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Siraj Syed


Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for FilmFestivals.com 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. 

 

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Uunchai, Review: Plateau

Uunchai, Review: Plateau
Rajshri Productions have a tradition of making family oriented subjects and shaping them into very lengthy films. By comparison, Uunchai, at 169 minutes, is a short film. Even at that length, it fails to reach the heights that the cast and the director promise. With no less an actor than Amitabh Bachchan himself heading the cast, Uunchai (height; spelt unconventionally, this was instead of the phonetic, Oonchai) was expected to reach some dizzy heights, with a subject based on friendship and a senior citizens’ expedition to the Everest Base Camp thrown in. What we find here is that there are some emotions that keep recurring and a narrative that has very few twists or plot points. If you plot the emotions and twists, you are more likely to draw a plateau rather than peaks.
 
Four aging friends are truly devoted to each other. They are Amit Shrivastav, an author, Om Sharma, a bookseller, Javed Siddiqui, a hosiery dealer and Bhupen, whose profession is unspecified. They celebrate Bhupen’s birthday, after which Bhupen suffers cardiac arrest. Before dying, he leaves tickets for an Everest Base Camp Expedition and expresses a last wish that he wants to go there with his buddies once before he dies. Bhupen was a Nepali and had grown-up on the mountains around Mount Everest. Although the three surviving friends are on the wrong side of 60, they decide to honour Bhupen’s wishes and begin making preparations to leave for the base camp, with the expedition still two months away.
 
Amit takes the lead in the matter and convinces a reluctant Om to agree to the journey. Convincing Javed is a tough task, because he cannot stay away from his wife Sabina even for a single day. But they spin a yarn and take her along. The men decide to go as far as possible by road, with Amit at the wheels. Starting from native Delhi, they go via Agra, Kanpur and Gorakhpur. They stop over at the home of Heeba and Vali, the daughter and son-in-law of Javed and Sabina, because it is Heeba’s birthday. However, the parents are shocked to find that the couple have their own plans and a number of guests are invited to stay over, leaving no room for the ‘surprise’ guests. Heeba’s parents and the other travellers have to stay in a hotel for the night. Along the way, a mysterious woman called Mala Trivedi joins the fellow travellers, with a ticket for the same Everest Base Camp Expedition, to be led by Shraddha Gupta.
 
An extremely thin storyline by Sunil Gandhi unfolds at a leisurely pace, courtesy screenplay writer Abhishek Dixit. Considering the beginning of the narrative is the death of Bhupen, it cannot be called a twist. But yes, there are a few genuine twists, like the identity of Mala and Amit’s illness. Too bad. Too little, too late. We know nothing of the background of Bhupen, and only skeletal flashes about Amit. However, there is a detailed look into the family and past of Om. This becomes a lop-sided picture. Details about Shraddha’s family predicament are revealed only through conversations she has with Amit, during the trek. In the trek itself, you are ready for a natural phenomenon that will threaten the lives of these old men as well as the certainty that one of them will fall very ill, but not die. Two deaths would be too much to mourn, in a saga of four friends. You are also sure that Javed will not opt out, come what may.
 
You also get a detailed peep into the work and family life of Javed, all the more because Sabina is part of the expedition till the real ‘expedition’ begins. And although you might not expect Mala and her story, you surely expect a blast from the past of Bhupen’s life, since he was a bachelor. With turns and twists being predictable, the going does become laborious. Dialogue is faulty at many places. Attempts at inserting comedy via Javed and Sabina are only mildly funny, and sometimes not even that. We see only short snatches of the preparations the trio make for the trip. One of these, the medical tests and its results, is interesting. However, I don’t think it is the norm to discuss the results of such tests before all candidates openly and simultaneously. Yet, the fact that the doctor withholds one reading of one member and reveals the ramifications to the candidate separately was the correct prodedure.
 
Not a prolific director by any stretch of the imagination, Sooraj R. Barjatya (Maine Pyar Kiya, Hum Aapke Hain Koun, Hum Saath Hain, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo; 8 films in 23 years) specialises, self admittedly and for all to see, in family subjects, propounding traditional values and extended households. This is the first time he has stepped outside his comfort zone, and that too, not quite, for everyone in the escapade has a back-story and all the main characters are dealing with demons from their past. But the real demon that he tackles through only phone calls, that too from one side, is dogging Shraddha Gupta. That is the one that is most subtly handled. Although Om’s back-story is the most elaborate and convincing, that of Amit is clichéd, and that of Javed a bit over-the-top.
 
Amit, who writes apparently ‘autobiographical self-help books based on his own life experiences’, is given to sleuthing and trying to find out more about Mala, a trait that is not in his character. Why no real back-story about Bhupen, except him and a girls prancing around the hills when they were apparently in their early teens or even younger? All those stopovers, en route, seem contrived and deliberate, ending up as side-tracks, not really adding much to the main track. Sooraj gets to the real action, of the climb up to the base camp, rather late in the day. Shraddha says that helicopters cannot fly at that height, that is why the trek, but sure enough, there is a helicopter that does arrive and fly at that height. Every time there is an argument and there seems to be an impasse, the other two ask Amit to intervene. He uses either of two techniques to quell the dispute: emotional blackmail or diversionary tactics. Emotional blackmail is fine, but how is he ever-ready with some convoluted logic to convince an adamant party-member? That takes some believing.
 
 
Though he has been there and done that dozens of times, here Amitabh as Amit (what else) seems to be putting in an effort. For company, he has two actors who are in different age brackets in real-life – Anupam Kher as Om is 67, while Boman Irani as Javed is just 62. Amitabh is 80. Of course, with make-up, you can’t really tell their ages, yet why choose actors who differ up to 13 years in age? And how did they become such thick friends, a need of the story, is not depicted. Amitabh walks with a swagger, arms in a curve as if he is ready to pull out a gun. But even then, Amitabh is Amitabh, and though his talent if not fully tapped in this outing, he leaves a lasting impression. Anupam is restricted by one expression of tearful sorrow. There is very little variety in his performance. Boman Irani is hopelessly miscast as Javed, who, by virtue of being a North Indian Muslim, is made to speak Urdu. For a man who has problems with his Hindi, Urdu is a pitfall. Also, his romantic angle with his spouse does not ring true as there is lack of chemistry between him and Sabina (Neena Gupta). Neena has a meaty role, albeit not well-written, yet she manages to impress. Danny Denzongpa as Bhupen has a Special Appearance, looks his age (now 74) and speaks with a hint of a slur. The scene stealer is Parineeti Chopra, who exudes supreme confidence in the presence of stalwarts. It is time her abilities were noticed. Raju Kher is good as Guddu, Om’s estranged brother, while Nafisa Ali Sodhi puts in the other Special Appearance as Abhilasha, not having much to do. Adequate support comes from Sheen Dass as Heeba, Abhishek Singh Pathania as Vali, Ajay Dutta as a doctor (better than most stereotypes who are made to play this part), Umesh Kaushik, Sharik Khan and Shalin Thakur.
 
A location like the foothills of Mount Everest, in Nepal, and a rope-wood bridge across difficult terrain for some tense action, is a sure-fire treat for any cinematographer, Manoj Kumar Khatoi makes the most of it. Music by George Joseph takes a life of its own and attacks almost every scene with dizzy decibels. On its own, it might sound musical, though. The five songs (one has three versions) are a relief by comparison, well-written by Irshad Kamil and adeptly tuned by Amit Trivedi (another Amit!). For a film of this length, five songs are okay.
 
But that is the point. Uunchai takes ages to cut to the chase, and the chase itself is either predictable or tame, in turns. I remember the length on the Censor Certificate at 169 minutes while on a website, it is mentioned as 173 minutes. At least 53 minutes of the film need to be excised to keep viewers engrossed. Maybe editor Shweta Venkat Mathew is listening, but what can be done now? One aspect of the cutting is odd, which often happens in the middle of a word, especially when Boman is speaking. VFX used to transpose dangerous action from a set to the location are okay, without being great. Credits go to Biraja Kinkar Barik, Anup Kumar and Vishal Padewal.
 
Like any trek involving high altitudes and 60+ aged climbers, the film moves very slowly in the first half, which, incidentally, involves no climbing at all. Such an assembly of actors could have been put to much better use. Some might even wonder whether the breaking out of the mould by Sooraj R. Barjatya, known for indoor family dramas involving pet hero Salman Khan, into an outdoor adventure drama about aged male bonding, was an unwise move. You stick to what you know best. However, such a predicament is severely constraining and restraining for a director, who might want to test his own mettle. He would wish to rise to greater heights…a noble thought indeed. For the time being, though, with Uunchai, released on an interesting date, 11-11-22, he gives us a few emotional highs, and then he hits a plateau.
 
Rating: ** ½ 
 

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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 FilmFestivals.com 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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