We live in an age where movies and TV shows – in all languages, on all platforms – compete for our attention. In this new column which will be published on the first of each month, I will cite the best, the worst and the most unexpected from Indian cinema and television of the past month. Think of it as a newsletter. We start with June, which started and ended with an actor.
The Family Man (Amazon Prime Video)
He broke the barrier of subtitles. Season 2 of The Family Man delivered such gripping action that it compelled a Hindi audience to watch a series where half of the conversations were in Tamil. This has never happened before. The series created by Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK stars Manoj Bajpayee – his heavy forehead with an eternal “what now?” Boredom – as a secret agent struggling with a work-life balance. The set is great, the show is an immediately newsworthy run, and its action sequences – staged in long, uninterrupted takes – set an impressive new benchmark. It’s masala well done.
In the centenary year of Satyajit Ray’s birth, Netflix brought us an anthology series called Ray, where the filmmakers adapted a handful of short stories from the master. Vasan Bala took a simple, well-observed story about fame and faith fickleness and turned it into a wacky riff on the nature of fandom, with movies and religions both in need of bhakts. Bala’s Spotlight is a self-reflective journey that speaks in movie quotes and spits its own star, sure, but pays an even truer tribute by pointing out where Ray’s Devi’s purported goddess might have ended up today. It is literally a cult film.
A tender coconut delivered to a man’s door is poisoned by a neighbor. This leads to a murder mystery surrounding the many residents of a housing corporation. The idea is promising, but this overly long and crushed series – created by Vikas Bahl – is a loud, twisting boredom peopled with shrill caricatures and obsessed with bad jokes that need a laugh. Anything but tender.
The Family Man (Amazon Prime Video)
I know I know. The Family Man is at the head of the Best column, but it needs to be mentioned here as well. After a progressive first season, the show smacked a bit of Islamophobic this year – most of the Muslim characters turned into grossly evil villains and an irresponsible “love jihad” equation. He also drew criticism for portraying the Eelam movement in a harshly one-sided fashion and for portraying the talented Samantha Akkineni as a Sri Lankan rebel and darkening her face (with an embarrassing inconsistency) for the role.
Those who could have been better
Kartik Subbaraj’s Jagame Thandhiram (Netflix) not only trivialized the xenophobia issues he was trying to solve, but also criminally used Dhanush – an actor who seems more explosive with every movie – in something eminently forgettable.
Amit Masurkar’s Sherni (Amazon Prime Video) wears the nobility of his pro-wildlife causes on his sleeve. The film about a man-eating tiger is slow and measured, but paints characters he doesn’t like – a hunter, a husband – with features of jarring breadth, while his efficient heroine learns nothing. and does not accomplish much. Tarnishness does not give insight.
The most unexpected
I never imagined Manoj Bajpayee would outdo his performance as Family Man – hailed by many as the best of his career – in the same bloody month.
Abhishek Chaubey’s Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa (part of Netflix’s Ray anthology) handles a clever short story with silk gloves. Faithful to the material, it adds magic to the humor and the most magical consonance of languages, Urdu. Bajpayee and Gajraj Rao look stunning as two men meeting on a train at two different stages of life’s journey, and Chaubey lets them wrestle on and on, much to the viewer’s delight. It is an admirable work of craftsmanship, like the mystical timepiece at the heart of the story, which not only gives us a good time but transports us to a more beautiful one.
Bajpayee’s performance is as finely tuned as the voice of a seasoned Ghazal singer. His body language and eyes take center stage as he struggles to confront both the man in front of him and the man in the mirror. Fame has changed him and he rejoices in it, which is why he theatrically interprets the flourishes of a famous man, an important man. Fear, on the other hand, beats fame and turns him back into the man he was, sly, nervous and unimpressive.
The smugness with which Bajpayee delivers a line in Urdu, convinced of his greatness and his own, is something special, as is his breathless panic at the thought of abundance. In a film based on magical realism, he offers both. Wah, hop!
(Raja Sen is a critic, writer and screenwriter, currently working on a film he is not authorized to speak about.)