Saturday, 4 February 2017

Movie Review: Kaabil (2017)



Summer here in Australia means a lot of things: Intense heat, insects flying everywhere, the occasional blackout just make the heat and bugs feel that little bit worse, that sort of thing. Of course, for the country’s cinephiles, it also marks a point of weirdness concerning releases. I say this because every release in January/February falls into one of three disparate categories. You’ve got the last remnants of the Oscar nominations that get released so that we can be as informed as possible while pretending to give a crap about the Oscars like Lion. You’ve got the scrap heap that wasn’t good enough for a release during the previous year like Monster Trucks. And then you’ve got the first glimmers of the traditional summer action blockbusters to make sure everyone is still awake to see the rest of the year. Today, we’re very much talking about the latter, and considering this is also another Bollywood release, I can’t say I knew what to expect walking into it. Specifically, I wasn’t expecting something this good. This is Kaabil.

The plot: Blind voice-over artist Rohan (Hrithik Roshan), at the insistence of his friends, meets blind woman Supriya (Yami Gautam) for a date. As their relationship blossoms, and they are married, local thug Amit (Rohit Roy) starts to interfere with their coupling. His actions grow more vicious, and hidden from popular view by his politician brother Madhavrao (Ronit Roy), and when it brings the couple to their breaking point, Rohan sets out to take revenge on those whom eventually take everything from him.

This is an incredibly strong cast, although not simply because of what our leads have to mimic. Roshan gives a very warm air to his quite affable protagonist to start with, but once the plot really starts to kick in, he also proves that he is capable of displays of action bravado like the greatest Hollywood can currently offer. One of my personal rules when it comes to intimidating characters is that the most gripping performances come out of showing strength in spite of perceived weakness; think a villain dying of a terminal illness and still giving the air that you do not want to mess with him. Roshan does much the same here, taking his visual impairment and making every bad guy he encounters frightened of a man who cannot see them. Opposite him is Gautam and, while there are some questionable points that could be brought up concerning how her character is treated (oh, we’ll get to that), she and Roshan make for a very cute couple and that connection makes the actions later on have true weight behind them. Real-life brothers Rohit and Ronit do wonders at portraying two different brands of vile behaviour, from the upfront toxicity of Amit to the subdued enabling of Madhavrao. Oh, and Girish Kulkarni returns from Dangal as yet another douchebag antagonist; I’d complain about typecasting if he didn’t do so well with the archetype.

Portraying disabilities of any sort in fiction is a very tricky enterprise, particularly if it is a disability that the actor in question doesn’t have. One bad decision and it can stop feeling like well-intended imitation and start feeling like mockery; nothing says awful human being like taking the piss out of people for attributes that they literally cannot change. This is where I immediately have to start giving credit to this film because it is insanely intricate when it comes to depicting blindness. In the conversation scenes between Rohan and Supriya, it can get a little awkward with how differently they convey the condition, but it’s the attention to movement is where the effort shows and shows damn well. Every step shows this almost dancing grace with how Rohan is able to make his way through the world of the seeing, keeping note of every imperfection in the ground he’s stepping on so that he doesn’t end up doubled-over. He gives the impression of a man whom has learned to work with his potential setback in the years prior, showing a mastery of his surroundings that, honestly, is kind of awesome in the same way that The Accountant was; showing respect for the condition and those who have it. Well, mostly.

If there’s one thing I associate with Bollywood fare, it’s how the works I’ve seen have a serious allergy to keeping to a consistent tone. This is no exception, as the first act concerning Rohan and Supriya’s relationship is very upbeat, very cute and very, very corny. The dialogue feels like it was taken from The Cheesy Rom-Com Orphanage after its birth writers couldn’t make use of it, resulting in scenes like using a famous movie star to help find each other in a crowded mall by way of microphone. What makes this weirder is that, once the plot really starts to kick off, it ends up taking a far different tone. Make no mistake: This is a hardcore revenge thriller, more akin to Frank Miller than Nicholas Sparks. Actually, this feels exactly like something Miller would have written had he grown up in India, complete with a rather misogynistic worldview (off-screen rape, and repeated rape at that, is the initial impetus for the core plot) and a plot involving a political bigwig covering up for his sexually violent family member; I can’t be the only one who sees Sin City written all over this thing.

I want on record that I am not saying any of this as an inherently bad thing. Yeah, the actions and themes can be quite confronting and portrayed in rather unnerving ways, like the rapist Amit having his own showstopping musical number about love, but this style of storytelling isn’t automatically bad. Hell, the film version of Sin City is one of my all-time favourites. When it comes to these exploitative yarns full of blood and dark humanity, I stick to the rhetoric that a lack of thematic taste can still be delivered through sufficient stylistic taste. And by God, does this film have that in abundance. We have Rohan frequently showing his antihero stripes with his gripping proclamations to those that have wronged him, fight scenes that don’t hold back on the red stuff and are incredibly gritty and brutal, and an approach to scene-by-scene writing that is almost Edgar Wright-esque in how it sets up its own later scenes with lots of little pieces that aren’t immediately made obvious on first viewing (even if, let’s be honest, the plot itself kind of is). Even considering the gripes I still have considering the portrayal of female characters in this film, I just can’t give them enough breathing room to make them affect the experience in any negative way. Yeah, it’s gruesome and highly distasteful but that’s just the kind of story this is, and it is an incredibly well-crafted form of this type of blood-soaking revenge yarn.

All in all, I had an absolute blast watching this thing. With how much I’ve complained about films that are lacking in emotional or narrative depth, this might sound hypocritical but I’m more than willing to advocate for style over substance. Don’t get me wrong, its handling of female characters is rather off-putting but it actually still rings true in how it informs Rohan’s decisions. Aside from that, there is so much attention to detail to be found here, combined with Hrithik Roshan giving a benchmark badass performance that the rest of the year will have to live up to, that it is amazing in how blood-pumping it is. Lion may have held a tighter and more legitimate grip on me emotionally, but at the end of the day, I have to tip my hat to this very explosive slice of exploitation filmmaking.

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