Shashi Baliga

Dhulia’s Bullett misses the mark

Shashi Baliga | Updated on December 05, 2013

Tom Hanks as the gritty Captain Phillips

Saif Ali Khan and Jimmy Shergill in Bullett Raja.

The Saif-starrer is a descent into mindless masala, a stark contrast to the gripping Captain Phillips.

I don’t know which one you chose, but I, alas, had no choice. On one hand there was Tom Hanks, an actor I can’t get enough of, in Captain Phillips. On the other was a director I think I’ve had enough of for now: Tigmanshu Dhulia, with his latest, Bullett Raja.

Let me get done with the bad news first. Ever since Dhulia hit the high notes with Paan Singh Tomar, he’s been sliding alarmingly. First came Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster, which may not have been brilliant but was way better than the usual Bollywood offering. The sequel, Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns, was a bit of a bore. With his next, Bullett Raja, he has descended into what can only be termed a proper sell-out.

I have absolutely no problems with directors aiming to make money; it would be naïve and unfair to suggest they continue to make films on tight budgets and limited box-office collections — and then scrounge around for funding all over again.

But we do expect that the chase for financial stability doesn’t mean they abandon the very qualities that made us admire them and took them to success in the first place.

Tigmanshu Dhulia seems to have bit a bullet of his own with this film, his most overtly commercial so far.

I set out for Bullett Raja prepared for collateral damage, for there were early warning signs: that extra ‘t’, that item number by Mahie Gill (please, please, can we have a Dhulia film without her?), a silly role for Sonakshi Sinha, and more.

And obviously, the film would be peppered with trigger-happy bad-land goons, something Dhulia does very well, indeed. Having just about survived the gun-fest in Ram Leela, I was loath to subject myself once again to the whizz-thud-plop and other exaggerated bullet noises whipped up in a sound studio.

My suspicions were proved right by this mish-mash of a film that sometimes seems like it’s been helmed by two rather different directors. It has its moments, especially with some cheesy but entertaining dialogue, and the actors in smaller roles who emote so effortlessly, they’re a joy to watch.

It’s the lead actors who are disappointing, and none more so than Saif Ali Khan, with a fake UP accent, overdone machismo and his fashionably coloured, cut, and blow-dried hair (even in jail!). He simply doesn’t ring true; this act comes nowhere near the simmering brilliance that Vishal Bhardwaj made him achieve as Langda Tyagi in Omkara. Jimmy Shergill is predictably efficient, the operative word being predictably. However good an actor he is, this repetitive act is beginning to pall now. Sonakshi Sinha does the best she can, but no one could redeem this meaningless role. It is Ravi Kissen in drag who turns out to be the scene stealer, with martial arts whiz Vidyut Jammwal coming in after him for keeping it simple.

No one disappoints more than Dhulia himself. There’s an overwhelming sense of this film having been churned out with a familiar precision rather than being made with passion. And roping in a big star hasn’t helped.

It’s what happens with so many exciting young directors who start off with little gems (like Dhulia’s Haasil), get deservedly successful by degrees and then reach a stage where they bag a big star… and start making those compromises. It happened with Ram Gopal Varma, whose graph went determinedly downward after Satya and Company; Kabir Khan, whose Kabul Express is his best and most honest film; Prakash Jha, who gets bigger stars now but produces worse films; or even a Zoya Akhtar, whose Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara had none of the delicate emotions or charm of Luck By Chance.

With Bullett Raja, it’s difficult to reconcile to the fact that this is the same director who made the brilliant Paan Singh Tomar, a film that was so real you could smell the sweat as Paan Singh ran.

It’s the same quality that permeates Captain Phillips, an adrenaline rush of a movie that keeps the suspense thick till the very end even though you know how the real-life story pans out. Hanks plays the gritty captain whose ship is hijacked by Somali pirates and finds himself playing a life-and-death game of who blinks first. It’s not a performance that, if truth be told, matches his in Philadelphia or Cast Away (my top two Tom Hanks roles), but it’s still seriously good, good enough for it to be surrounded by Oscar talk already.

Of course Hanks is the star, going from tough but well-mannered veteran to a man driven to the very edge of his endurance. But it’s not his show alone; he doesn’t get all the eye-popping moments or the good lines. It is a skinny, buck-toothed, 27-year-old Somali-born first-time actor who gets a lot of the meat. And Barkhad Abdi has earned it all. His spine-tingling, febrile performance as the young pirate swinging from fear to suspicion to rage to desperation is the perfect foil to Hanks’ studied calm.

This is, simply, a terrific movie, one that not only tells a gripping tale but asks some uncomfortable questions as well. Every aspect of it — screenplay, dialogue, cinematography, editing and, of course, the acting — is so skilfully executed and yet so unobtrusive that you ultimately forget you’re watching a movie.

Hand it to director Paul Greengrass: this is how good movies are made. This is how big budgets are used — not for tacky dance numbers and glitzy sets, but for taking your breath away with cinematic magic or getting as close to the real thing as one can.

Do see Captain Phillips; you should not regret the time or money spent.

Published on December 05, 2013

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