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Nikhil Mahajan's debut feature Pune 52 is not entirely devoid of watch-worthy moments. However, sloppy writing makes it a predictable, weak film as a whole. Even great performances by the lead cast don't entirely salvage it. Those who have the kind of expectations that I had for this film are bound to be massively disappointed.
Note: This is one of the rare occasions when the reviewer has chosen to revise the ratings. The rating after first viewing (at Mumbai Film Festival) was " Catch on DVD for sure". It has been bumped up to "The keen must watch on screen; else DVD" after second viewing (regular theater cut) for reasons stated below.
Update: Whether it is because of what seemed like a crisper cut for the theatrical release, or whether it is because of a correction in my expectations, having already watched the film once at MFF 2012, I'm not sure; but I liked Pune 52 more after the second viewing. Much like Talaash, which set the expectations for a thriller but was more of one man's emotional journey and was best enjoyed with those expectations in mind, Pune 52 is more about the marital problems faced by a lower middle class couple in the early 90s, and makes the most impact when seen as a drama rather than a thriller.
The performances by Girish Kulkarni and Sonali Kulkarni seemed even better this time. Also, the dialogues, penned by Girish Kulkarni, are outstandingly written. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I keep saying that Girish Kulkarni is one of the best Indian writers as well as actors today, and he underlines this in Pune 52.
The larger issues in the film - sketchily written characters, gaping plot holes and screenplay flaws remain. Since the film is a thriller as well, I can't talk about these in detail, but it will suffice to say that there are just too many loopholes that can be pointed out in the writing. Still, for the manner in which it is shot, for being an engaging enough drama about a married couple, for the dialogues and for the performances Pune 52 is a film that makes for one theatrical watch, for sure.
Set in Pune during one of the most critical times in the history of our country - the economic liberalization days of the early 90s - it tells the story of Amar Apte and his wife Prachi, who are facing problems that stem from what Amar does for a living - he is a private detective who snoops into peoples' personal lives. Amar takes his work extremely seriously, even though others around him seem to have nothing but contempt for his lack of 'success'. Things take a turn for the murky when Amar gets involved in a case that brings him into contact with a woman named Neha.
As mentioned earlier, Pune 52 always promised a lot. Intriguing promos and exciting names like Girish and Umesh Kulkarni associated with the film meant that the pressure was always on the cast and crew to deliver a knockout film. And that they certainly don't, the primary reason for it being the writing.
As a character, Amar has been written shoddily. His 'dreams' of becoming a detective since he was a child seem forced and unconvincing. The 'Eureka' moment he narrates, which convinced him that he wanted to be a detective makes little sense, and the flip-flops his character makes form such a shaky character graph that it does irreparable damage to the graph of the film itself. As a thriller, the film's plot twists are predictable from a mile away. Perhaps the most disappointing part is the fact that at one point the film seems to be walking the Chinatown path, raising hopes, but then spiraling away into unflinching mediocrity soon after.
As a drama between a couple whose marriage is on the rocks, the film does have its moments. The fights between Amar and Prachi are written realistically and are performed brilliantly. Also, one can't deny that the film does manage to hold the audience as far as the tension with regard to the destiny of this failing marriage is concerned.
If the film remains watchable for a large part of it, it is because of the actors. Girish Kulkarni is easily one of the best actors in the country today, and he tries his best to lift his poorly written character. He manages to succeed sometimes, making you root more for him than for Amar. The fact that his voice has been dubbed over by someone else irks at times, if you are used to Girish's natural voice. Of course, it was probably done in the interest of the film, since Girish's natural voice would've been too thin for the character.
Sonali Kulkarni is dependable as always. She emotes beautifully when conveying her frustration over the marriage. Her character is essentially naive, and she convinces you of that naiveté. Sai Tamhankar as the mysterious Neha looks better than she's ever looked, and she manages to bring about that air of intrigue about her.
Also, a good amount of effort has been put into the production design to create the 90s feel. The old rotating dial phones, film posters, the license plate numbering of that time and even Gold Spot manage to add a feel to it. Although why exactly the film is set in that time period is a mystery. The film has been shot well only in certain parts. There are a number of inexplicably over-exposed shots, too many for it to seem necessary.
Debutante director Nikhil Mahajan handles certain portions well. Also, his choice of shooting long dialogue scenes in single shots really impressed me. They show a mature attitude towards cinema. However, in the larger scheme of things his inexperience shows. Certain critical portions, particularly the thriller and backstory bits needed a more seasoned hand at the helm. The film is also far too long for its own good. Hopefully, the filmmakers will think of getting a shorter cut ready for its theatrical release. Pune 52 is by no means unwatchable. But, considering the expectations I had from the film, I walked away extremely disappointed.
Update: A slight correction to the above review. According to director Nikhil Mahajan, Girish Kulkarni has dubbed his own lines for the film. Also, the cut of the film shown at MFF 2012 is a work-in-progress cut. The theatrical cut for the film is still being readied and is expected to be different from the one premiered at MFF.
This review is by guest reviewer Pradeep Menon. Pradeep is a filmmaker and a dreamer. He loves books, rain, winters, tea and his parents. Cinema, however, is the only truth he believes in. He breathes and bleeds film, mostly in hues of saffron, white, green and blue. You can watch his short films at www.youtube.com/cyberpradeep.
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