25 May 2011

Cinemascope: Pyaar ka Punchnama; 404.

My Sunday Guardian film review column, 22nd May 2011.

Dose of unapologetic Delhi humour
Pyaar ka Punchnama
Director: Luv Ranjan
Starring: Kartikeya Tiwari, Raayo Bhakhirta, Divyendu Sharma, Sonalli Sehgal

Three young men looking for love, a bachelor pad full of overflowing ashtrays, the streets of Delhi – once upon a time, these were ingredients that led to Chashme Buddoor: a film full of joie de vivre, as memorable for the charming encounter between tentative salesgirl Deepti Naval and bashful bachelor Farooq Shaikh as for the fun moments where hopeful layabouts Rakesh Bedi and Ravi Basvani are told where to get off by potential love interests. But that was 1981.

Thirty years later, the same ingredients have produced Pyaar ka Punchnama. The changes in set-up are revealing: the three young men are not starving DU students any more. They're just out of college, but they've got (boring) jobs that pay. So they live not in a tiny barsaati with a couple of mattresses, but in a well-appointed flat complete with open kitchen, black leather couch and guitar. And none of them – not the guitar-playing stud (Raayo), not the sweet boy (Kartikeya Tiwari), not even the argumentative nerd (Divyendu Sharma, nicknamed Liquid "kyonki woh phailta zyada hai") – are anywhere near as clueless about wooing women as their cinematic predecessors. And this when none of them has ever been in a relationship before.

So the wooing goes well enough: one affair is kindled by a karaoke night that turns competitive (maybe authentic but bloody awful), the second kicks off in a party, while the third is an office romance that seems constantly on the verge of happening. It's what happens after that the boys can't deal with. Whether it's the loving girlfriend (Nusrat Bharucha) who is first clingy, then control-freak, and finally manipulative, or the she-knows-she's-hot exhibitionista (Sonalli) who swings like a pendulum between new lover and old, or the office 'best friend' (Ishita Sharma) who seems the most harmless but turns out to be the most exploitative of the lot, the women in this film are every man's worst nightmare. I would recommend this film for its well-etched performances and unapologetic Delhi humour, but I find it deeply disturbing that the director seems to think men are emotional victims, with no role in the breakdown of their relationships.

Carefully woven psychological thriller
Director: Prawaal Raman
Starring: Rajwir Aroraa, Imaad Shah, Satish Kaushik, Tisca Chopra and Nishikanth Kamat

404 opens well: a grand old medical college somewhere in the hills, a sincere new batch of students, a bunch of seniors who insist on ragging even though it's forbidden. Unlike recent depictions of ragging – eg. Anurag Kashyap's Gulaal – 404 involves little physical violence. An early scene involves the taking-off of clothes, but the sense of sexual and bodily violation is kept at arm's length: instead we have a stripping episode that's almost matter-of-fact; things only turn serious when the warden (a wonderfully wry Satish Kaushik) appears and new boy Abhimanyu (impressive Rajvir Aroraa) decides to tell on the raggers. Keen to prove a point to his oppressors, and encouraged by a star professor he admires, Abhimanyu insists on a hostel room that's seen as haunted since a student killed himself there three years ago.

Director Prawaal Raman's decision to keep the physical drama turned down a notch may have been a deliberate one in this film, which concentrates its energies on mindgames. Despite Raman's previous experience – Darna Zaroori Hai (2006) and one segment of Darna Mana Hai (2003) – he chooses not to milk the standard horror movie staples here: there are no creaking doors, no hands reaching out where there shouldn't be any, no gross creepie-crawlies. Admittedly, there is a banging door with no-one there, a ringing telephone and reflections in the mirror: but these are all carefully woven into a psychological thriller where what you're thinking matters more than whether you're jumping out of your skin.

It's unfortunate then, that Raman's research seems not to have included the very basic difference between bipolar disorder – the disease that 404 revolves around – and schizophrenia. Bipolar disorder, in which periods of unnaturally elevated mood (mania) alternate with stretches of depression, does not involve hallucinations; it is schizophrenia in which people are unable to tell the difference between real and unreal experiences. Still, there are real reasons to watch 404: a carefully nonchalant Imaad Shah, Mumbai Meri Jaan director Nishikant Kamath as the professor who goes from cocksure to jittery and back again – and the requisite twist in the tale.

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