Well, shoot! This was not a great movie. After I spent all that time reading and thinking about the book, the film was just bleh. Kanan Gill was still amazing, but the rest of it really wasn’t worth it. Oh, and then the end credits song with Badshah and Diljit was fun too.
As I said in my post on the book, the story has 3 main thrusts. The biggest and most interesting is the social criticism of Karachi society. And then there is the feminist story of our heroine realizing she had everything she needed all along, she just didn’t believe in herself. And finally there is the romance, her old friend Saad who keeps coming in and out of her life. The book could do that, have multiple interwoven themes, because books can handle that kind of complexity. A traditional 3 hour Indian film can handle that complexity as well, think of something like Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani which combined a love story with commentary on media with a story of political corruption. But this is not a 3 hour movie, this is less than 2 hours. And they really needed to just pick one of those themes and stick with it.
What’s frustrating is that there are still some good things in it! The characters especially, our heroine and hero and friends and co-workers were all more well-rounded and developed than I am used to in Hindi film. Some of the dialogue is kind of clever too, although it’s hampered by using soooooooooooo much English in a way that feels kind of awkward. If it had been a light romance with a small career storyline interacting with it, using these fun characters and clever dialogue, it could have been a nice little movie.
The problem is, it has aspirations to be more than just a light romance. Our heroine isn’t just a funny strong smart woman, she is supposed to turn into the voice of a generation kind of thing. And her journey isn’t just about falling for a rogue and then finding true love with her old friend, it’s about some big understanding of what “journalism” is. And the light dialogue and awkward young actors just can’t carry that kind of a story.
The director really really can’t carry that kind of a story. Sunhil Sippy, so far as I can see has nothing else really on his filmography. He is part of “the” Sippy family, which is presumably why he got the job. And he is terrible! Stuff like, dialogue starting before the camera was seeing the actors’ faces. Confusing editing, spacial relations that never quite made sense, and really no sense of how to direct the actors. It wasn’t all super obvious, digital cameras can hide a multitude of sins, but the end result was everything feeling kind of “stagey”, and constantly being taken out of the story because you were trying to figure out who was in this scene, and where it was, and what time of day.
Sonakshi, unfortunately, can’t carry it either. Or at least she can’t carry it all on her own. I still haven’t seen Lootera (I know, I know), but I have been impressed with Sonakshi in other roles, including as recently as Akira. But, going back to my Hindi Film 101 post on women in the industry, she just doesn’t have the ability to single-handedly save a film. Not because she is a “bad actress” necessarily, but because she doesn’t have the knowledge or authority to say “Okay, we have to add a scene here, cut this scene, and fire the director” the way a more experienced star, with greater power in the industry, could. That’s the flaw, not in her acting ability or anything else, but in her ability to serve as a check and balance on the director and force a course correction as necessary, the way the major male stars can. Well, and Rani Mukherjee. If someone like that had been leading this picture, it would have been fixed way back at the script stage.
You know who is wonderful in this movie? Kanan Gill! I continue to just love him. He was the only one who seemed to be having a good time onscreen. If you, like me, have a bit of a Kanan Gill crush, it might be worth watching just for that. But otherwise, don’t bother.
(How can you not love him?)
Oh, but if you do see it, make sure to stay for the end credits, where they throw in a Badshah item song for no reason at all. Well, besides the obvious reason that Badshah is wonderful! And also Diljit Dosangh. I’m assuming that this was a last minute attempt to go hard after the north Indian audience, because the southern one is going to be a total write off thanks to Baahubali 2.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Okay, whole plot in one paragraph!
Sonakshi is a reporter at an online video website, doing human interest stories like interviewing a woman who wears a helmet 24 hours a day. She lives with her widowed father and their cat, and their maid Malti who comes in a few days a week. Her two best friends from childhood are Zara and Saad (Kanan Gill). Her boss, Manish Chaudhary, is a former investigative reporter who has now settled down to running this tiny news agency that does meaningless stories. Sonakshi keeps pushing him to let her report on something real, and he keeps putting her off. Sonakshi meets Purab Kohli at a gallery showing of his photographs, he is an older hotshot reporter and photographer. They fall in love. At the same time, randomly, Sonakshi’s maid Malti sees a report she is editing and recognizes the man in it as the doctor who tricked her brother and stole his kidney. Sonakshi goes gets an interview with Malti and her brother, but Manish refuses to run it. She tells Purab Kohli about it, that same night they have sex, and he suggests she just stay in the hotel for the rest of the day. Of course, it was all a trick, he was keeping her distracted while he stole the story. Worse than that, now that the story is running, Malti and her brother are in danger since their names are used. Sonakshi goes to talk to her boss, who yells at her for not trusting him, for not understanding that he was holding the story until they could be sure of the facts and protect the innocent, and even now she is more worried about her career than Malti and her brother. Super depressed, Sonakshi agrees to leave town for a while with Kanan Gill, to visit him in London. While there, Kanan comes close to confessing his feelings, but is interrupted by a call from her father telling her that Malti’s brother has just been found murdered. Sonakshi is now inspired to really change her life, and spends weeks going through the slum area, putting together a full story with evidence and background, and then gives an impassioned first person speech to the camera about how this story is just one of many that show how Bombay has failed its citizens. She gives it to her boss, who watches it and admits that she has finally found her place as a real journalist. The video goes viral, Sonakshi is now famous and popular, Malti forgives her, and she has the chance to discuss Purab’s unethical behavior on national television. And in the end tag, Kanan Gill adorably proposes by asking “what would a girl like you say if a boy like me asked her to marry him?” And then item song!
My biggest problem is, of course, WHY THE F—- DOES SHE NEED A WISE OLD MALE MENTOR???????? The need for any mentor at all is kind of horrible, that she has to be naive and shallow and all those things, because that’s how young working women are. But to make it a male mentor? So that this becomes yet another story of a woman needing a man to guide her? BLECH!!!! Just flip the gender of that one character, and you solve half the problems in the movie.
Second biggest problem, all the troubles of the poor of Bombay are just there to help this upper middle-class woman find personal fulfillment? REALLY???? And she still never really connects with Malti, even after all of her guilt and anguish, we never see her sit down and ask Malti about her life or talk with her about anything beyond her own guilt.
Third biggest problem, once again the solution is “awareness”, “Starting a conversation”, “speaking up”. Not, like DOING anything!!!!!! Sonakshi gets all this praise and so on for just speaking up and identifying problems. Woop-ti-doo, identifying problems, that’s great, but what are we supposed to do about them? I don’t necessarily want some light popular movie to give me specific NGOs to support or anything like that, but I also don’t want to be supposed to worship the heroine of a light popular movie as an populist activist just because she posted a teary confessional video.
Compare it with, say, Udta Punjab and Kareena’s character. Kareena was similarly supposed to be a bit of a heroine. But she wasn’t posting teary confessional videos, she was actually out on the streets marching, protesting, and then spending her days in the unglamorous muck trying to help people. That is a heroine that I don’t mind respecting. But Sonakshi, sitting in her nice apartment and starting a twitter campaign, that I am not going to respect. And I really hate the idea this film is promoting that even in real life we can just sit back and tweet and post instead of getting our hands dirty and DOING something.
Biggest thing I like, the male characters! You can tell this film had a female screenwriter, because the men are so interesting. They aren’t just some shallow male-fantasy fulfillment version of the perfect hero. These characters have weaknesses and strengths in a way that women tend to see within the men they know, not in the way that men see within themselves.
Kanan Gill, of course, is perfect. He’s funny and casual, and clearly in love with Sonakshi just by the way he looks at her. And he does manage to pull off a bit of that cool guy touch, just so we can see how different he is when Sonakshi calls him on it.
I hate the older male mentor troup (sp?), but I kind of love the character. Partly because it’s an actual good actor in the role, unlike all of these younger inexperienced types who are struggling with the poor script and terrible direction, Manish Chaudhary just blasts right through that and makes it work. But the character had some interesting touches as well. At first we see him as kind of a joke, a brave journalist who turned into a cowardly 9 to 5 type after marriage, because he just wants to go home to his wife and kids every night. But slowly we start to see that Sonakshi really does respect him, and he respects her, in their own argumentative way. And the moment when he really lays into her reveals that he cared all along, not just about the stories, but about Sonakshi.
(This actor. He’s very good, you’ve seen him in stuff)
Which was there under the surface. One of their first arguments was about how she failed in her interview with Sunny Leone. And while Sonakshi is rolling her eyes and calling it a nothing story, Manish is making sincere valid points that Sunny is a fascinating woman, who came to a strange country and conquered it, and Sonakshi should have been able to respect that and find a story in it. Sonakshi may claim he is burnt out, but Manish really seems to care in this argument, not just about the story, but about teaching Sonakshi to respect the story. And he takes her back later, after she quits in a fit of pique, without any questions. He cared all along.
The best scene for his character is the one where he has no dialogue at all. Sonakshi interrupts him at dinner with his wife in a fancy restaurant, to give him the thumbdrive with her video confessional and story on it. Before he can answer, his wife stops Sonakshi and makes him look at her. And she is the one who tells Sonakshi that she cannot forgive her. Not for breaking the story which made the wife’s rich family look bad (I’ll get into that part of it in a minute), but for hurting Manish. He believed in her and cared about her, and she disrespected his judgement and his integrity. It changes everything we’ve seen before, but also fits with everything we’ve seen before. He had to give up his hard-hitting journalist career because he was too old, and too married. But he saw something like himself in Sonakshi, and she saw something she wanted to be in him, and that is why they fought so much, they were too similar. And all of their fights weren’t about him not respecting her, but rather about him respecting her so much, seeing her potential and trying to draw it out. And Sonakshi fought back for the same reason, she respected him too much to just roll her eyes and ignore him.
Manish is tied for my favorite character with Sonakshi’s father. Her father is also the only character who feels like he is exactly the same as in the book. He has a much larger role in the film than in the book, but everything we see of him here feels like what he would have been like in the book if we had gotten more backstory. A single parent, who loves his daughter but knows she is too prickly to accept any simple gesture of affection. In the book, he is always just in the background, except for one important scene right at the end when he explains that he has seen everything she is going through, and worries about her, but knows that she isn’t the kind of person who can accept worry, she he just pretends not to notice.
In the movie, the equivalent scene comes very early in the film. And from then on, Sonakshi and the audience are aware of his support and love, in the background at all times. It’s because he is worried about her that she agrees to go to London with Kanan Gill, he goes with her when she tracks down Malti in the slums, he is there to cheer her on at every triumph and comfort in every defeat. Such a nice man!
And such a good feminist! He tells Sonakshi that she will do great things, because she is a great person, like her mother was. That he doesn’t mind having a boring government job for his whole career, because it let him be a good reliable father to her. It was all in service of his daughter, because she was a special person and his job as a father is to support her.
Now, here’s where it failed utterly, and I wish it hadn’t even tried: giving a sense of the conflicting issues within the city of Bombay. This was the best part of the book, and you could tell that Saba Imtiaz was fully aware of every detail of Karachi. Only know she has to write the same story over again in Bombay, and I just don’t get that same feeling that she really knows and loves the city. It’s more like she just took a random collection of statistics and think pieces and tried to cobble together a sense of the city. It felt patronizing, simplistic, and just not quite precise enough.
Although it came closer than I would have expected for someone with no background in the city. One thing I was really fascinated by was the way it called out the media for focusing on the big names in a story instead of looking for the truth wherever it leads. When evil Purab Kohli breaks the story of the organ scam, he focuses on the “Kapadia Foundation” involvement, the Kapadias being Manish Chaudhary’s rich in-laws. The victims, and even the real criminal, are all lost and the story of the famous rich people focused on.
This is the one tiny area of Bombay that kind of overlaps with my own interests and knowledge. We all know how any story becomes news once a connection to a movie star can be found. Look, for example, at that leak of off-shore bank accounts a couple years back. The biggest story in India was that Amitabh Bachchan’s name was on the list. He was hiding money from taxes through an elaborate, but legal, accounting system. Other people on the list were hiding money gained through bribes, through blackmarket dealings, the money itself wasn’t the only illegal part, it was how they got it as well. But they aren’t “AMITABH BACHCHAN”, and so that part of the story wasn’t the focus.
As Manish’s wife says, in her one scene and long speech, her family can survive this. It happens to them all the time, they know how to deal with it. The real problem is that it hides the “real problem”. If the media and public leap to discussing the selfishness and self-importance of the rich celebrities, it means they are missing the bigger stories.
This is a problem that is specific to Bombay in a unique way. And if that had been the focus of the film, that Sonakshi thought she got her big break because she found a story which could be connected to a celebrity, and then learned to be a better journalist by getting to meet the people actually involved and suffering from the story, I would have found it more interesting. But instead it was something else, some confusing thing about appreciating the lower classes and learning to be a less selfish young woman and I don’t even know what all. Whatever it was, it didn’t work.