Freeze Frame #171: Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

The most interesting scene in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, for me, is the one where Ayan (Ranbir) meets Tahir (Shahrukh) for the first time. Shahrukh’s lines in this scene are so unbearably pretentious that one would want to throw something at the screen, were it not immediately apparent that he’s very deliberately hamming it up.

It gets better. Karan Johar sets up an interesting dynamic in that scene where Saba (Aishwarya) matches Tahir’s tone and penchant for overly dramatic wordplay to throw out her own barbs, while Ranbir plays the wisecracking outsider. But it’s clear that all three are basically playing parts in a little drama out there, and they all know it. It’s a very interesting conversation, because you can practically see two scenes playing inside your head in parallel, one that’s on screen, and another one where they speak normally but convey the same message.

But what really elevates that moment is a single exchange in the middle, that makes it clear that the characters are also playing the “normal” scene inside their own heads. Ayan drops the mask for just a moment, and asks, “Is it easy to love someone who doesn’t love you back?”

And Tahir lets his own mask slip literally for just a second. And within that second he manages to convey this: “Hey, it looks like the kid’s noticed something! He’s not just a dumb boy-toy after all. And what’s more, you don’t even notice something like this, much less ask about it, unless it matters to you, and it’s clear that it matters to this kid. I wonder why. It can’t be Saba. Oooh, interesting!”

And then the mask is back on.

And I’m sitting there thinking, holy shit, one second. One. Freaking. Second. That’s all it took for Shahrukh and Karan Johar to convey what I took a whole paragraph to write.


The Post

Let me begin by talking about the weakest couple of scenes in The Post, the ones that made me so angry I could spit.

At the beginning of the final act of the film, Katharine Graham, the owner of The Washington Post, makes the decision to side with her editor Ben Bradlee to publish an article based on the leaked Pentagon Papers that detail the US Government’s flawed decision making in the Vietnam war. The moment is pivotal for Graham’s character, because you have seen her struggle with not so much the demands of her job but with having to do it in a world dominated almost entirely by men. Everybody who is party to that conversation is a man. In every scene that leads up to this point, Spielberg walks the fine line between obvious and subtle in making us see this, and is aided by an absolutely splendid performance by Meryl Streep. So, when the camera zooms in on Streep’s face, we know what is at stake here. Not for the paper, but for her as an individual. Watching her decide to go for it carries the same charge as 1984, in the part where Orwell describes Winston’s thoughts after having made love to Julia and concludes with: “It was a political act.” Like Winston’s decision, this is a lot more than just the owner of a newspaper saying, “Let’s go.”

It is a thing of beauty.

And then, Spielberg decides that his audience is comprised of morons who don’t get it, and finds it necessary to shoehorn in a couple of conversations that restate what is by now obvious. The first of these is especially insulting, because it involves one character explaining to another how brave she was. What the hell, man!

Consider the moment where Graham is required to make yet another decision, and practically every advisor she has, barring Bradlee, is crowded around her, talking more to each other than to her. And in order to make her argument, the first thing she does is stand up and walk a couple of paces. So much is conveyed in that simple movement of one character that you now find yourself not just listening to what she says, but appreciating the fact that she is asserting herself. Why would a director who could do this, find it necessary to also spell it out in a different scene?

Outside of those missteps, The Post is a fine movie about the freedom of the press,  but an especially compelling one about a woman doing what was, until then, considered a man’s job, and finding that she has what it takes to do it well. Katharine Graham presided over the spectacular rise to prominence of The Washington Post, thanks to this and their work on the Watergate scandal. This is especially remarkable when you consider that, during the time depicted in this film, she was still straddling two worlds — the one that involved soirees and lavish luncheons and what not, and the one that involved smoke-filled newsrooms and the business of speaking truth to power. As heroic journeys go, this one’s a doozy.


Four and a half reasons

Dear Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences,

The next time Mr. Daniel Day-Lewis does the lead role in a motion picture, I request you to simply disqualify all other potential Best Actor nominees for reason of not being Mr. Day-Lewis and present him with the statuette forthwith. To support my humble request, I present four and a half reasons:

0.5: If his performance in his Oscar winning turns (as well as some others like my personal favourite — The Age of Innocence) is anything to go by, you are unlikely to find a better performance in that year. Ordinarily, this would count as a full reason, but I give it only half points because on the odd occasion, some actors do manage to do better. (Although even if they did, you manage to ignore brilliant performances often enough that this wouldn’t really be noticed.)

1.5: Cutting down the time taken for to go through the nominees for even one award would cut the time taken for the Oscar telecast by a precious few minutes. Some of us have to get to work after the show’s over, ya know?

2.5: Consider his first Oscar win for My Left Foot. Look at how Morgan Freeman (nominated that year for Driving Miss Daisy) was cheering when the winner was announced. My guess is, he knew what was coming: a witty, wonderful, yet short speech that stayed in the memory.

3.5: Now, despite the fine example he set back then, so many of his contemporaries insisted on blubbering up there with the statuette in their hands, reading out prosaic laundry lists of thank-yous and making us admire, instead of their acting abilities, the writing abilities of the screenwriters that made them so watchable in the movies they won for. So he obliged by winning again and There Will Be Blood and giving us this object lesson:

4.5: One would imagine that a lesson twice-taught would be heeded, but no. We still got laundry lists. We still do, come to that. So he has won — yet again — this year, just so he could teach his dim-witted colleagues once more how it ought to be done.

However, dear Academy members, I doubt that he will be successful in his endeavour despite his repeated attempts. Therefore, I humbly request you to put both him and us out of our misery and do the needful.

Regards etc.


Freeze Frame #158 (a,b): The Merchant of Venice

How the fuheck does The Merchant of Venice get labeled a comedy? Sure, it gets a bit farcical at times, and mercy (apparently) triumphs over revenge in the end and what not, but seriously? Didn’t Shylock deserve the right to kick Antonio’s butt seven ways to Tuesday? The key moment, for me, is his wonderful monologue about the anti-semitism he faces. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” he asks. Even earlier in the play, while you see Shylock mostly through the eyes of the people around him, their criticism is laced with pithy self-awareness. But this is the scene where he leaps off the page and becomes the only character worth remembering from the play. So when I heard a few years ago that Al Pacino was playing Shylock in a new adaptation of the play, I was obviously quite excited. If you had to pick an actor who could do justice to that impassioned rant, the man would be on top of a very short list. And his performance lives up to expectations. Out of curiosity, I looked up other versions of that scene and came upon Orson Welles’ take from his unfinished 1969 adaptation. While Pacino is energetic, physical and angry, Welles sounds more sad than anything else. And if one had to bear the cross of anti-semitism (pun absolutely intended) for so long, I suppose both reactions are equally plausible. For the most part, Welles is surprisingly unimpressive. But there is one moment where he scores. It comes when he puts in a little pause in the phrase “scorned… my nation”. For that one fleeting moment, you can see him being almost overwhelmed. Then he pulls himself together.

Five Akshaye Khanna Moments

I’ve often wondered about the term “irrational fondness”, especially in relation to blog posts. Have you ever seen anyone express a rational fondness in a blog post? It’s always, “I love this guy but I can’t explain it, and I know it sounds like I’m a couple of cards short of a deck when I admit to this, but this is me and if I can’t express it in a blog where else am I gonna do it, huh?” Or something along those lines in shorter sentences.

Anyway, what I originally meant to say before I got sidetracked was that I love Akshaye Khanna. There are a lot of (okay, a few) talented actors out there, but Akshaye has some peculiar talents. A talent for appearing insufferably smug, for instance. For a long time, I don’t think anyone knew what to do with Akshaye. Nor did he, for that matter. And I kept watching his movies and thinking: this guy isn’t half bad, but somebody please find something suitable for him to do. Taal is a perfect example. Half the time, he looked like he really wanted to do the Anil Kapoor role but got stuck with the lovesick puppy-dog routine instead.

Then two things happened. One was Dil Chahta Hai, where he finally seemed to let his hair down (metaphorically, of course — his hair had let him down a long time ago) and throw himself into a role. The other was Abbas-Mustan. The director duo were among the first to realize that there was much to be gained from letting Akshaye give full rein to his smugness. Now, when he appears on screen, I smile automatically. Not too many actors have managed that.

So, in celebration of Khanna Week, here are five moments from Akshaye’s career that stand out for me:

  1. That song with Madhuri Dixit in black leather, coz it was the first time he got paired with her and we kept getting flashbacks to the Dayavan kissing scene and going “Ewwww, dude!”
  2. The “I’m the bad guy” declaration to Madhuri’s daughter in Aaja Nachle. I think that’s where the daughter decides that he’s the one for her mom: anyone who can deliver a line like that with such charm can’t be all bad. MD takes some time, mostly because her lips are still bruised from her encounter with VK. As a companion piece, there’s that scene right at the end of Salaam-E-Ishq where he wins Ayesha Takia back with a heartfelt speech that ends with “Or something like that.”
  3. His hemming and hawing in Luck By Chance when offered the role that Hrithik walked out of. I think he takes so long simply to see if the Rishi Kapoor character would realize, all by his lonesome, the sheer absurdity of casting him in a role meant for Hrithik.
  4. Virtually every scene in Race that features Akshaye — there really isn’t anything to complain about in this movie. Who the eff asked you to go in expecting Casablanca anyway?
  5. And finally, my favourite of the lot: The scene in DCH where he apologizes to Dimple for having hurt her unintentionally. But adds that he loves her and isn’t sorry about that. The moments above are Akshaye doing what only he can do so bloody well. This is Akshaye doing what so many others do, and proving that he can do it as well as them.

Balki’s Delorean

I spent a good bit of time trying to figure out how to write a coherent review Paa before I realized something. The entire publicity machine for Paa focuses on the fact that Amitabh Bachchan plays a twelve year-old with Progeria (a genetic disorder that makes him look like he’s pushing seventy) and Abhishek Bachchan plays his dad. Now, the easiest way to look at this is as a gimmick — considering how the only function Progeria really plays in the story is reducing the protagonist’s life expectancy, one could just as well have cast a young kid with Leukaemia or something and ended up with much the same movie.

Now, casting gimmicks aren’t bad per se. As long as they work well and don’t distract from the overall experience, there’s really no reason to complain.

Take Perazhagan, for instance. The hunchback Chinna would rank among the best Surya performances of all time. If I didn’t already know that it was Surya in that role, I might not have guessed it. Would the film have worked if someone else had actually played that role? Probably just as well. But his knockout performance doesn’t hurt at all.

Contrast this with Dasavatharam: Kamal’s performances as the priest, the chemist, the cop and the old woman were beyond awesome. The other six, I could’ve readily done without. If anything, they diminish the experience.

What I am trying to get at through this extended rant is that I could essentially write this review in two parts: one about Amitabh’s performance, and the other about Paa minus Amitabh. Makes my job simpler, doesn’t it? Therefore, without much more ado:

Amitabh’s performance

Paa begins with a prize distribution ceremony for an art contest in a school, presided over by a young, popular politician named Amol Ppte. The winner is a twelve year-old named Auro who suffers from Progeria. When he is announced as the winner, he is just about to enter the auditorium. His classmates notice him and start cheering. It makes him want to open the door and go back the way he came. And as he does that, you hear the opening notes of the theme tune. Just a few notes, as if to suggest that the music inside his head isn’t the cheering outside it. As everybody cheers him on, he gains confidence and lopes towards the podium and the theme music starts up again. He goes up, does a little monkey dance along with his classmates in the audience, receives his trophy and walks off.

Here’s the thing: Until that scene ended, I hadn’t even noticed that the boy was played by Amitabh Bachchan.

This isn’t just make-up, although the movie does well enough in that department. This is an actor becoming invisible.

And yet, there are moments where he sheds his adolescent skin ever so briefly and lets the seasoned performer with the amazing screen prescence take over. Consider the moment in the hospital where Amol Apte (Abhishek) finally realizes that Auro (Amitabh) is his son. Auro beckons him close, whispers: Tumhaare pichle se pichle se pichla mistake and points to himself. Not a twelve year-old gesture, but done so brilliantly that I’m disinclined to object.

Paa minus AB Sr.

Had Amitabh’s performance been stranded in the midst of a sub-par film, it would have been a huge disappointment. Thankfully, that isn’t the case.

The story itself isn’t new: a single woman raises a child she bore out of wedlock, and the child runs into the other parent in due course with neither of them being aware of their relationship. Shortening the life expectancy of the child simply puts a time frame to the proceedings.

The story isn’t helped by the fact that one the the subplots doesn’t work. The whole business about the do-gooder politico dealing with a corrupt environment doesn’t work too well and is at odds with the rest of the proceedings. I understand Balki’s intention — he wishes to flesh out Amol’s character and not just focus on his relevance to Auro’s life — but the writing leaves much to be desired. When the film turns its focus back to two parents, two grandparents and a child, it works much better. Much of the credit for that must go to the performances.

I’ll be honest with you: when I saw that Abhishek had a clean-shaven look in this movie, my hopes went down. I mean, the last time he shaved this carefully, he came up with Dhaai Akshar Prem Ke. But he acquits himself beautifully here.

Although the title refers to him, the movie is more about Auro and his mother. Vidya Balan gets one of the meatiest roles of her career and gives it a performance to match.

The grandparents deserve mention. Both characters are fiercely protective of their offspring, although the manner in which they demonstrate it differs. Paresh Rawal (playing Amol’s father) is his usual dependable self. But Arundhati Nag is the real standout here. Her conversation with her daughter when she finds out that the latter is pregnant is fantastic.

Much as I loved all these aspects, what I found most interesting was what the movie reminded me of.

Ilayaraja’s work on the background score, for instance, is the sort of stuff we grew up with in the eighties and early nineties. The sort of stuff that preserved our sanity in movies where Mohan died of cancer in the end. The sort of stuff that took a good Mani Rathnam or K Balachander or Kamalhassan movie and made it better.

In some ways, that is the key to my experience of Paa. There are scenes that feel like they came out of a Mani/KB-Kamal collaboration that got scripted and never got made. When I imagine them watching this movie, I see a lot of nods and smiles.

KB, for instance, might smile at the portrayal of strong, single women or way the music and visuals do a lot of the heavy lifting. There is a conversation between Amol and his father where it seems like each of them is lit up in a separate box. Beautifully done from an aesthetic standpoint, of course (PC Sreeram in top form here). But more importantly, notice the way it emphasizes their viewpoints in that conversation. KB would’ve been proud.

The way Amitabh handles the aforementioned “mistake” scene at the hospital is vintage Kamal. (The Moondram Piraiesque monkey dance doesn’t count except in a very superficial sense.)

Mani would probably find the economy of dialogue and the portrayal of strong, sassy women familiar. He would certainly chuckle at the Nayakan-inspired scene where Amol gives a bunch of reporters a taste of their own medicine by getting slum dwellers to take over their homes.

Much as I may have given you the impression that this is an eighties drama with cellphones and webcams, I do not mean any of these comparisons as a put-down. These people were the reason why I fell in love with the movies in the first place. If anything, Balki gave me a reason to fall in love with them all over again.


  1. Why do so many of Vidya Balan’s roles involve her dealing with men of the love-em-and-leave-em variety?
  2. The opening credits are spoken by Jaya Bachchan, a neat touch. Exactly how much temptation did Balki have to resist in not casting Ash in the Vidya Balan role?
  3. I looked up Baradwaj Rangan’s essay on Paa and found his entire review to be based on the thesis that Balki adores the Mani Rathnam of the eighties. It almost made me not post this one —  I mean, why bother when someone else says the same thing but does it better than you do?

The Reader

After having watched The Reader I realized something interesting: It is a movie about guilt and involves a former guard at Auswicz, but this description simultaneously tells you everything and nothing.

I will not spend much time on the plot, which is beautiful. Or on the writing, which feels like a punch to the gut. Or on the direction, which is unquestionably splendid.I will speak, instead, of the experience of watching Kate Winslet playing Hanna Schmitz.

When you first see her, she is a middle-aged woman, still beautiful, still vibrant, but possessed of demons that we can only guess at. She can be brusque, almost cruel, and yet is capable of tenderness and joy. You can understand the fifteen year-old Michael’s fascination with her. There is a scene in a church where she is moved to tears by the choir, and Michael observes her, smiling. Winslet is so radiant in that scene that you can understand what he feels like to bask in it.

When we see her next, she is on trial for being complicit in the murder of Jews at Auswicz. I cannot overstate how much heavy lifting Winslet does in this segment. The trial itself has some of the most interesting dialogue I have heard in the movies. Consider how difficult it might be to try and humanize someone like that. Oh, I don’t mean “humanize” in the sense of excusing her guilt with any kind of pop psychology. But think about how the only faces of the perpetrators of the Holocaust that we encounter in the history books and in fiction are the ones who are shown as obviously evil. Eight thousand people worked at Auswicz, yet only a handful were convicted of murder. Did the rest of them not know what they were involved in?

The third act shows Hanna as an old woman. It shows how a haggard, almost zombie-like prisoner suddenly finds herself rejuvenated when she begins to receive tapes of Michael reading out loud to her, as he used to during that summer years ago when they were lovers. From Hanna’s standpoint, she had two lives: one involving her job as an SS guard, and another involving her affair with the young Michael. It is in this segment that these two lives collide. It all culminates in a scene of surprising power between Hanna and Michael, where little is said but much is resolved. Watch Winslet’s eyes and body language in this scene. Watch how she tries to reach out from the world she lives in to the world she once had, and how she reacts to him as the scene progresses.

The counterpoint to her performance is provided by a pair of actors – David Kross playing the younger Michael and Ralph Fiennes playing the older one. While Kross has done an absolutely fabulous job, his role is more of a foil to Winslet’s character in the first two acts. It is Fiennes who really brings home how much these experiences have affected him. Watch how he struggles with his own guilt in the scene with a Holocaust survivor (played by Lena Olin) who testified against Hanna at the trial. It is amazing how much the man conveys while playing such an emotionally closed-off character.

As good as they both are, the movie belongs to Kate Winslet. The Oscars have had a dubious tradition of honouring the person rather than his/her work in a movie. What with Winslet being nominated so many times without winning anything, I always feared that she might finally end up winning for a decent performance in a weak year. The good news is, The Reader features her best performance to date — if she hadn’t won for this one, she might as well not have won at all. The even better news is, she’s still working.

Open question: Schrodinger’s Death Match

I woke up early on Monday morning a week ago so I could watch the Oscarcast on TV. Most of it was fairly standard — Kate Winslet’s dad whistling and Philippe Petit balancing the statuette on his chin were the highlights for me. By my reckoning, that’s slim pickings. My wife missed most of it, so when we watched the retelecast in the evening, I noticed a couple of things:

  1. Dustin Lance Black’s speech (Best Original Screenplay, Milk) was snipped a little bit from the morning, specifically the part where he tells all the gay and lesbian people out there that they are beautiful creatures of value, or something on those lines.
  2. Sean Penn’s speech was also snipped. Which part? The ones where he uses the phrase “You commie, homo-loving sons of guns.”

It turns out that the STAR TV network did this across Asia. Once my commie, homo-loving son-of-gun self got over its outrage, my cynical self told me that I should know better than to expect unbiased coverage. At the very least, I should know better than to expect it twice in a row.

So here’s my open question for the day: If we we have a Celebrity Death Match between Sean Penn and Rupert Murdoch, who will win?

Penn’s experience in tactfully dealing with the paparazzi makes him the odds-on favourite. However, Murdoch’s handiness with a pair of scissors means that, if he has anything to do with it, we’ll never really know how many blows Penn actually landed on him. 

What do you guys think?

Mickey Rourke

Did any of you happen to see Mickey Rourke’s speech at the Indie Spirit awards last week? This is what he did up on stage:

I’m happy for Sean Penn, I really am. He probably deserved the award as much as Mickey did (I haven’t seen either movie yet, so I can’t comment). But as acceptance speeches go, he isn’t in the same league.

Then again, nobody is.

To Kate Winslet, Part Deux

Dear Kate,

Ref: My earlier letter to you regarding accepting awards that are surely your due by now

Congratulations! I couldn’t be happier.

Good speech, too.  Not outstanding, but definitely an improvement. Asking your dad to whistle — and, to our delight, actually hearing him do it — was an especially nice touch. My only regret at that point was that Lauren Bacall wasn’t around for a reaction shot.

Keep ’em coming!