Don’t mind your language 

Tamil director Atlee, who directed Shah Rukh Khan in Jawan, must be over the moon with the movie’s box office success. The film’s traction with the paying public is being credited to its “mass entertainer” attributes – which eminent critic Baradwaj Rangan beautifully broke down for Scroll during an interview earlier this week.

As Rangan put it, the so-called mass film is a step further from what we call the masala movie, which resembles a thali in its equal-part servings of sugary, spicy and bitter flavours. In the mass entertainer, on the other hand, what would be screenplay highlights constitute the movie itself. “Mass films remove the connective tissue and are just hero worship vehicles,” Rangan noted. 

Such films are deeply popular in the South, particularly in the Tamil and Telugu languages. The belief is that these cinemas remain unpretentious enough to appeal to the heart rather than the head. The Hindi film trade too loves movies like Jawan, which are sure-shot hits among the existing fan base and bring in curious fence-sitters too. 

Among the features that distinguish Jawan from other dubbed films such as Baahubali and its sequel, Pushpa: The Rise, and the two K.G.F movies is the accent on display. Vijay Sethupathi, as the villain Kaali, speaks Tamil-accented Hindi, rather than being dubbed. Sethupathi manfully spoke Hindi in Raj & DK’s web series Farzi, and has spoken his own dialogue in Sriram Raghavan’s upcoming thriller Merry Christmas too. 

Not very long ago, southern actors speaking dodgy Hindi were the source of ridicule, dismissed as “Madrasis” for being unable to communicate in a language that was never their own. Rohit Shetty’s Chennai Express based an entire character on this stereotype – Deepika Padukone’s gender-mangling Meenamma. 

That has changed. Films, but more so web series, are now awash with Hindi-spouting actors from the South as well as Bengal and Punjab. The Hindi is heavily accented and is sometimes ungrammatical, but it’s not played for laughs. 

As debates beyond cinema rage on the relative merits of North India versus South India (with the balance tilted in favour of the latter), and as the Union government insists on imposing Hindi on non-Hindi states, the adoption of Hindi by southern actors must sound like a victory for Hindi chauvinists. But rather than marking the triumph of the so-called national language, this development benefits the talent that has been unable to breach Bollywood for several decades.

If Hindi is a necessary evil to keep the work coming in, just the way it is for European actors in Hollywood, so be it. If speaking an alien tongue will turn unfamiliar but talented actors into household names beyond their own states, so be it. 

Southern actors are not just making peace with Hindi but also reinventing it. Just like Mumbai liaises in a mishmash but inclusive patois that the writer Salman Rushdie brilliantly called HUGME (Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi and English), southern actors in films and shows are coming up with new ways to keep the barriers down and bag more assignments. 

It isn’t quite Hindi but a version of it. It sounds off, but that’s part of the character detail. It defies the dictum that Hindi must be pure and grammatical. It will do. 

Jailed and yet free

Chunks of Jawan take place in a prison. This is where Shah Rukh Khan’s character Azad officially works when he isn’t leading vigilante missions. The six women who comprise his crew are inmates too. The women’s prison is where Azad’s mother was wrongfully incarcerated, where he was born and raised. 

None of the terrible conditions associated with incarceration make it to Jawan. If anything, the jail is a cheerful place, where women in pista-green uniforms gush over Azad, assemble for a song sequence, and join forces when they come under attack. 

The one thing about prison life that Jawan gets right is custodial death. Kaali meets his end in the prison in the same way as Azad’s mother. No human rights panel hauls up Azad, and no government committee is set up to investigate what is clearly a crime.

Other Hindi films depict prison life in far more realistic ways. V Shantaram’s black-and-white classic Do Aankhen Barah Haath explores the idea that incarceration can be redemptive, rather than punitive. Shantaram himself plays Adinath, a progressive warden who reforms six prisoners through persuasion rather than punishment. 

The film is available on YouTube.

Sriram Raghavan has marvellously explored the dynamics of life behind bars in his debut Ek Hasina Thi. Urmila Matondkar plays Sarika, a travel company employee conned into taking the rap for her boyfriend’s crimes. In prison, Sarika initially fears for her body and soul, but then learns to navigate the jail’s parallel justice system, represented by Pratima Kazmi’s benevolent criminal. Ek Hasina Thi can be watched on Prime Video.

Also on Prime Video is Nagesh Kukunoor’s 3 Deewarein. Naseeruddin Shah, Jackie Shroff and Kukunoor play three men on death row who are interviewed by Juhi Chawla’s documentary filmmaker. There’s a twist awaiting viewers, but more convincing is Kukunoor’s evocation of the interpersonal dynamics between the jailed men, and the feeling of never being able to walk free again.

What’s releasing this week

The only theatrical release of note is Kenneth Branagh’s A Haunting in Venice. The film is the third in Branagh’s adaptations of novels by Agatha Christie featuring the ace detective Hercule Poirot.

Branagh has previously directed Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile.

A Haunting in Venice is based on Christie’s 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party. Apart from Branagh, the cast includes Jamie Dornan, Michelle Yeoh, Tina Fey and Camille Cottin.

In streaming, the talented actor Avinash Tiwary has a double bill this week. He is in Prime Video’s Bambai Meri Jaan, playing a Mumbai gangster closely modelled on Dawood Ibrahim. The 10-episode show also stars Kay Kay Menon, Kritika Kamra, Nivedita Bhattacharya, Saurabh Sachdeva and Nawab Shah.

Tiwary is also in Disney+ Hotstar’s Kaala, as an Intelligence Bureau officer on a hawala trail that gets deeply personal. The cast of the eight-episode series includes Rohan Mehra, Elisha Mayor, Nivetha Pethuraj, Taher Shabbir, Jitin Gulati, Danish Aslam and Hiten Tejwani. 

It’s all about the grey cells

If Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot doesn’t impress you, here is one actor who will. David Suchet indelibly played Christie’s creation, acing the character’s distinctive appearance, vanity and mental magic. The series Agatha Christie’s Poirot starring Suchet is available on Sony Liv. 

The streaming service also has Agatha Christie’s Marple, featuring Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie as the elderly knitter who solves crimes through pure deduction. 

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