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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Bangistan, Review: Citizen Wong Kar-Wai meets Raging Bull at FcDonald’s

Bangistan, Review: Citizen Wong Kar-Wai meets Raging Bull at FcDonald’s

If references, allusions and name-dropping could make a film watchable, Bangistan would have arrived with a bang. Sadly for debutant director Karan Anshuman, that récipé fails to tickle the taste-buds, and the film turns out be a dish that is half un-cooked and half over-cooked. Why he chose to use crutches like parodying the title of Orson Welles’ all-time masterpiece, Citizen Kane, poking fun at the name of contemporary Chinese director par excellence, Wong Kar-Wai, doing a hack job of the mirror scene from Raging Bull, taking a swipe at Russian guru Stanislavski’s Method School of Acting, reminding us about Amitabh Bachchan’s voice and height (every tall man with a baritone is not Amitabh; in the vein of ‘Every bearded man cannot be Tagore’), and a four-letter take on the two first letters in McDonald’s, will remain a mystery. Was it to impress audiences with his academic knowledge? 90% of his viewers are not likely to have any clue about these allusions, and the only name they might relate to, Amitabh Bachchan, has had much said about his height and voice that the writers are flogging a dead horse here. Is he, then, trying to wow critics, having been a critic himself? Fellow critics are likely to guffaw, as I did, at these and a few other funny bits, including the Chinese-Japanese bowing mix-up. Two seconds later each lol moment, I began to see that these laugh-points were not plot points at all, thereby sounding patchy.

Bangistan is about a bomb-plot, but most of what it delivers is bombast. It is also about religious fanaticism in the sub-continent, an issue that has killed hundreds of thousands on either side of the India-Pakistan border, since 1947. The film does no service to its own cause, by first fictionalising it, and then trivialising it. On the third level, Bangistan is a black comedy-cum-satire, which is the only plane on which it could have worked, had the script not gone haywire in the second half, which is set in Krakow (also spelt Cracow), Poland, on the wafer thin premise that a World Religions’ Peace Conference is taking place there. And would you believe it? Bangistan is made in association with Film Polski, the national film producing and distributing agency of the country. Incidentally, Krakow is also known for a popular film festival location. A promo was shown before the feature, showcasing tourist attractions in Poland.

Concerned by the unrest in the name of religion, the most revered leaders of Muslims and Hindus, Imam (Tom Alter) and the Shankaracharya (ShivKumar Subramaniam), who are in regular touch on webcam, announce that they're attending the conference in Krakow, and will issue a joint statement there, in an effort to help unite the two religions. Rival rabble-rousing ragtag organisations, the Islamist Al-Kaam Tamam (literally, the ‘Finish Off’ and right-wing Hindu political party Maa Ka Dal (a pun on a North-Indian pulse dish called Maa Ki Daal, literal meaning ‘Mother’s Party’) separately recruit and brainwash Hafeez-bin-Ali (Riteish Deshmukh), a former call centre employee, and Praveen Chaturvedi (Pulkit Samrat), a Raam Leela (stage enactment of the story of Lord Raam) actor, who claims that he is adept at method acting,  to go on a suicide bombing mission. Their target is the group of holy men congregating at the conference.

After a rigorous, and hilarious, 'training' period, the two men change their religious identities to escape detection. Hafeez, the ‘jihadi’, masquerades as a conservative Hindu, Ishwarchand, while Praveen, the Hindu fundamentalist, dons the garb of a practicing Muslim, AllahRakkha (also the name of an Indian film, made by formulaic director Manmohan Desai). Co-incidentally, the two recruits reach Krakow at the same time, and end up staying together, renting cheap rooms in a large, old structure, thanks to BanglaDeshi taxi-driver Tamim Hussain (Chandan Roy Sanyal; Tamim is the name of one of BanglaDesh’s most proficient cricketers), who introduces himself as Citizen Hussain. Now, they need to keep their identities and plans secret, while finding ways of acquiring/making the bombs. Hafeez contacts a Polish farmer, who is actually a bomb-maker and marketer, while Praveen knocks on the door of a Chinese shop-keeper, whose secret profession is selling bombs and bomb making formulas. Meanwhile, a couple of cops snoop on the duo, one of whom has Chinese features and calls himself Wai Kar-Wong), hoping to uncover some sinister terrorist plot and become heroes in the bargain. In a strange turn of events, the would-be-terrorists become friends, until their identities get mutually revealed.

Karan Anshuman is the man, who, along with Prashant Rajkhowa, initiated the Ghanta Awards in India, on the lines of the Razzies in Hollywood, rewarding the worst in Bollywood. Ghanta means a large bell, like those found in churches, but has a dirty connotation in slang, which is the pun it plays on. “Nine out of 10 films made in Bollywood are simply awful,” he opined, in February 2014. Film critics Rajeev Masand and Sudhish Kamath have served on the jury, and the award categories include ‘WTF was That?’ and ‘That’s Anything But Sexy’. One can be ruthless and demand that the same standards be applied to Bangistan. Not fair! Having been a critic should neither be an advantage nor disadvantage to him, when it comes to judging his work. If anything, one can say that he should have known better.

As a name, Bangistan seems to be a composite of BanglaDesh, Hindustan (the old name of India, still in use) and Pakistan. Anshuman creates the imaginary country, populated by feuding north and south halves, with the help of animated maps and a Voice-Over. He then leaves nothing to imagination, by establishing the two nations with every possible detail. There is a BanglaDeshi angle too, in the shape of the taxi-driver. Then there are characters from Poland, China, Russia (a cop named Stanislav Bobbitsky, played by India-based European actor Zachary Coffin; read foot-note), Afghanistan --and almost every country on the globe, attending the religious conference. Many non Indians/non Pakistanis speak fluent Hindi/Urdu, while others are given sub-titles.

Casting is suspect, as Pulkit Samrat fails to bring off Praveen, and the double role trick for Kumud Mishra only means twice the hamming. Riteish Deshmukh is a co-producer, and tries hard to bring conviction to his role. The encomiums Anshuman has heaped on his producer-star in recent interviews, on the other hand, sound motivated. Loading the sound-track with non-stop deafening decibels was a practice that went out in the 90s, yet Anshuman relies on it heavily, and misguidedly, to infuse life into the dull scenes. Moreover, the rather well-written songs get drowned in the cacophony. Seeing his penchant for humour, Anshuman could try his hand at pure comedy. Alternately, he could learn from his mistakes, and try anything.

Writing credits are shared by three newcomers: Anshuman, Puneet Krishna and Sumit Purohit. Meerut boy Krishna was an assistant to Rajkumar Hirani, and Sumit, from Uttarakhand, is an editor-cum-director, having made a largely unknown film called 12073 some years ago. Could it be that each of them has contributed one of the three criss-crossing tracks—religious fanaticism, bomb plot and black comedy/satire? Most blame for the messy interpolations must go to Anshuman, since he is both co-writer and director.

Sumit has posted on Twitter, “Someday I will hop into a taxi and tell the driver ‘uss car ka peechha karo.’ That will be my tribute to old Bollywood films.” We can find some ‘tributes’ in Bangistan too, namely the Raam Leela, the scene of Praveen’s family watching him on TV and the stereo-types on parade. While on Peechha Karo, it would be worthwhile remembering that in an old Bollywood film, the late comedian I.S. Johar jumped into a taxi and told the driver, “Un smuggleron ka peechha karo (follow those smugglers)”. This ‘hero opportunity’ galvanised the cabbie into stepping hard on the accelerator. Of course, there were no smugglers in the car he was chasing--Johar just called them ‘smugglers’ to egg the driver on, and catch-up with his quarry!

In wanting to continue his attempts at breaking the comic mould, after Ek Villain, and playing safe by still retaining some of his comic persona, the normally deadpan Riteish is caught straddling two boats. He achieves limited success on both counts. Wisely, he leaves a lot of the comic stuff to other actors, as he undergoes a poorly written transformation from a misled terrorist to a martyrdom-bound humanist. Pulkit Samrat (Jai Ho, Fukrey) cannot shake-off the Salman Khan swagger, and is too loud to be convincing. He might have another non-starter like Dolly Ki Doli at hand.

Jacqueline Fernandez (Race 2, Kick, Roy) plays a bartender of unclear nationality, working in Poland, though her name is Muslim. It would seem that the makers took her real-life SriLankan-Canadian-Malaysian-Bahranian roots rather seriously. The role is ill-defined and the performance undistinguished. A hint is dropped about her absent parents, and then left hanging. After a short, chequered career so far (Badlapur, Revolver Rani, Raanjhanaa, Filmistaan, RockStar, That Girl in Yellow Boots), Kumud Mishra gets to hog several scenes, including a double role. Being the corner-stone of the parody, he gets both, the laughs (his favourite FcDonald’s burger with Diet Coke) as well as the smirks, not least on account of his loud delivery and contortions. Arya Babbar, as the stand-by terrorist Zulfi, is made to deliver a large slice of the supposedly fanatical buffoonery. Another confused part is allotted to Chandan Roy Sanyal. Urdu aficionado and American by birth, Tom Alter is wasted in a two-scene appearance, while ShivKumar Subramaniam suffers from poor dialogue delivery.

In lyricist Puneet Krishna, we have a Gulzar in the making. But hey, does anybody remember villain Ishrat Ali’s catch-phrase from a late 80s film, “Saturday night, full tight?” It makes its way into Bangistan, as the opening line of an up-tempo song, written in anything but the Gulzar mould. Ram Sampath’s compositions rarely rise above the croaking/groaning singing style that is de rigueur for songs these days, and the tunes themselves could easily have been the work of any of his famous contemporaries.

Bangistan has already been banned in Pakistan, the U.A.E. and Singapore. More countries could follow suit. The avoidable alcohol drinking scene would have been a strong factor. Taking an irreverent look at a burning issue, and offering simplistic solutions, like trading places with the enemy, would have been another.

If only the producers had roped in Wong Kar-Wai to wield the megaphone, Bangistan could well have been bang on target.

Rating: **



‘To bobbit’ and ‘bobbited’ are verb forms that have made their way into dictionaries in the last 22 years, thanks to the infamous Lorena Bobbit and John Wayne Bobbit case of 1993.

In 1993, Ecuador-born Lorena was working as a manicurist in Virginia, while enduring physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband. On June 23, 1993, he returned from a night of drinking and had a row with her. This led to the ‘bobbiting’.

Lorena she off her husband's penis with a kitchen knife as he slept, and threw it in a field. Surgeons successfully reattached John 's penis, and Lorena was found not guilty, due to the abuse she suffered at his hands. John Wayne Bobbit went on to star in porn films!


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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