Tag Archives: International Interviews (Movies)

Interview: Kunal Nayyar for Open Magazine

“I’m a Delhite who went to St Columba’s, and one fine day, I ended up on the biggest TV show in America. It’s actually quite hilarious, if you look at it one way,” says Kunal Nayyar, better known to the world as geeky Indian scientist Rajesh Koothrapalli of The Big Bang Theory.

A lead on the highest-rated American sitcom currently running and easily one of the funniest Indians in the world—at least one of the most famous funny Indians in the world—Nayyar, at 33, already has enough material for a memoir. Because unlike Kal Penn (The Namesake), Mindy Kaling (The Office), Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreation), or any of the multitude of other Indian actors who’ve made a mark on American television in recent years, Nayyar isn’t an American-born desi.

He was born in London to Indian parents—his father is an accountant and his mother, an interior designer—who relocated to Delhi when he was five. Nayyar was raised in Delhi and educated at St Columba’s, the prestigious all-boys school attended by Shah Rukh Khan and Rahul Gandhi, where acting wasn’t really at the top of his mind. “In school, I was busy playing badminton and chasing girls. I hated studying and only wanted to play sports. I was a normal Delhi boy, in that sense, who wanted to be a rockstar or Aamir Khan when he grew up,” he laughs.

After high school, at the age of 18, Nayyar moved to the United States to pursue a business degree at University of Portland, Oregon. It was there that he caught the acting bug. Nayyar first enrolled in acting classes at the university for recreational reasons, participating in several school plays. But after one of his plays was selected for the regional round of the prominent American College Theater Festival, things quickly became serious.

“I believed that I was really good in the regionals but the judges gave me a firing for being incompetent,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe that! That moment motivated me to go back home and work hard on my skill, so I could go back and win the competition. And four years later, I won the national round too.”

By then, Nayyar had already enrolled in a Masters’ program in Acting at Temple University in Philadelphia. After graduation, he acted in a few plays, and only had a one-off role as an Iraqi terrorist on an episode of the crime drama NCIS, before he auditioned for The Big Bang Theory in the summer of 2007. He was 26 then.

“One of the reasons I probably got the role was because I had just come out of graduate school after three years of training, and I was bursting with all this confidence,” Nayyar chuckles. “I had done a little play in England before that and was just getting started in LA. And I think I was just young enough and clueless enough to not understand the magnitude of the audition at that moment, and that really helped me. Because I wasn’t thinking about it at all. I just went there and did my thing, and felt great about it.”

Nayyar took on the role—originally meant for an Asian actor and initially named Ramayan David—head on, and in the seven years since, The Big Bang Theory, co-created by Two and a Half Men and Dharma & Greg creator Chuck Lorre, went on to become a ratings, viewership and syndication juggernaut, with the actor pulling in a reported salary of $75,000 per episode.

So yes, it is definitely a story worth writing about, and while it has its twists and turns, Nayyar believes it is at heart a funny story. “Well it’s not funny ‘ha-ha’, but ‘I can’t believe this happened to me’ funny,” he says. “I mean, I’m so happy that I’ve achieved everything that I always wanted. But the truth is, I fake reality for a living… it’s not exactly rocket science! So you’ve got to have the ability to laugh at yourself. I’m not saying that acting is easy—it can be torturous at times—but if you look at it from the outside, it is a celebration of life, and like life, humour is at its core.”

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In his book, you can expect anecdotes about Nayyar cleaning toilets in Portland, being held up for 76 cents in Philadelphia, playing a terrorist on his first TV gig, playing a Star Wars board game for 36 hours straight, and then one day going on to marry a former Miss India.

Of course, the irony of that last part hasn’t escaped Nayyar’s fans. For a guy who got rich and famous playing a character who can’t so much as talk to women sober, and is the only one of The Big Bang Theory’s four leads to not be in a relationship—ever—he’s married a gorgeous former model, who represented India at the Miss Universe pageant in 2006.

“I have to admit there are things about this and about marriage in general that are hilarious,” says Nayyar, “but I find it funnier that people continue to confuse me with Raj Koothrapalli. When people meet me, they go, ‘Oh My God! You can talk to women! Oh My God! You are normal! Oh man! Are you actually wearing a jacket?’ Yes I am! Because I’m a normal person and what I do on the TV show is called ‘acting’!”

Even though this conversation with Nayyar is happening over the phone, as he’s currently in Los Angeles shooting the seventh season of his sitcom, it’s quite obvious the actor is a naturally-gifted comic. All his answers have a punch line, and when he says something funny, he doesn’t just say it, he delivers it. And it’s all effortless. Nayyar doesn’t need to try to make you laugh; he’s just funny as they come and the jokes run fast and loose.

He may always have been a funny guy, but Nayyar admits that a lot of his comedy has been shaped by the show and by American pop culture in general over the past decade-and-a-half.

It is a kind of humour that he calls ‘language-based’. “There is a huge difference between what India finds funny and what America finds funny,” he explains.

“I think there’s such a British influence on India, in terms of comedy, that everything that you see in Indian pop culture is more farcical and physical. In Indian comedy, the way it happens is that someone gets slapped in the face, his eyes widen and there is a music cue that goes (mimics the sound) ‘pyunnnn’. And that’s when you laugh. In America, comedy is more about setups and language.”

“There’s a rhythm or even poetry in the way comedy is written and delivered in America. A lot of the humour lies in this rhythm of the language. Every joke here is a 1-2-3-sentence set-up joke. For example, sometimes you might not understand the science stuff that’s being said in The Big Bang Theory, but because of the circumstances of the characters, and the set-up leading up to it in the language, when the punch-line is delivered, you will laugh.”

Having delivered this impressive soliloquy, Nayyar takes a breath, and then instinctively proceeds to deliver the punchline he has just set up: “I hope this is making sense. But I think the bottomline is that getting slapped in the face is hilarious in every country.” Like he promised, you laugh.

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With his fluency in American humour, combined with an instinct for the farcical elements of Indian comedy, Nayyar now counts himself among the growing ranks of Indian-origin actors on American television shows, most of whom are funny. And humour may just be the key to overcoming the stereotyping and discrimination that Indian actors before Nayyar have spoken out against—from Aasif Mandvi, who wrote about the ‘whitewashing’ phenomenon in Hollywood for Salon.com, to Kal Penn, who criticised the thinly-concealed xenophobia of Joel Stein’s notorious 2010 Time article, ‘My Own Private India’.

A couple of months ago, Kal Penn joked on Twitter about the way Brown actors are often confused with each other: ‘Creepy Australian Guy: Whoa, are you Russell Peters?! Me: No, I’m Kunal Nayyar. Creepy Australian Guy: I love Parks & Rec! Me: High 5!’ Penn is in fact one of the leads of the multi-million dollar comedy film franchise Harold and Kumar.

But the truth is, with Mindy Kaling writing and starring in her own sitcom The Mindy Project, Aziz Ansari becoming one of the biggest stand-up phenomena in North America, and actors like Danny Pudi (Community), Adhir Kalyan (Rules of Engagement) and Hannah Simone (New Girl) playing highly visible, well-liked supporting parts in top-rated sitcoms, now is a great time for Indian comic actors in America.

Nayyar agrees: “When it comes to diversity with regard to Indian actors in American entertainment, I believe that bridge has been crossed. People ask me, ‘Why do you think it happened?’ My version is that if you go anywhere in America today, be it a grocery store or a restaurant or even your work place, wherever you look, you’ll see Indians. America has always been a melting pot of cultures, and today, with Indian doctors and scientists and lawyers and engineers, we are definitely a huge part of that pot. We are highly visible people and we are upsetting Americans as a society (laughs), so when you see Indians on American TV, it’s not a stretch, it’s reality.”

“Where I’m concerned,” he continues, “I believe that America is no longer ignorant about India or Indians. How can they be? There was a sitcom on NBC a couple of years ago, called Outsourced, only about Indians.”

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While comedy may have been the overriding reason for the acceptance of Indian actors in Hollywood, as well as the cause of Nayyar’s humongous success, he isn’t satisfied doing just that. With the likelihood of The Big Bang Theory reaching its conclusion in the next three years, Nayyar is already planning for life after the show, and has his eyes set on direction, producing and teaching.

His first effort in this direction is Sushrut Jain’s cricket-based documentary, Beyond All Boundaries, which premiered in India at the recently concluded Mumbai Film Festival, and is produced and narrated by Nayyar.

He believed in the film because, being a huge cricket fan, he has always found that India is starved of good cricket content beyond just matches. “To me, cricket is not just a game, but a beautiful symbol for people’s dreams and their future,” he says. “Indian cricket fans have so many hopes and dreams riding on the game, that I really found it glorious to see a film about the impact of the game in the way it can shape our lives or even destroy it.”

As the documentary travels to festivals across the world to much critical acclaim, Nayyar will continue exploring different creative outlets, with his focus staying on his sitcom, his two upcoming films—the comedy Dr. Cabbie and the thriller The Scribbler—and on voicing the animation series Sanjay and Craig for Nickelodeon. He is open to Bollywood offers too, and would love to be in films like “3 Idiots, Barfi or Cheeni Kum, which are poignant comedies—the genre I love.”

But for the most part, Nayyar would be happy just to be home every night with his wife and some butter chicken. “It’s funny that after shooting for four hours and finishing an episode of The Big Bang Theory that maybe over the course of the future will be seen by 500 million people, all I like doing is coming home and eating butter chicken,” he says. “Like, I’ll heat up the butter chicken, put a little tadka on the dal and I’ll chew it, while watching music videos all night. People think I lead this glamorous life, but really, all I want is kebabs and butter chicken for the rest of my life, and I’ll be happy forever.” For once, he sounds completely serious.

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on November 16, 2013
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/it-s-kind-of-a-funny-story
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Review: Gangster Squad (2013)

Gangster Squad is 2013’s first big disappointment

Okay, so I am not saying I certainly did, but I may have popped an artery in my brains due to the awesomeness explosion that was the official trailer of the Gangster Squad, when it first hit the net. I’m not saying that I did, but I may have run around in circles with my hands waving wildly in the air on finding out that the star cast of the film included Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, three of the finest young character actors in Hollywood today – Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena and Giovanni Ribisi – and the woman of my dreams, Emma Stone.

And I’m not saying that I did, but I may have lost the will to live when I found out that Gangster Squad’s release date was pushed from September 2012 to January 2013. And I’m not definitely not saying this because it may reflect on how awfully exciting my real life is, but one of the biggest reasons I may not have wanted the world to not end was because “HOW COULD IT END BEFORE GANGSTER SQUAD RELEASES?”

But here’s what I’m definitely saying today: The last time I was so disappointed with a movie was when I walked into a theatre to watch Don 2 and ended up watching Farhan Akhtar’s midlife crisis in what could only be called Shah Rukh Khan’s Bodyguard. Okay, so maybe Gangster Squad is not *that* awfully bad, but the problem with the movie is that… it’s not awfully good either.

At the outset, Gangster Squad has *so* many things going for it: It’s got THAT cast, with Sean Penn relishing the role of mob king Mickey Cohen possibly as much as Christoph Waltz relished Hans Landa (Inglorious Basterds) or the… err… mountain that played Mordor relished Sauron (Lord of the Rings). It’s got Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone paired together for the second time after Crazy, Stupid, Love showcased their out-of-the-world chemistry that made even the non-believers go giddy with incurable bouts of lurrrveee.

It’s got epic music, outstanding art direction, styling, look and atmosphere, and dialogues so quotable, they could put a Salman Khan-starrer to shame. At its helm, it’s got director Ruben Fleischer, whose Zombieland was by far the coolest take on the zombie-pocalypse by an American (because the Brits did Shaun of the Dead). And it’s NOIR! About GANGSTERS! Set in the ‘40s! In Los Angeles! If that doesn’t spell “OMGTHISISTHEBESTFILMEVER”, what does?

The answer to the above question may arrive on February 14th in the form of A Good Day To Die Hard (yippee-ki-yay!), because Gangster Squad spells something between “OMGISTHISREALLYHAPPENING” and “OMGHOWCOULDTHEYDOTHIS”. Because Gangster Squad has so many things going for it, and yet, it somehow botches it all up and ends up looking like a parody of a gangster movie, rather than an actual gangster movie.

For one, it’s funny. I’m not talking of Goodfellas funny or Gangs of Wasseypur funny, I’m talking about Adam Sandler funny (yeah, ouch). For example, in a movie about a squad of six daredevil cops who’re entrusted with the responsibility of destroying the operations of California’s most dreaded gangsters, there is an extended gag about these guys botching their first operation by being caught by other cops and being jailed for it. Had it been done convincingly enough, it may well have been a classic, but Fleischer takes the slapstick route he undertook fairly well in his 30 Minutes or Less, but imagine such sequences in an LA Confidential or Boardwalk Empire or any noir movie or TV show worth its salt, and you’d understand why they stuck out like sore thumbs.

Another reason is that the film is as predictable as a Katherine Heigl romantic comedy, and just as exasperating at times. *Spoilers ahead:* So when a cop doesn’t want to join the squad, you know a close one would die for him to agree – but the movie introduces the close one about two minutes before this turn of events, and only for that purpose. When a henchman screws up, you *know* that the boss is going to kill him – but the sheer number of times the henchmen screw up and face their imminent deaths makes you wonder if Cohen probably failed as a gangster because he employed the biggest fools of Los Angeles in his gang. And when everyone in the team leaves for a mission except the one person, you *know* that one person is going to die – but the movie is so obvious in its manipulation that this person is the only one who is shown with a family.

But probably the biggest blame in this sabotage of what could have been a classic, lies with the editing: the movie feels like it should have been a two-and-a-half-hour crime saga but is wrapped up in less than two hours. While that’s a great thing now considering even those two hours feel like two long never-ending Mumbai summer months, you get the feeling – you hope – that the movie has been mercilessly cut and there exists a Director’s Cut somewhere, within which lies a movie that is just as awesome as the trailer suggested.

Because if there isn’t, then Ruben Fleischer should really never try anything other than a comedy again because, honestly, even the most serious scenes in the film are funny – it’s laughable how badly they are acted, how convenient they end up being, and how contrived and obviously manipulative the emotions are (wait for the scene with the kid and the bicycle and let me know how hard you laughed). I, for one, was actually *rooting* for someone central to the plot to die in the film so I’d feel more connected to it, but even when a couple did, I was just happy that the climax was finally around the corner.

There is a fine line between being pulp and being corny. Gangster Squad pretends to be the latter but ends up being the former, and it’s only the masterful acting by Sean Penn and the heart put into it by Josh Brolin that just about save the day. If you must, watch Gangster Squad without any expectations, and while you may still be disappointed, at least you will not go on a binge of junk food and aerated drinks, without a care for calories, having lost all faith in Hollywood and the world at large (okay, I’m not saying I did that, but I may have…).

Note: This review first appeared on Firstpost.com on January 11, 2013
Link: http://www.firstpost.com/bollywood/film-review-gangster-squad-is-2013s-first-big-fat-disappointment-584405.html
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Review: Les Miserables (2013)

Les Miserables is cinema as it was meant to be

How do you adapt to screen an epic
In a way that’s not been done before
An epic so well known, an epic so often seen
In a way that leaves us wanting more

Well, it can be done, and marvellously so
Shows Tom Hooper, in his work of art
So a magnum opus musical like Les Miserables deserves
Not a review, but some poetry from the heart

Set in that time in 19th century France
When the rich just got richer
And the poor, condemned, weren’t given a chance
This has gone on too long, this needs to change
One ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) took the stance

He forged a new identity, rose to the top
Found redemption by being honest and kind
But he was hunted by Javert (Russell Crowe), a cop
Whom duty, law and an oath had made blind

Many a people, and many a stories, were born, and died
In this 17-year-long journey that Valjean undertook
There was political turmoil and a tragic student revolution
As the very foundation of France shook

Hooper captures the suffering and pain
So heart-breakingly well on screen
But there’s hope, love and morality too
And rousing performances, seldom seen

Hugh Jackman is a revelation; an unbelievable talent!
Russell Crowe is so remarkable, he makes his villain seem gallant
Anne Hathaway, in a short role, makes a huge impact
And the supporting cast leaves you sweating; phew, can they act!

The visuals are glorious and stunning
The soul-stirring music will make you feel alive
The sets are grand and majestic
The filmmaking shows tremendous grit and drive

Take our word and flock the theaters
Les Miserables is one to see
This is moviemaking at its finest
This is cinema the way it was meant to be

Note: This review first appeared on Firstpost.com on January 20, 2013
Link: http://www.firstpost.com/bollywood/movie-review-les-miserables-is-epic-poetry-from-the-heart-594910.html
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Review: The Impossible (2013)

The Impossible is 2013’s first best film

A typical Hollywood disaster film is defined by its multiple interconnected storylines where half the fun lies in guessing who’d die first, extravagant special effects that cost more than the souls of the studio heads producing it, a huge ensemble cast of a bunch of B+ actors who’d *actually* otherwise be brought together only if there’d be a real-life apocalypse, and the Godforsaken choice between Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich as director, which makes ALL the difference in the world (no it doesn’t). Thankfully, The Impossible is not your typical Hollywood disaster film. In fact, it’s not a Hollywood film to begin with.

The Impossible, that stars Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts in the lead roles, is an English-language Spanish production about a Spanish family, The Belons, who faced the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami head on, and lived to tell their heart-wrenching tale. This is not a movie that wastes its time in setting up the impending doom, or savours the disaster scenes by amping up the destruction for the pleasure of the viewers, or even boasts of the blockbuster tag that demands limited emotional participation in exchange of instant gratification. This is a simple but powerful film about human tenacity, about surviving against all odds in the face of death, about salvaging and hanging out to the last bit of hope when life has little of it to offer.

The Belon family – Maria and Enrique Alvarez, and their three sons, Lucas, Tomas and Simon, were spending their Christmas vacation in a tropical paradise resort in Thailand on December 26, 2012, just minutes off the Thai coast, when the deadliest Tsunami in human history ravaged the shores of global cities across South East Asia. The Belon family, injured and separated from each other on that day, did not give up on each other, and persevered the chaos and turmoil in post-tsunami Thailand to find each other amidst a sea of wounded, dying or dead tourists and locals, in a story that is traumatic as it is beautiful.

After powerfully setting up the haunting moment when the Tsunami first struck, The Impossible follows the independent journeys of the separated family – Maria (Watts) and the eldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland) who end up in one of the many Thai hospitals teeming with the injured, and Henry (Enrique Alvarez played by McGregor) and the two younger sons, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), who are looking through every hotel, every hospital and every morgue in the hope that the rest of their family is alive.

While the disaster and its aftermaths – the human suffering at the hands of an unforeseen and unexpected natural force – are definitely an important part of the movie, the core of the movie lies in what is probably the core of the human fabric: the love for family. The movie does not care to deal with subtexts or larger meanings, or try and analyse why the disaster happened, why were these particular people chosen or who was responsible for it all; instead, it taps into the most basic of human emotions and shows, through a screenplay that is at times heart-breaking, and at times fills you with elation, that the tragedy of losing everything material can always be overcome, if your loved ones are still by your side, holding your hands.

The Impossible is sometimes a difficult movie to watch, purely for the range of emotions it stirs within you, but it is also an important watch, to drive home the point that we only know too well – that love is all you need. It’s directed straight from the heart by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage); it’s got some of the best, most natural and most heart-rendering performances seen on screen in a while, by Watts (who deserves an Oscar like nobody else), McGregor and especially Hollander, who makes the viewer feel pain, joy, suffering and hope like only the real Lucas could have felt; and ultimately and most important , it’s about courage and the triumph of the human spirit.

If these are not enough reasons to watch what is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year, watch The Impossible because it will leave you with a smile on your face, as you go back home and hug your entire family, and thank the powers that be for every moment you’ve got to spend with them, and for every moment hereafter.

Note: This review first appeared on Firstpost.com on November 1, 2012
Link: http://www.firstpost.com/bollywood/movie-review-the-impossible-is-really-about-family-not-about-a-tsunami-585567.html
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Review: Midnight’s Children (2013)

Midnight’s Children is a stunning mess

How do you go about adapting an epic novel whose scope is as humongous as its legacy… if you are not Peter Jackson? The evident answer is: you don’t. Fanboys (ahem… guilty as charged) may go on a limb and even say: you *can’t*, but every now and then, a Cloud Atlas turns up and proves us wrong. Midnight’s Children, unfortunately, is no Cloud Atlas, and is certainly no Lord of the Rings (and not because it has no Hobbits — in fact, it has Darsheel Safary).

It’s not so much that there’s anything Deepa Mehta, the director, or Salman Rushdie, who has adapted his own book into a screenplay, have done anything wrong, or even anything less, than what they could have done — it’s perhaps that adapting a 600-page novel that spans 60 years and intertwines genres as diverse as magic realism and historical fiction, into a two and a half hour movie, was never going to be easy.

For those who’ve been living under a rock, the story of Midnight’s Children is the story of Saleem (played by Darsheel and Satya Bhabha), who was born at the precise stroke of midnight, and exchanged at birth with the child of an affluent Indian Muslim family, the Sinais. Saleem shares a gift that over a thousand children born between the hours of 12 and 1 — the Midnight’s Children — that historic night, were bestowed with: he has super powers. In a Bryan Singer movie, this could have led to a X-Men type battle between these children and the villainous humans who want to destroy them, but this film sticks largely to Saleem’s story, as he battles his destiny through two wars and the emergency.

To its credit, Midnight’s Children holds your interest for most of its running time, because, well, it *is* a phenomenal story and no matter what you do, you cannot screw it up… beyond a point. But the problem lies with the fact that there’s just too much happening on screen, and there’s too little coherence between it all. There are more characters than the number of years the movie covers, and due to the limitation of its running time, the plots these characters inhabit are half-baked and remain unresolved, not exactly unlike the protagonist of the film, Saleem Sinai.

The screenplay quickly moves from one plot point to another, but not seamlessly, and as a result, before you can properly start connecting with a character, or even, err, lusting for the actor that portrays it (Anita Majumdar as Emerald, woot!), another has been introduced. And before you can start wondering where – and why – did Emerald go, another story begins and ends prematurely, so as much as you’d want to see more of the gorgeous Shriya Saran or the powerhouse Siddharth (playing Parvati and Shiva, two other Midnight’s Children), all you get is a *lot* of Darsheel and Satya.

While both are decent actors and do a pretty good job, they’ve been pitted against some of the finest and most experienced talent our country has to offer, which really isn’t fair to them, and so, the supporting characters register far more than them. The scene stealers are Ronit Roy, who reprises a role similar to the one he did in Udaan, and is just as outstanding again, and Siddharth, who sets the screen ablaze in every scene. Shahana Goswami and Rahul Bose also deliver top-notch performances and everyone else, from the legendary Kulbushan Kharbanda to Saran are a joy to watch.

Mehta does a solid job of direction, given the muddled script, and deserves credit for ‘showing’ so much of the history of India — including a daring section on Indira Gandhi — by showing so little. The cinematography (Giles Nuttgens) makes the film visually powerful and while the background score (Nitin Sawhney) compliments it for the most part, it really could have been less clichéd. Really, when will India stop being represented by flutes in Hollywood? And after such great primary casting, the make up on the fringe characters is annoying, since they look like those Indian stereotypes that Americans see us as.

Largely though, Midnight’s Children is a stunning mess, but it is, ultimately, a mess. For the brave attempt and the fabulous ensemble cast, the movie warrants a singular visit to the theaters, but unlike the novel or the momentous date it is built on, the movie won’t be making it to the history books.

Note: This review first appeared on Firstpost.com on February 4, 2013
Link: http://www.firstpost.com/bollywood/movie-review-midnights-children-is-a-stunning-mess-611692.html
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2013)

Zero Dark Thirty is good but not great

At the upcoming 2013 Academy Awards, it’s been nominated for five Oscars, including Best Motion Picture of the Year. So far, it’s won the Best Picture Award at AFI Awards, Austin Film Critics Association, Boston Society of Film Critics Awards, Chicago Film Critics Association Awards, National Board of Review, New York Film Critics Circle Awards, and some 40 more. Yes, it just *might* be a little fact that critics love the film and that they *may* want to marry the film and have little baby sequels of the film.

So the question isn’t whether Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn “The Hurt Locker” Bigelow’s film about the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden and his subsequent assassination, is any good. The questions are exactly how good is it, precisely how excited should you be to watch it, does it really deserve all the awards on this planet over Argo and most importantly, whether or not the Osama in this film looks better than Pradyuman Singh from Tere Bin Laden.

Cutting to the chase (pun totally intended), Zero Dark Thirty is an engrossing, superbly directed, well-acted and finely made drama about the longest manhunt for the most dangerous man in recent history. It’s an intense, grim and disturbing film that seethes and festers in the palpable tension that Bigelow creates on screen through the superlative performances. But – yes, there’s a but – there are a few glaring hiccups in the film that make it far from perfect.

For one, the film is unapologetically one-sided in its portrayal of what exactly happened. We see people being tortured, maimed or killed through the film, and the film focuses on the fact that it is wrong, but never on the story behind it. There’s no remorse shown by anyone in the film – whether on the “right” side or the “wrong” – and there is no justification or reason given as to why one side is right, and the other wrong. Like the protagonist of the film, CIA agent Maya, who takes it upon herself to capture Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty is clinical in its approach as well.

Most of the film is, hence, devoid of any moral ambiguity or real emotion, apart from the tension that runs through the atmospheric first half, and while it’s always refreshing when a cliché is avoided, somehow, the film feels a bit hollow and because of the categorical absence of the other side. Of course, this could all be propaganda, but if that is indeed the case, it is a far cry from the balanced portrayal of war in Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, and the film’s emotional maturity.

Then there is the case of the graphic torture scenes, of which much has been made in the American media. Without getting into the political implications of these scenes, cinematically, and as part of the film as a whole, the scenes are long, drawn out and after a point of time, unnecessary. Whatever they add to the dark, harrowing feel of the film is conveyed in the first 10 minutes, after which, they seem like an exercise in futility. Even the last 30 minutes of the film, shot in night vision, that focus purely on the elimination of Bin Laden by the US Navy Seals, could have been done with some chopping on the edit table.

The real film lies somewhere in between the first and last 30 minutes, in Jessica Chastain’s gritty portrayal of Maya, whose resolve to capture Bin Laden against all odds, be it political, professional or emotional, give the film its highest dramatic points. It’s hard to miss the fact that her arc, and the movie’s actual story, mirrors that of the brilliant American TV series, Homeland, and just like Claire Danes carries the series on her shoulders, it is Chastain’s measured and tenacious performance that makes Zero Dark Thirty the riveting watch that it is.

Watch the film for Chastain, Bigelow’s direction, and the remarkable story that it is, but carry along some patience in good measure, since Zero Dark Thirty is more a pensive drama than the thriller it is made out to be.

Note: This review first appeared on Firstpost.com on February 17, 2013
Link: http://www.firstpost.com/bollywood/movie-review-zero-dark-thirty-is-good-but-not-great-628499.html
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Review: Lincoln (2013)

Somewhere in the middle of the new, two-and-a-half-hour long Steven Spielberg historical drama, Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis’ eponymous title character speaks to a Union soldier about an incident that had occurred during the American civil war. A 16-year-old boy had been sentenced to hang as a punishment for laming his horse to avoid going into battle.

Lincoln asks the soldier if their general would complain if he were to pardon the boy. The soldier remarks that his general feels Lincoln pardons too many already. Lincoln replies, “War is nearly done… What use another corpse? If I were to hang every 16-year-old boy for cruelty to a horse, or for being frightened, there wouldn’t be any 16-year-old boys left.”

There are several such moments when Day-Lewis’ Lincoln narrates off-hand, arbitrary stories, sometimes funny, sometimes absurd, but always with the singular intention to drive home tough points to tougher people in a compassionate, gentle way. Spielberg uses this precise approach with his movie too, and it has the precise outcome – like the many men and women of that time, who were smitten by President Lincoln’s charm and awestruck by his aura, we are sold too.

The movie isn’t a broad biography of USA’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln; it’s about a specific time in his leadership and a momentous time in our modern history, where he successfully fought for the abolishment of slavery through democratic means – the passing of The Thirteenth Amendment of the United States. At the outset, this seems to be too narrow a period to adequately portray the man, Abraham Lincoln, behind the great leader of men, President Lincoln, but Spielberg surprises with the incredible panache with which he pulls off this enormous task.

We already know the climax of the film, but even with that constraint, Spielberg packs in enough layers of drama and emotion, with just the right amount of wit and light humour, that at every point of the masterful screenplay, written by Tony Kushner of Munich fame, we are continually anxious to know what happened next, and how! Of course, like all great dramas, Lincoln has an unhurried, deliberate pace, that at times gets a bit too slow, but by and large, the proceedings are far too compelling to worry about the time. The movie could have definitely ended five minutes before it did, though – showing the assassination was entirely unnecessary and looked forced.

Most of the drama comes from Lincoln’s predicament that Spielberg ably showcases and Day-Lewis spectacularly portrays through the length of the film, of how the president must go about trying to pass the Amendment in Congress before the civil war comes to an end – because once it ends, the bill could never be passed – even as he must try to end the war independently, to bring an end to the suffering. Spielberg gives Lincoln the shades of being a kind and fair leader, but one, who could be tough and do what had to be done, if the situation demanded it.

All this while, his relationship with his emotionally unstable wife (Sally Field), his son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who’s determined to go to war despite his family’s opposition, his peers including the aggressive leader of the Republican Party (a brilliant and terrifically entertaining Tommy Lee Jones) and his rivals, make for an absorbing biography too.

And of course, while there’s hardly any need to say it, it must be said all the same: two-time Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis is a modern god of acting, and it’s hard to imagine if President Lincoln himself could have portrayed his self on screen so expertly. Day-Lewis gets under the skin of the role, just like he always does, and makes Lincoln his own, and from every pause he takes between his lines, to every twitch of his face, he is so utterly convincing, that there’s absolutely no way Lincoln could’ve been any different in real life.

There’s another question that Lincoln asks a soldier somewhere in the middle of the film that stays behind long after the film: “Do you think we choose the times into which we are born? Or do we fit the times we are born into?” Day-Lewis is the kind of actor who chose to be born in today’s times to play the roles he’s chosen to play in the films he’s chosen to play them in, and while there are several reasons Lincoln is an excellent watch at the theaters, Day-Lewis’ performance is worth the price of the ticket alone.

Note: This review first appeared on Firstpost.com on Feb 9, 2013
Link: http://www.firstpost.com/bollywood/movie-review-daniel-day-lewis-as-lincoln-is-a-modern-god-of-acting-619494.html
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.