Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia
Cast: Ali Fazal, Shraddha Srinath, Ashutosh Rana, Sikandar Kheri
If Tigmanshu Dhulia’s filmmaking were a person, it would be a virile small-town man with an acute case of Attention-Deficit Disorder. Milan Talkies, like most of his movies, feels like it has been cobbled together from the remains of different-minded genres in the hope that at least one of them will stick. The result: A frustratingly restless star-crossed romance that can’t decide if it wants to be a tribute to love, cinema or nonsense. It starts out as a movie about a movie-mad Allahabad filmmaker with Mumbai dreams, anti-segues into a hustler-comedy about his local forging business, spends way too much time decoding an elaborate exam-cheating system to introduce the timid heroine, anti-segues into a budding love story with a Brahmin girl with a villainous (read Ashutosh Rana) father before settling onto Laila-Majnu-style pining porn with a tired lovers-against-world theme. There are also random sub-threads about a local don who wants to become a star, a Muslim projection room manager with a big heart and a film production that doubles up as forced commentary on biographical art. The maximum depth Milan Talkies affords by way of homage is its setting of the vapid Badmaash Company (2010) in a hall while the hero tries to con his way into our hearts.
It has been years since Dhulia has made a coherent movie that understands the craft of editing, sensitivity and emotional continuity. For instance, early on in Milan Talkies, after establishing that protagonist Anu Sharma (Ali Fazal; needs to expand his UP ouvre a bit after Mirzapur) is an aspiring filmmaker who makes B-grade moral policing videos, the film tries to find humour in an incident where his lead actor’s penis is cut off after he is caught with a girl by Hindutva goons. There is virtually no purpose to this scene other than Anu having to remark on the futility of having a “un-manly” hero for his next couple-vigilante video. It shows that Dhulia is so eager to locate a sense of commercialism and texture in the haphazardness of small-town India that he relentlessly compromises on rhythm and structure to make choppy all-in-one fare with a distinct lack of soul. Not to mention the shameless product placement, pointless side characters and noisy songs that penetrate the narrative as if they were a “strategically placed” interval break butchering a Hollywood movie in Indian cinemas.
It has been years since Dhulia has made a coherent movie that understands the craft of editing, sensitivity and emotional continuity
In another scene, the girl, Maithili, on hearing that Anu is now a famous director making a movie in Allahabad, concocts an over-complicated plan to crash his set as a burkha-clad extra. When she is mistakenly removed from the set by harried assistants, the scene is treated as a mega conflict point in their over-dramatized love story – one that is supposed to keep them apart till he uses the film as a final “letter” to communicate with her. In the hands of a more focused director, this might have been a nice, tender idea. But in Dhulia’s eyes, stillness is a crime. A collection of comedy, action, coming-of-age and tragic moments follow one another before a train escape constructed so bizarrely that you’d think this were a failed film-diploma project. By the end, I’m still clueless about how a movie about a storyteller in love manages to lack both, the love of stories and a story of love.