Aiyyaa – How can a movie be so sublime and so awful all at the same time

I love Rani Mukherji so Aiyyaa was on my watchlist, but it moved right up to the top after I saw this video:

I have only seen a few Prithviraj films, and my impression was of a very good serious actor in Ennu Ninte Moideen, Classmates and Mumbai Police or even Aurangzeb.  But I hadn’t seen him like this:

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Holy moly.  (Is it getting hot in here?)

Aiyyaa means Oh, My!  Aiyyaa was a comeback film for Rani, but was Prithviraj’s Bollywood Debut.  (He made Aurangzeb around the same time.)  The film was produced by Anurag Kashyap and was directed by Sachin Kundalkar.

Rani is Menaskshi, a young woman who loves zany Bollywood films, the more over the top the better.  The songs in Aiyyaa are her fantasies.  She imagines herself at the beginning as Madhuri, Juhi and Sridevi.  Her parents want to arrange her marriage, but first she gets a job at the local art college.

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She is struck speechless by the appearance of art student Surya, and is entranced by his smell.  (The director Sachin Kundalkar, had done a previous Marathi film about the senses.)  She asks around to learn more about her crush Surya.  He always has red eyes so the rumor is that he’s on drugs or spends all his nights drinking.  He barely ever speaks to Rani, and is very mysterious and standoffish.  She finds him sleeping in doorways and hallways.  She knows he speaks Tamil to the chaiwallah boy, who she bribes to teach her to speak Tamil.  “How do I say I like dark skin people, not fair skin?”  The chaiwallah recommends she watch the Tamil Midnight Masala TV channel.

Rani dreams she’s in a Southern Masala film, and we get this insane number that made me just laugh in delight:

As Prithviraj said in an interview — it’s Bollywood’s crazy view of Southern films.  What I absolutely love about this song sequence is that I’ve never before seen Prithviraj so silly, and you can just see him going for it with gusto.

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He just has this crazy grin through the whole song.  They rhyme humping and thumping, and he bobs his head following her waist gyrations.  Prithviraj’s having his own fun spoofing regional song sequences.  Having seen several South Indian films, I felt like I was in on the joke.

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Rani’s eccentric family have placed a matrimonial ad and she grits her teeth through meetings with several suitors.  One very nice average guy she reluctantly agrees to see again.  He’s kind and sweet, but he just doesn’t float her boat like Surya – who seemingly doesn’t even know she exists.  While shopping for wedding saris, she has the lustful Aga Bai fantasy song from the top of the review.

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I wouldn’t have minded if Surya had just been a fantasy and she ended up with the nice average Maadhav (Subodh Bhave).  On the day of her engagement, she escapes the house and follows Surya.  Finally she discovers the source of his intoxicating scent, and they connect.  The romance is just so swoon worthy.  It’s sublime.

But unfortunately, Prithviraj, Subodh and Rani aren’t the only people in the film.  Rani’s family is at first amusingly eccentric.  In the first half, it’s not so bad, but her brother character especially in the second half just goes off into crazyland.  The very worst character is her co-worker Maina, who has big buck teeth and comes to work with vodka in a bear shaped water bottle.  She’s not only un-funny, she’s just blatantly offensive.  The writer-director was going for zany, and he veered too far on the wacky spectrum.  You know it’s bad when Johnny Lever would have brought subtlety to this film. If this film instead had had the comedic tone of something like Dum Laga Ke Haisha it would have been perfect.   It was just so uneven lurching between the extreme awful comedy and then the swooniness of the romance.

I loved the romance bits of this film so much I have rewatched it already, but I fast-forwarded through all the family scenes and the Maina bits.  Rani in her fantasies in Aiyyaa reminded me a bit of Amelie, that magical realism French film:

 

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So dear reader, I have trouble whole-heartedly recommending this film.  The film has a great message about cross-cultural romance and even with a male director is interested in the female gaze and point of view.  If you’re a big fan of Rani like I am, you’ll agree that she was fantastic as Meenakshi.  If you love Prithviraj as I am beginning to, you’ll love seeing him be almost Mr. Darcy like, and also having zany fun being a sex symbol.  If you can stand to watch not so great films for the transcendent good parts, just do yourself a favor and keep your finger on the fast-forward button.

Three stars out of five.  Aiyyaa is available on ErosNow, which is where I watched it.

 

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Mumbai Police – Prithviraj’s stunning performance in this film gobsmacked me

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I was absolutely gobsmacked by the amazing performance of Prithviraj in the Malayalam crime mystery drama Mumbai Police.  I had seen Prithviraj in a stellar if unflashy supporting role in the Hindi film Aurangzeb, also as a cop.  Then I saw Classmates as I was told how influential it is in modern Malayalam cinema.  He was very solid also in the romantic drama Ennu Ninte Moideen.  I had been impressed by his body of work, but nothing prepared me for his incredible performance in Mumbai Police.  Essentially, he’s almost playing a double role.

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In the opening scene, Tony (Prithviraj) is driving down an empty street at night in his police jeep.  He is speaking into a phone saying, “I have found the culprit.” in Malayalam and then repeats it in English.  Suddenly a refrigerator falls off a truck in front of him, and he swerves and the jeep rolls over.  The next scene has a bewildered scarred Tony in a car with Farhan who tells Tony he is his best friend.  Tony has lost all his memory, and this fellow cop friend and the doctor are the only people who know that.  Tony was in the middle of the investigation of the murder of a fellow policeman and the political and press pressure is intense for the case to be solved.

Tony doesn’t know who is friend and who is foe.  After Farhan drops him off at his apartment, Tony is attacked by several men, and is stunned that he can quickly dispatch all of them.  He asks his doctor if he can really return to work, and she has him solve a sudoku puzzle.  She explains that before the accident he was “Person A”, and after he lost his memory he is “Person B”.  He may have different likes and preferences as Person B, but all the skills he learned as Person A, any languages he learned, he will still know.  She brings up that Steve Wozniak lost his memory the same way for five weeks after a plane accident.  (All the computers in the film are Macs).

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So, Tony returns to work, bluffing his way through his interactions with subordinates and poring over the investigation notes.  He learns the murder victim was his good friend Aryan, and Tony, Farhan and Aryan were known as the “Mumbai Police” since they had served there together before returning to Kerala.

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The films Memento and Ghajini deal with short term memory loss, but Mumbai Police reminded me more of the old Harrison Ford movie Regarding Henry.  In Regarding Henry, Harrison Ford plays a hard charging lawyer who loses his memory and has almost a complete personality change after being shot.  He’s two different people and his family has to adjust to the “new” Henry.

Tony at first wants to get back to what he was before, but in the course of reinvestigating the murder, he discovers that he was quite the asshole. He was confident and arrogant, with a certain swagger, but his staff walked on eggshells around him waiting for him to explode.  There is a scene where Tony is questioning a possible witness, and grabs the guy’s wife and manhandles her, molesting her in front of everyone.  His female subordinate looks on in complete disgust at his abuse of power.  And we in the audience had been falling for this super competent cop, and then his darkness slaps us in the face.

Gradually, Tony finds that the murder happened from a specific kind of sniper gun from a nearby building to the murder parade ground.  Aryan was about to be decorated with a medal for bravery and his speech is cut short by the bullet to the heart.  Tony was the one who actually deserved the medal, but was letting Aryan take the credit.  Tony’s team lose confidence in him because they can see that he had steered the investigation to protect someone.  And you sense, that maybe it was Tony himself.  But WHY??  It makes no sense!

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The last 20 minutes of the film are shocking.  Yes, the film has been out for three years, but I’m not going to spoil it, in case you, dear reader, have not seen it yet.  I was sitting there with my mouth hanging open.  It’s Six Sense or Crying Game level shocking and I wouldn’t spoil the reveal in those films either.  Prithviraj in those final scenes had a level of acting that was just so beyond anything I had ever seen him do.   He is raw, completely vulnerable and just devastating.

The script of this film is put together like clockwork, written by the team Bobby-Sanjay who also wrote Traffic.  A lot of Indian films can feel like they have slap dash scripts, or maybe had no written script upon filming (ahem), but this was almost like a Hitchcock film in how it was so carefully crafted.  Solid directing by  Rosshan Andrrew, and a nice moody soundtrack.  The supporting players are all good, but none really stood out to me as exceptional.  What is extraordinary is Prithviraj’s performance and he gave his all for this film.  Everyone needs to see this superb tour de force movie.

Four and a half stars out of five, and now one of my all-time favorite Malayalam films.

Only if you’ve already seen the film and know the surprise ending, read the Don’t Call It Bollywood analysis of the film which has tons of spoilers.

Ennu Ninte Moideen – Just as special a Malayalam film as I’d been told it would be

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Over and over, I’ve had the 2015 Malayalam film Ennu Ninte Moideen (Yours Truly Moideen) recommended to me.  It’s an incredible love story starring PrithViraj and Parvarthy.  And it is so incredible because it is a real life story of Moideen and Kanchanamala.

In 2006, director R.S. Vimal interviewed the real Kanchanamala and people who knew Moideen in the half hour long documentary Jalam Kond Murivetaval (or) One Who Was Wounded By Water

Kanchanamal wanted Prithviraj to play Moideen because she thought looked very much like him.

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Ennu Ninte Moideen is the tragic love story of an interfaith couple who were kept separate  by their families for years.  Moideen and Kanchanamala’s fathers were friends and each were land owners in Mukkam, Kerala.  Moideen’s father was a renowned Muslim leader, and Kanchanamala’s family were Hindu.  Kanchanamala and Moideen went to school together as children, but later Kanchanamala went away from her home to attend college.

As she was returning to college from a school vacation, the family car broke down and she was allowed to take the bus back to the college town (something she was normally not allowed to do).  On that bus, Moideen and Kanchanamala’s eyes met, and they fell in love.  It’s an adorable scene in the film.  Moideen sends a book of poetry to Kanchanamala and then they exchange secret letters.

She steals away from the college, and there is a beautiful love song in the rain.

 

In their courtship, Moideen and  Kanchanamala never even touch once.  When their families learn of their romance Moideen’s father throws him out of the house when he won’t go along with an arranged marriage.  Kanchanamala’s brothers and uncles react even more cruelly, and lock her up in the house.  She’s barely allowed to even leave her bedroom.

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They sneak letters to each other, and even come up with their own private language to communicate with each other.

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Moideen becomes a political activist, in opposition to his father’s politics.  He uses the campaign speaker car to speak his love to Kanchanamala.  Moideen’s father attacks him with a sword in the heat of an argument over Kanchanamala, and Kanchanamala’s relatives beat her to try to break her bond with Moideen.

The decades long devotion of Moideen and Kanchanamala would seem impossible to believe and like a fairy tale if it were not based on a real life story.

Finally, they decide to emigrate to America, but then a tragic accident happens.  I thought the director had hyped up what happened for dramatic effect, but the documentary showed the newspaper clippings!

Moideen’s mother has left Moideen’s rigid father in disgust after the sword attack, and she takes Kanchanamala into her home as Moideen’s widow.

Ennu Ninte Moideen is an extraordinary love story.  Tragic and very sad in the end, but still inspiring.  The acting is wondrous both from Prithviraj and Parvarthy.  Luminous soundtrack as well.

The real Kanchanamala criticized the director for changing parts of the story, but for a biopic, I think he was maybe almost too slavish to the true events and could have tightened up the narrative a bit.  Still, a magical romantic film about love that transcends religious and  cultural barriers.

Four stars out of five.

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