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by Jay Seaver

"I really, really should have known better."
1 stars

I don't know a lot about Bollywood, but there are a few names I recognize. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, top star often celebrated as one of the world's most beautiful women and returning from a long maternity break; Irrfan Khan, an actor also getting a fair amount of work on this side of the planet; and Sanjay Gupta, a hack director best known for remaking non-Indian films without necessarily giving the original filmmakers credit. Put them together, and you get something a lot of movie-lovers dread - a picture that will almost certainly be terrible but which one feels almost compelled to check out anyway. "Jazbaa" lives down to expectations.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan plays Anuradha Verma, one of Mumbai's top criminal attorneys, albeit one who seems to be a loving and attentive mother to her daughter Sanaya (Priya Banerjee) when she's not keeping gangsters and corrupt executives from serving their time. That is how she comes by her newest case - she is blackmailed into preventing Niyaz (Chandan Roy Sanyal) from receiving the death sentence after being convicted for raping and murdering an art student at his hearing four days from now when someone kidnaps Sanaya. Fortunately the arresting officer, Detective Yohaan (Irrfan Khan), is both on suspension and a long-time friend of Anu, quite willing to introduce her to the victim's mother Garima (Shabana Azmi) and help her track down Sam (Siddhanth Kapoor), a potential witness that suggests Niyaz may not be guilty at all - but who is willing to go so far to prove this?

This time around, Gupta's film credits its source - South Korean film Seven Days, noteworthy for Yunjin Kim shooting it between seasons of Lost - and it follows the same beats even as it compresses the timeframe (to be fair, the original seemed to be stretched). The original was also surprisingly gruesome at points, and Gupta scales the gore down, as the difference between what Indian and South Korean audiences expect from a crime thriller is not small. He handwaves the legal inanities away in a moderately funny moment as Yohaan tells a suspect asking for his rights that he's watched too many Hollywood movies, and this is Bollywood.

But while this film isn't as incompetent an adaption as Zinda (his brazen and terrible rip-off of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy), it is still pretty terrible. Gupta is the sort of director who thinks thrills are achieved by sharp notes on the soundtrack or moving the camera - shake it during a fight, fly past something in a car chase - but when you move past those distractions, it quickly becomes clear that the actual actions being filmed and then edited in choppy fashion are not just small potatoes, but quickly undone. He and cinematographer Sameer Arya play the game of shooting Mumbai in a slick, steely gray well enough that it's tempting to compare him to an Indian Michael Bay, but the scale suggests something more like Olivier Megaton: He's gleaned what seems exciting on the surface but not how to build something that works in plain sight.

There are moments that a pretty decent cast does what it can to improve things, though. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan doesn't show much rust after her time away from the camera; a few too-earnest early scenes clank but she handles the character's desperation well, especially when sharing scenes with Shabana Azmi and trying to hold back maternal horror in a way that the victim's mother doesn't have to. Irrfan Khan is as reliable as ever, handling the sarcastic-but-earnest cop well (Yohaan is the type that gets targeted for not being corrupt enough when everybody is on the take) and doing a nice job of playing up his attraction to his long-tme friend without seeming like a creep. The villains, whether guilty of the crime in question or just ne'er-do-wells connected to the crime, are often bland until their true face is revealed, at which point they start chewing scenery, but that's not the point at which you want nuance anyway.

"Seven Days" isn't the sort of masterpiece where a remake is absurd and wrong-headed on the face of it, but you don't have to know it to recognize "Jazbaa" as a mess. It's a thriller that fails to excite, and slapping a nice cast and decent production values on it can't cover that up.

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originally posted: 10/20/15 10:41:37
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