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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Verdict: Prithviraj, Ajay Devgn and the most bizarre film in years

Raja Sen shares an entertainment report card of the month gone by. This August, one film dealt with communal hate, one film embodied the hate, and one film turned out too strange to hate.

Written by Raja Sen | Mumbai |
Updated: September 3, 2021 8:58:13 am
Kuruthi, Bhuj, The Pride Of India 1200Prithviraj Sukumaran starter Kuruthi can be considered a home-invasion thriller. Bhuj: The Pride Of India stars Ajay Devgn.

In this column published on the first of every month, I single out The Best, The Worst and The Most Unexpected across Indian film and television in the month gone by. Consider it a report card. This August, one film dealt with communal hate, one film embodied the hate, and one film turned out too strange to hate. We talk of Prithviraj-starrer Kuruthi, Ajay Devgn’s Bhuj — whose propaganda is too dunderhead to be dangerous — and Jackie Shroff’s The Interview that I will be recommending to friends for years.

The Best

Kuruthi (Amazon Prime Video)

Kuruthi Kuruthi stars Prithviraj in the lead.

Through Manu Warrier’s striking Malayalam drama, characters debate faith and fundamentalism. When an incensed Hindu brings up Shah Jahan, an older, wearier man interrupts him for clarity. “Our barber Shah Jahan?” he asks, wondering if he’s missed out on some neighbourhood violence. The old man scoffs when informed the Mughal Emperor is being discussed, since the barber makes a greater difference to his life.

Kuruthi — which means ritual sacrifice — starts with someone at the door. One night, a Muslim family is shaken up with the arrival of a policeman and his prisoner, a Hindu who has killed a Muslim shopkeeper. The cop, attacked by troublemakers, needs refuge and commandeers the house. A Hindu neighbour brings over dinner, and she isn’t allowed to leave. Then come two radicals. The tension boils over as new threats join the flammable situation, yet the arguments are more loaded than the guns.

Kuruthi can be considered a home-invasion thriller, featuring disparate characters thrown together in a house with threats from many angles, but the genre is rarely as conversational. I would liken the film more to a chamber-drama like Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Everybody has an angle, a motive, a desperation. Each needs the other to buy into their point of view.

The film may not agree with the extremist viewpoints of its characters but it admirably allows all of them — even the most monstrous — to say their piece. The talented cast, highlighted by Prithviraj Sukumaran as an alarming radical wanting to kill those making caricatures of the Prophet, takes turns to spit out invective. Srindaa, Roshan Mathew, Shine Tom Chacko and Mamukkoya turn the house into a microcosm of India, polarised and precarious.

There are times Kuruthi overstresses its message, and the metaphor about believers at each other’s throats does get stretched, but the film certainly allows us to recognise haters we know, or may have become. A woman defends a murderer by asking a man whether how sure he can be that his own brother wouldn’t do something as drastic if pushed to the limit, and the film accuses us: Can we be sure the fanatics in our families — the ones who gleefully forward fake-news, for instance — won’t be as bad?

Kuruthi features a moment of pure badassery from a character wearing an adult diaper. Everything, the film emphasises, is a contradiction. The one thing that ties these characters is food, all of them brought together by beef curry and rice. Policeman, widower, former smuggler, prisoner, fundamentalist. The only woman in the film served them dinner. The grateful ate.

The Worst

Bhuj: The Pride Of India (Disney+ Hotstar)

bhuj hotstar Bhuj: The Pride of India is streaming on Disney Plus Hotstar.

Some propaganda is too dunderheaded to be dangerous. In Abhishek Dudhaiya’s Bhuj: The Pride Of India, a Pakistani chief of staff refers to India as “the country we once ruled for over 400 years.” Is Pakistan now meant to be represented as a Mughal country? An Indian Army officer is described as one who “broke a Pakistani’s jaw in the boxing ring, but lost his heart to a differently-abled Muslim girl.” Why is the ‘but’ there? What is this absurd equivalence?

The film is based on a true-life event from the 1971 war when 300 villagers, mostly women, from Madhapur in Bhuj repaired a bombed-out airstrip within 72 hours. They toiled away in secrecy, wearing pale green saris for camouflage and hiding in the bushes whenever they heard sirens alerting them about enemy aircraft. A remarkable — and highly cinematic — achievement.

The film discards this covert subtlety. Instead, villagers are instructed to carry dhols to the airstrip so that they can perform a grand bhajan there after the work is done. This is after the film’s hero, Ajay Devgn — scowling at everything from tank to tiranga — inspires the ladies to join the patriotic cause by assaulting them with rhyming couplets. It’s all about the jumlas.

The Most Unexpected

The Interview: Night Of 26/11 (BookMyShow Stream)

Jackie Shroff The Interview: Night Of 26/11, a war correspondent (Jackie Shroff) is forced to interview a superstar actress (Anjum Nayar) on the night of the 26/11 attacks.

The last thing I anticipated this month — of all possible months — is for a film to feature the line “Afghanistan ab kuchh interesting nahin raha.”

In The Interview: Night Of 26/11, a war correspondent (Jackie Shroff) is forced to interview a superstar actress (Anjum Nayar) on the night of the 26/11 attacks. Since he has a chestful of shrapnel and considers the actress insubstantial, he scornfully calls her ‘Ms Silicone.’ She calls him ‘Daddy’ and tells him she loves bossy men. Things get nuttier. In one scene she informs, “I’m not the prime minister or a maths professor.” In another he paraphrases Muhammed Ali, saying “You float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” to which she gives a knowing glance and asks “Wordsworth?”

A remake of the 2003 Dutch film The Interview, it has a promising concept — a grizzled journalist combating an actress smarter than people imagine — but is turned into a relentlessly tacky film, featuring actors barely able to keep a straight face.

Directed by Dutch filmmaker Laurens C Postma (who Jackie Shroff believably claims doesn’t know Hindi), this film uses the 26/11 terror attacks as an aside, as an event that barely affects the characters. That feels unforgivably callous, but it’s hard to take umbrage to a film where an actress asks a journalist whether he’s heard of Rabindranath Tagore.

Shroff, wielding a dictaphone he keeps misplacing, gamely takes on these atrocious dialogues, but when Nayar asks his age the actor turns suddenly, inexplicably coy. “Fortyish?” he mumbles, as if he’s forgotten. Then again, perhaps he realises the timelessness of this film. The Interview: Night Of 26/11 is one for the ages, a film I will recommend to friends for years, ideal for evenings of inebriated giggling. I think I love it — but that’s off the record.

Raja Sen is a critic, author and screenwriter, currently working on a film he isn’t allowed to talk about.

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