, but making Batman sound like a tame Darth Vader is pretty darned unforgivable. Like Bachchan in his latter years, Batman wheezes and grunts in constipated, breathy monosyllables, overdoing it to a ludicrous extreme. 'I'm Batman' Yeah, right. Have a Vicks.
'At two hours and 20 minutes, Batman Begins is a drag. With most of the action conveniently taking place in the darkness, Nolan shields us from the stuff we really want to see -- the evolution of Batman. Instead, we're treated to routine car-chases through a dismally realistic landscape. Nolan's Gotham City is nothing but Chicago, with a few CGI frills added in, a stark contrast to Tim Burton's supremely sprawling and utterly original Gotham.'
Image: Christain Bale in Batman Begins
Ram Gopal Varma’s tribute to The Godfather might have been a success -- and indeed, connected with quite an audience, thanks to a solid Amitabh Bachchan performance -- but this was the beginning of the end for Varma, the first time he took an immortal classic and dumbed it down. (We all know what happened next)
'Sarkar is Coppola by numbers, Ram Gopal Varma tragically dumbing down his film, taking it from high concept to nigh concept. He has added a slew of 'Indian' characters -- a Chandraswami: a Madrasi stereotype; a redundant politician (Anupam Kher) -- and thrown out consiglieri Tommy Hagen, Luca Brasi, Johnny Fontane, some of the most compelling Godfather men. This is a Francis Ford Coppola film, as directed by Joel Schumacher, subtle as a sledgehammer.
'Sarkar suffers, horribly, from the increasing obsession with an overwhelming background score. Trying to use audio to carve an aura from time to time is a perfectly good thing, but using chaotic violins -- and, oh God, even sitars -- in a maudlin mush of music aimed at achieving a constant crescendo, well, is not. There's a reason a climax is called thus, and a film cannot be perpetually forced to fake one.'
Image: Amitabh Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan in Sarkar
There’s a lot to loathe about Avatar: simplistic environmentalism, blue-people lovemaking via USB ports, a storyline cribbed from Pocahontas... But there is no question that James Cameron served up a cinematic spectacle so wondrous it made the planet’s collective jaw drop with awe.
More theme-park ride than movie, sure, but what a ride.
'The film opens with Jake in space, his eyes waking from cryogenic sleep. A bright blue blur in the middle of the picture gradually solidifies into a tiny bubble, and it's a bubble so real we can reach out and touch it.
'We're immediately sold on this revolutionary 3D experience, and it just gets better in Pandora, as we see translucent jellyfish-like creatures float luminescently in the foreground, and are dazzled by the sight of flying ikrans -- giant psychedelic pterodactyls -- swooping in for the kill. It's stupefying, and none of us have honestly seen anything like this before. Heck, even the subtitles float in a wonderful 3D layer. Amazing.
'There has also never been a film more necessary to watch in theatres, in 3D.
'This is a film for everyone, breaking through barriers of aesthetics and opinion to herald what is truly the future of visual effects. The last 40 or so minutes are a purely primal action sequence, and the man who made Aliens and Terminator 2 clearly can still choreograph action better than anyone else in the world.'
Image: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana in Avatar
This mature drama came at a time when people had already made up their minds about writing off Ram Gopal Varma, plus they refused to see beloved megastar Amitabh Bachchan as a dirty old man. Pity, for Varma’s film, despite the cop-out of an ending, features several strikingly powerful sequences and one of Bachchan’s finest performances.
“Jiah is 18, from Australia, visiting her friend Ritu and her folks. We meet her in a precariously ripped denim skirt as she sashays in with a telltale L-O-V-E handbag and a 'that's-(only)-okay' attitude. Trying hard to sit through a saas-bahu television show, she wipes a creamy finger on the couch as Revathy glares, and eventually goes in to meet the lensman, meticulously laying his cameras down to sleep.
'And then comes time to wake up and smell the passion. The most atypical of RGVs films, this one smartly takes an achingly long time to get from moment to moment, with much to read between the lines, the glances -- and between Amitabh Bachchan's sighs. The film luxuriates in this leggy languor, the entire first half focussing on the inevitable spark, the undeniable chemistry, between this perfectly cast odd-couple.'
Image: Jiah Khan and Amitabh Bachchan in Nishabd
Taare Zameen Par
Young Darsheel Safary was lovely in Aamir Khan’s simplistic but touching directorial debut, a film which chugs along very nicely indeed till the director himself pops up and starts talking like a Public Service Announcement. There is craft in Taare Zameen Par, sure, but the severe flaws -- the overemphasised negativity in some characters, the frightening climax and Khan sobbing at every opportunity -- make this a film to appreciate but not applaud.
'It is hard to know, as a director, when there can be too much of a good thing.
'Khan indulges himself with his nice little visual flourishes significantly in the first half, to the point of repetition. There is the clever device of the child -- being shunted off to boarding school against his desperate pleas -- making a flipbook which shows a family with one kid moving away, as the pages turn. It's a strong, simple touch, yet Khan chooses to show it to us again and again, showing the audience the flipbook every time any character sees it.
'While Ishaan stands in a corridor, punished, some seniors walk by. Each of them -- every single one -- points and laughs at our protagonist, which is depressingly overdone and unreal -- even social outcasts aren't picked on by everyone; a lot of the kids just wouldn't give him a second look.
'The first few times the teachers rebuke Ishaan or are frustrated by him, it works. But we are forced to see everything again: pain in English class, Maths, Hindi... and so on. Flip, flipbook, flip.'
Image: Darsheel Safary and Aamir Khan in Taare Zameen Par
Gangs Of Wasseypur I
In theory, there’s a lot to love about Anurag Kashyap’s gangster saga: great characters essayed by greater actors, a genuinely edgy soundtrack, brutality served up with the unashamed, unmistakable flair of an auteur. Sure. What it doesn’t have is any sense of boundaries, and the first part of the film drones on interminably, tossing up so much excess it refuses to impress. My review (that angered many a Kashyap-worshipper) was headlined Gangs Of Aise-Waiseypur.
'Yawns are the primary issue with Anurag Kashyap's Gangs Of Wasseypur, an impressively ambitious -- and excellently shot -- collection of memorable characters and entertaining scenes, set to a killer soundtrack.
'The film never recovers from the unforgivably tedious first half-hour, and despite many laudable moments and nifty touches, never quite engages.
'This is partly because of every Indian filmmaker's befuddling desire to borrow plot-points from The Godfather whenever dealing with crime families, but mostly because Kashyap is defiant in his self-indulgence, piling on more and more when less could have done the job more efficiently.
'Entire sequences that could be compressed into clever throwaway lines are staged in grand, time-consuming detail; while genuinely sharp lines are often repeated, as if too good to use just once. The characters are a wild, fantastical bunch of oddballs and trigger-happy loons, but attempting to do each fascinating freak justice with meaty chunks of screen-time may not even be film's job.
'Wasseypur may have worked better as a long and intriguing television series, one deserving a spin-off movie only after six seasons. Here it feels too linear, and even too predictable: scenes themselves often surprise, even delight, but the narrative is cumbersome and unexciting. And, as said before, Godfatherly.'
Image: Manoj Bajpayee in Gangs Of Wasseypur I
Rocket Singh: Salesman Of The Year
Not enough people watched this fine, fine film, but a Shimit Amin movie is always worth a toast. This highly unlikely Yashraj film is a unique little gem, one that boasts of Ranbir Kapoor’s finest performance as well as more heart than is visible in most Hindi films.
As intelligent as it is earnest, I implore you to forget what you may have heard and give this lovely film another shot.
'Ranbir Kapoor plays Harpreet Singh Bedi, a lanky Sikh who struggled through his college marksheet and is now ready to sell. Armed with more than his fair share of enthusiasm, the good-natured lad finds himself in a trainee job in a ruthlessly competitive officeful of computer-selling sharks.
'Harpreet watches, wide eyed, as targets are met and chowkidars are bribed, but the morally staunch boy raised by his grandfather can't quite stomach high-stakes skullduggery, and before he knows it, he trips over his own goofy grin.
'The rest is right up Jaideep's alley, a tale of justice a la Jeffrey Archer, a tale that involves entrepreneurship, scruples, profit-sharing and friendship, and the writer-director duo let it unfold gradually, with such warm geniality that Jerry Maguire'd jump at the chance of working in our sincere sardar's Rocket Sales. Predictable to a degree, certainly, but some films are such an easy watch that you consciously avoid second-guessing the filmmakers, you don't want to predict what happens three scenes later.'
Image: Ranbir Kapoor in Rocket Singh: Salesman Of The Year