Bollywood Inquiry is a monthly column on the biggest new Bollywood movies.
Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (Sharan Sharma)
The young, starry-eyed Gunjan Saxena (Jahnvi Kapoor) has her adult life all figured out. She’s smart, clued into the world, and has all the passion and persistence needed to achieve her dream of becoming a combat pilot for the Indian Air Force. Despite her palpable talents, positive attitude, and a clear-sighted view towards her grand ambitions, she can’t qualify to serve her country because she’s 7kg overweight and 1cm shorter than they would like her to be.
Swiftly adapting herself to a cardio-intensive exercise routine, she passes step one of the process but the height thing is unfixable. Nevertheless, she gets a pass for her persistence but learns that, as the only woman in the academy, there’s a lot of discrimination still to come. Nothing prepares her for the hazing rituals of the Air Force, including being forced to arm wrestle ten men in a row for no real reason.
This biopic is very much a story about the trials of being a woman in a patriarchal sphere. Usually, the public service institutions are fiercely propped up in Bollywood, but this is a film that challenges the unchecked support for the armed forces, exposing a darker reality of camaraderie and actual inclusivity.
By the time singer Rekha Bhardwaj is crooning “The bonds are broken” over a montage of the heroine reeling over the poor treatment she’s received from her company, the film has truly transcended the usual patriotic Bollywood fare into something much more personal and inspiring. Gunjan Saxena just wants to fly planes. Her father (beautifully portrayed by Pankaj Tripathi) is an absolute hero, completely supporting her decision every step of the way and actively participating in her life as a much-needed friend and support system. Their relationship is a major highlight of the movie.
Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is a pretty straightforward biopic that finds value in its raw observation of women in the military. Apart from its refreshingly subdued attitude towards patriotism, what makes this film work effectively is the leading performance of Janhvi Kapoor. This is the third role for the daughter of the late, great Sridevi. Whilst I wasn’t convinced by her previous characters (Ghost Stories, Dhadak), the character here fits her like a glove.
She has a naturally nervous delivery that allows her to faithfully portray her subject with a strong inner spirit that gradually becomes externalised. She’s careful and considerate in bringing this inspiring figure to life, creating dimensions through subtle verbal and physical developments, like the restored posture she has when she sits down with her colleagues for lunch later in the film. The heroine’s progression is as visual as it is written, and the finale, in which she serves during the Kargil war, is an inspirational showcase of her personal and professional character.
Class of ’83 (Atul Sabharwal)
Class of ‘83 is an agonisingly generic dirty cop thriller that somehow confounded me every step of the way. I just couldn’t believe the extent to which I actively disliked this film.
To begin with, there are the absurdly ugly visuals. Aiming to look like a bonafide 80’s movie, this film looks like a digitally shot product with a distractingly bad, faux-celluloid filter. It appears as if there’s sand for pixels and the muddied colours are further undercut by a sepia tone that makes it altogether more unappealing to view. Furthermore, the visuals are too distinct from the HD audio, showing that the filmmakers didn’t want to actually commit to the retro aesthetic: it’s like watching an awkwardly remastered edition of an old film in which the audio is re-recorded but the picture remains untouched.
Then there’s the awful narrative with its deeply troubling subtext. An apparently heroic, permanently frowning policeman (Bobby Deol) is reprimanded by his station and consequently handed a “punishment posting” as the Dean of the police academy. It’s a job he doesn’t really want because it means he’s building up a new set of boys in blue, who’ll turn around and shun him for possessing the unattractive qualities of patience, honesty, and integrity.
A group of five misfits in the academy are all but expelled for their poor performance, but the good cop has a different idea on how to utilise them. He takes them under his wing and trains them to be assassins, establishing an undercover death squad who seek to exterminate the gangsters and corrupt cops of Bombay in 1983, a period of countless murders. It’s essentially Narcos in the subcontinent, complete with archive footage to fill in historical gaps and contextual narration.
How the hell am I supposed to care about a film in which the avatar pursues police brutality to deal with police brutality, I don’t know. If being unlikeable was bad enough, it’s worse than none of the characters are even remotely interesting, fulfilling their twisted duties like bored factory workers on an assembly line. When the word “family” gets thrown into the mix, you get the sense that it’s reaching for a moral dilemma, except the emotional core is emptier than Netflix’s quality inspection.
With Class of ‘83, director Atul Sabharwal basically wants to be in the realm of John Carpenter (Assault on Precinct 13 being the biggest reference point) even employing the same sort of synthesisers to score his film. But the thing about aping Carpenter is that you ain’t Carpenter. Lastly, Sabharwal ought to read the room – nobody needs a film about a policeman training a few of his cadets to operate outside of the law of the land. Just because their target is other corrupt cops, doesn’t mean it’s a worthwhile idea to explore.
Khuda Haafiz (Faruk Kabir)
One day, a director will learn how to properly utilise the combat gifts of Vidyut Jammwal. He will find the Sammo Hung to his Jackie Chan. The Jesse V. Johnson to his Scott Adkins. Sadly, we may have to wait for a while to find out, because the martial arts actor will be re-teaming with Khuda Haafiz director Faruk Kabir for a sequel. I’m mentally preparing myself for another inexplicable absence of Jammwal’s uncommon acrobatism.
It’s actually miraculous how much the action star is restrained from performing to his full corporeal capacity in a film that exists for no reason other than as a Vidyut vehicle. Every moment there’s a chance to showcase his skills, Kabir and his crew toss him through a mediocre, minimal effort set piece, or even delay the fighting opportunities with sequences that strive to generate more suspense but become so stretched out that they wholly collapse. The worst part about the failed action of Khuda Haafiz is that Kabir had the perfect story for it.
Software engineer Samir (Jammwal) thinks he’s content with life until he bumps into Nargis (the relatively new Shivaleeka Oberoi) and their meet-cute leads to marriage, right before the financial crisis of 2007-2008. When the bubble bursts, both are left jobless until an opportunity comes knocking via a recruitment agency to work abroad in the Middle East. Specifically, in a country that resembles Oman but is not actually Oman. The name of this fictional nation is… Noman.
Nargis is the first to make the international move, whilst Sameer waits in India for the red tape to clear. Subsequently, Sameer receives the worst phone call of his life. On this fateful call, he hears his wife screaming for help as several men take her away. Track and trace isn’t a viable possibility, and his new purpose in Noman is for some good ol’ vigilantism. A jolly Hindi-speaking taxi driver called Usman (comedian Annu Kapoor) becomes Sameer’s sidekick, helping him cooperate with the local authorities about possible leads.
After discovering his wife has been forced into the flesh trade, Sameer’s pursuit for vengeance is ramped up but quickly devolves into something that’s not so intense as it is intensely predictable. I struggled to engage with a story I’d seen perhaps a thousand times before. The chain sequence of awful events transform Khuda Haafiz into the most endlessly depressing thriller since Rambo: Last Blood, one which is almost equally as cruel, violent, and needlessly offensive – are we still doing burqas as a method of subterfuge?
Relegating the promising new talent of Oberoi to about twenty minutes of screen time, and featuring a cohort of bad actors with bad Arabic accents to support the lead, there’s not much on this ride for us to hold on to besides Jammwal. As aforementioned, though, the director doesn’t care to make the most of his leading performer either, stifling the potential of an action hero with the unique skill set of being a long-time practitioner of Kalaripayattu, one of the oldest martial arts in the world.
I didn’t care for Khuda Haafiz and, to the cast and crew trying to excite us with the news of a sequel, I say one thing – khuda haafiz.
And that concludes August 2020’s edition of Bollywood Inquiry! I wrote last month how the pandemic’s impact on the global film industry means distribution plans are being shuffled around every day, so I’m not entirely sure what to expect to see. Once again, that applies to September, with films supposedly set to release but with no official trailers posted. I’ll leave you with a preview released last week for a film “coming soon” called Khaali Peeli. Check out the absurd like/dislike ratio of the trailer below… and stay tuned for next month’s column.
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