The world out there is a mad sprint. Everyone is running. Running to prove a point, to get the numbers, to make money, to impress, to get to the goals. And in the process, quite a few fail to keep up the pace. Ironically, those who lose out in this sprint are advised to make peace with it – and that’s another mad sprint in itself.
Therefore, it is quite brave of Hansal Mehta, the national award-winning director of Shahid, to virtually squeeze pace out of his latest biographical drama, Aligarh. The film stays true to its small town namesake and unravels unhurriedly, almost as if it does not care about the madness and the sprint. And it is not just sleepiness of the place ‘Aligarh’ but also the chronicles of Aligarh University Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras that transports the film into a world that seems rather unreal in today’s times.
Professor Siras is fond of his whisky and the rickety music player. He still relies on good old cassettes – Lata Mangeshkar being her overwhelming favorite. Living alone in a university accommodation that is dimly lit and modestly built, Professor Siras is devoid of any modern day trappings. Unassuming, nonchalant and most importantly non-intrusive in the affairs of his neighbors and colleagues. And, the professor is also a homosexual. But, he does not like the word ‘gay’. He does not like being categorized in a 3-letter word, he doesn’t want any identity, he doesn’t want to assert; he simply wants to be left alone. In his own words, he is the man who likes the pauses and the silences. Both in poetry and in life.
Manoj Bajpayee comes up with a poignant portrayal of the Aligarh professor. The shabby suit he wears, the gentle demeanor, the chaste Marathi accent, the greying hair – they are all very real and melancholic. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, Bajpayee quietly sheds a tear or two while sipping his drink and listening to an old Lata Mangeshkar favorite. The pathos in his eyes sets the tone for the film’s brilliant portrayal of solitude. It is one of the finest performances by an actor who, I always believed, is terribly underrated. Somehow, in the times of the Irrfans and Nawazuddins, the cine world has not done justice to the talent of Manoj Bajpayee. Hmph.
Bajpayee is ably supported by Rajkummar Rao who plays Deepu Sebastian, a Delhi-based newbie reporter who shares a special bond with the professor. Deepu has his own little issues to deal with in the PG accommodation he lives in. This is the film’s only humorous track where the land ladies give Deepu some tough time for not switching on the ‘motor’. Rajkummar makes the character of Deepu very believable and comes up with a very natural performance.
Apart from the performances, Aligarh is also hugely aided by some nuanced writing. Manoj Bajpayee speaks little, but whenever he does, his words leave behind a deep impact. More than the spoken words, the film is also about the silences and the camera by Satya Rai Nagpaul captures this essence beautifully. The milieu of Aligarh is brought alive, the city becoming a character in the film itself.
I will not say much on how ‘sensitively’ the film portrays the plight of homosexuals in India because the film’s characters and treatment are beyond the labels and stereotyping that Bollywood is so prone to do. Professor Siras happens to be gay and it’s no big deal in the film. The big deal, however, is a person’s right to privacy and right to lead a peaceful, uninterrupted life. It is this layered treatment of the film which makes it a winner. It never asks for your ‘sympathy’ for the homosexual community. It just leaves you thinking and aghast about how the society ostracized a well-meaning, gentle and learned professor.
The fine performances and nuanced writing apart, Aligarh does get a tad too slow at places. The intermission comes abruptly and there are times when the sluggish pace of the film gets overwhelming. But, it is only understandable that a film that is practically about loneliness will have long moments of stillness and discomfort. Moreover, the court proceedings in the film do not come across as very impactful. Clearly, we do not expect a ‘Tareekh Pe Tareekh’ encore here, but the arguments put forward by the lawyers in the court could have perhaps been tighter. There could have been some sense of urgency in how a few people tried to get justice for Professor Siras. It all looks a little tired in the film. But these minor setbacks aside, Aligarh chugs along quietly and, in the end, impressively. Thanks to a superlative lead actor, a fine support cast, deft direction and some fine writing.
Watch Aligarh because it is an important film. There is no in-your-face social messaging here, just a subtle nudge to the society, its morals and how it treats those who are lonely, non-combative and non-conforming to the set ‘norms’. Not just for homosexuals, the film also stands for the ‘bachelors’ who are treated as aliens in ‘family only’ colonies and apartments. The film stands for right to live and let live. A very basic and simple ask that our society somehow finds hard to fulfill.
If I would have to bet my life on an actor who could make anyone cry in a matter of two minutes, I will put all my money in Shabana Azmi’s kitty. The veteran actor, who plays Neerja Bhanot’s affable mother in the biopic Neerja, totally steals the show in the last 20 minutes of the film, gently slicing through every emotional chord in your heart, making you root and cry for her brave daughter as if she was one of your own. It is this incredible emotional pull in director Ram Madhvani’s Neerja that makes it an unmissable film in many ways. Telling the real-life story of the brave Pan Am Chief Flight Attendant Neerja Bhanot, the film not just provides the harrowing account of that ill-fated flight, it also magically takes you in the life and times of Neerja. So, while Sonam Kapoor enacts Neerja, in what is undoubtedly the most memorable performance of her career, you embrace Neerja lovingly and somewhat forget about the actor enacting the character. Sonam brings out Neerja in flesh and blood, portraying her free spirit, positive personality and even brandishing that unique streak of defiance (tucked behind her otherwise extremely pleasing smile) with aplomb. I have little doubt that Neerja would mark a turning point in Sonam Kapoor’s career with the producers-directors-writers sitting up and taking notice. The pretty fashionista has come of age!
But, if Neerja manages to register a huge impact on your heart and mind, it is considerably due to the terrific Shabana Azmi who lurks beautifully in the background through most of the film, only to come out all guns blazing in the final reels (so good to see her back in form post the tepid Jazbaa last year). She plays the doting mother to Neerja to perfection and makes you go numb at places with her sheer class as an actor. Special mention should be made of the film’s closing sequence where Shabana comes to the airport to receive her beloved daughter’s coffin and the subsequent scene where she delivers a small speech in front of an audience gathered to mark one year of Neerja’s martyrdom. If you manage to hold your tears in these scenes, you are probably either stoned or a stone.
While you may accuse me of being entirely swayed by Shabana Azmi and too an extent by Sonam Kapoor in the film, I intend to take nothing away from Ram Madhvani’s near-perfect retelling of an episode that deserves to be heard, seen and absorbed by everyone. Madhvani merits all the praise for never letting the momentum slip in the film’s 2-hour runtime and also never overplaying the patriotic or emotional cards. In fact, he chooses silence over any sort of background score in some of the film’s key moments and allows you as an audience to grapple with the situation on hand. And it works brilliantly on all occasions – be it when the hijackers unleash their brutalities inside the aircraft, leaving you suitably horrified, or when the brave Neerja sacrifices her life to save her passengers, leaving you in a pool of tears.
Madhvani has also deftly used intercuts throughout the film to recount Neerja’s experiences from a bad marriage, bringing out sharp contrasts in narrative – hope and despair, love and loss, bravery and cowardice. Apart from the brilliant intercuts, Neerja also boasts of some top class cinematography (handheld, shaky shots inside the aircraft) and effective low-key lighting that make the tension palpable.
Overall, Neerja is a riveting biopic and a worthy tribute – a heartwarming and heartfelt account of the short but extraordinary life of Neerja Bhanot. It is as much an uplifting mother-daughter story as it is about the exemplary courage shown by a dutiful flight attendant. Go watch. And keep some tissue papers handy.
Fitoor roughly translates to ‘obsession’ in English. And, it’s a pity that a film called Fitoor suffers from bouts of directorial indifference throughout its runtime. Director Abhishek Kapoor, who had very good last two outings in form of Kai Po Che and Rock On!!, puts up pretty looking caricatures and canvasses in Fitoor but forgets to infuse soul into them. So, amidst the snow-laden, paradise-like Kashmir and Katrina Kaif’s gorgeousness and red hair, there’s something which is clearly amiss. Throughout. Right from the opening credits till the lights are turned back on in the theater.
Based on Charles Dickens’ iconic novel Great Expectations, Fitoor is the story of a poor but artistically gifted Kashmiri boy, Noor (Aditya Roy Kapur) who falls in love with the beautiful and rich Firdaus (Katrina Kaif), daughter of a lonely, Kashmiri elite Begum Hazrat (Tabu). Stark mismatch in their societal standings does not stop Noor from pursuing Firdaus relentlessly, from Kashmir to Delhi to London, and his obsession is also initially fueled and somewhat supported by Begum herself. Things become complicated when Begum’s own troubled past comes in the way of Noor’s love for Firdaus and soon heartbreaks, betrayal and dejection follow suit.
Fitoor’s biggest lacuna is its failure to justify Kashmir as its backdrop. Well, there is nothing wrong in putting Kashmir in a narrative sans all its heavy political baggage but only if you manage to keep your hands off that ‘baggage’. Fitoor does not do so. There are bomb blasts and terror episodes in the film with none other than Ajay Devgn doing a cameo as a militant, but these sequences simply do not add up to the fairy tale treatment that the film otherwise reserves for itself. The fleeting commentary and remarks on terror, Kashmir’s issues, Azaadi et al seem juvenile and non-serious. It would have been much more prudent if Abhishek Kapoor would have exploited Kashmir’s stunning natural beauty and left the geopolitical commentary to the likes of Haider.
The Kashmir faux pas apart, Fitoor also seems to have missed a few tricks when it comes to adapting a classic while having some meat of your own in the screenplay. The most critical cog in the wheel of Great Expectations is the mystery around the secret sponsor of the boy’s meteoric rise through the social ranks. Fitoor falls flat in this aspect as you are never unaware of who is really behind Noor’s quick claim to fame in the art world. The little twist towards the end, which tries to catch the audiences unaware, seems unbelievable and leaves behind more questions than answers. Abhishek Kapoor, who has also co-written the film with Supratik Sen, will have to take the lion’s share of the blame for presenting an adaption that looks disjointed, undercooked and incomplete at places. In fact, the first half of the film has its moments but it goes completely downhill post intermission when the complexity of the original story starts to takes its toll on the film’s patchy screenplay.
But, there are a few things that go right for Fitoor. Tabu almost single-handedly carries the burden of acting and comes up with a believable version of Miss Havisham. Adorned with designer dresses and jewelry, Tabu is mostly in top form, especially when the dark circles around her eyes and the grey side of her character make an appearance. She looks suitably dreamy and comes out triumphant in the league of actors who are mostly inadequate in the portrayal of their characters. Giving Tabu company in some top-notch acting is the little boy playing young Noor (Mohammed Abrar). Abrar with his distinct Kashmiri features, perfect accent and effortless acting is a treat to the eyes and you completely root for him as and when he gets besotted by the young and pretty Firdaus (Tunisha Sharma). The young actress also does a good job of being a heady blend of arrogance and innocence.
But, same kind words cannot be said for the older Noor and Firdaus. Aditya Roy Kapur’s limitations as an actor is on full display here and you wish the director would have allowed him to play a drunkard version of the Dickensian poor boy so that we could have at least witnessed his Aashiqui brand of acting. Aditya wastes what was easily his best shot at some serious, nuanced acting and does little except for moving around half-naked and looking perpetually stiff. Katrina Kaif, on the other hand, does a good job of looking gorgeous and playing an occasional seductress, but fails to emote well when the scenes badly demand it. The lady needs to learn the art of crying. Simple.
Anay Goswamy’s pitch perfect cinematography is another rare high point of Fitoor. The beauty of Srinagar and the Kashmir valley at large is beautifully captured but it’s not just in the outdoors that the camera manages to weave its magic. The interior shots in Begum’s lavish bungalow and the elaborate art galleries are all very tastefully tense and imaginative. Hitesh Sonik’s background score and Amit Trivedi’s tunes (Pashmina in particular) are quite uplifting in themselves but are eventually dragged down by lackluster proceedings on the screen.
Overall, Fitoor falls well short of Great Expectations. Literally and figuratively. It is let down by a below par screenplay, a lead pair that does not really sparkle and the classic ‘curse of the second half’. You might well chicken out of watching an unworthy tribute to a Dickens’ classic.