White review: An embarrassment to Mammootty and Mollywood debutante Huma Qureshi
Neither Mammootty nor Huma Qureshi comes off well in Uday Ananthan's new Malayalam film, White
“What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?”
Bob Dylan wrote those words in a vastly different, more complex context, but somehow they come to mind each time a great actor or a charismatic star chooses to lend their name and presence to an abysmal film.
There is really no other way of putting it: White is abysmal. It is boring, dull, vacuous, vapid and worse, pretentious. Each frame, each word suggests that director Uday Ananthan felt he had a grand sweeping romance on his hands. If that is what you were thinking, Mr Ananthan, you got it wrong. White is not grand. It is pompous.
Which brings us to that question begging to be asked: What’s a talented, much-loved veteran like Mammootty doing in a dump like this? A multiple National Award-winning Malayalam actor and one of contemporary Indian cinema’s best, Mammukka — as he is fondly known in Kerala — has done a fair share of unapologetically commercial, loud, OTT films through his nearly 40 years on screen. Just recently, he played a deplorably misogynistic cop in the Eid release Kasaba. But even that spool of nonsense had entertaining elements, such as its suspense and the leading man’s amusing signature swagger. White does not have even that. It is inert and bland.
It all begins when Roshni Menon (Huma Qureshi) is posted in London on work. As she grapples with a mean boss in a foreign land, she finds herself saving an attractive elderly man who is about to fall (or was he jumping?) in front of a train at a London metro station one day. They part ways, but soon he starts forcing himself into her life in bizarre, aggressive ways. He turns out to be Prakash Roy (Mammootty), a billionaire with a sad past. Many wanderings and schmoozing sessions later, there comes a big reveal. You will catch it if you have not slept off by then.
Someone please tell Ananthan that all the low-angle shots in the world, all the polish in Pradeep Maralgattu’s art design, all those frames of pretty castles and picturesque London by DoP Amarjeet Singh cannot compensate for poor writing. The screenplay by Praveen Balakrishnan, Nandini Valsan and the director himself lacks flesh and maturity. It also falls flat on its face with its attempts at originality within clichés.
Formulaic filmmakers across Indian languages have long held that every romance must perforce be preceded by a clash between the hero and the heroine, often a silly imagined grievance. Possibly in a bid to contrive some such tension, or perhaps because the writers deemed it cute, or perhaps to build him up as a commanding figure, White has Roy being persistently obnoxious with Menon — turning up at her office and demanding that she leave with him “in two minutes” no less, being rude to her boss, and denigrating her in conversation.
(Spoiler alert) It gets so ridiculous that at one point Roy fakes a situation where Menon thinks she is about to be mugged, raped or killed on a dark, deserted street before he drives in in slow motion to a ramped-up background score, pops open a champagne bottle and wishes her for her birthday. As if the film’s Malayalam dialogues are not clunky enough, White also features some terribly clumsy English dialogues. On that London street, as they stand beside his luxury car, he tells her in a grandiose tone: “I never wanted to be the first person to wish you, neither the last. But I wanted to be a person to wish you.” What the heck does that even mean?
Despite all this boorishness and verbosity, she falls in love with him.
Neither star comes off well in this film. Mammootty is weighed down by the effort to make laughable dialogues sound imposing. Qureshi — now in her fifth year in Bollywood, and making her Mollywood debut here — is pretty but expressionless, and weighed down by distracting false eyelashes. Both are weighed down by a three-decades-plus age difference and zero chemistry.
To be fair, the screenplay defies trends in one respect: it does not play down Mammootty’s 64 years (making him all the more attractive as a result). In one scene, a hooligan at a casino addresses Roy as “Uncle” and asks Menon if he is her teacher or boss. The director may well claim then that such a young female star was cast opposite Mammootty because White is meant to be an older-man-younger-woman romance, and not a continuation of commercial cinema’s conviction that women of Mammukka’s age are not worth loving. Hmm. That is no excuse though for the absolute lack of a spark between the leads, which culminates in one of the most awkward embraces ever exchanged by a man and woman on screen.
Everything in White — including its title — is geared towards a glaring effort to impress. The sound design by Rajesh PM, for instance, is over-played to the point of being grating. The crunch of Menon’s shoes on the ground as she walks away from Roy’s mansion is particularly irksome in its exaggeration. However much sound and fury you may add to it, hot air is hot air.
The most interesting thing that happened to me through this film’s 149 minutes and five seconds running time is that a guy in the same row as mine at the theatre where I watched it began loudly humming Sau tarah ke from the Hindi film Dishoom at some point. I did not ask whether he was trying to assuage his boredom but I do know that I suffered two cancelled shows and 160 km (read: seven hours) of travel over three days through the Delhi rain before I got third-time ‘lucky’ with White. Travel and ticket money can be forgiven, but time is priceless, Mr Ananthan. You owe your viewers a big debt.
Footnote on the subtitles: It is great that more Indian films are being released with subtitles outside their home territories, and sometimes even within. Bad subs though are self-defeating and White’s are among the worst I’ve seen in recent times. The name “Charlotte” appears as “a lot” on screen at one point, I spotted at least one mistranslation, and I am sure we can all agree that it is not okay to spell “heartbreak” as “heart brakes”.
Chaos Walking movie review: Tom Holland-Daisy Ridley starrer wastes sci-fi premise on typical survivalist chase plot
Chaos Walking misses a chance to tell a compelling and resonant story in spite of having all the ingredients to do so.
Those Who Wish Me Dead movie review: Angelina Jolie thriller hews to genre clichés, but wins with its setting
Those Who Wish Me Dead has no surprises, aside from why a bunch of A-list actors decided to take up such old wine-old bottle roles, even if Oscar nominee Taylor Sheridan is at the helm.
Shiva Baby movie review: Emma Seligman's satire is a compelling study on sexuality, parenthood and millennialism
Shiva Baby has the potential of becoming the cinematic equal of The Graduate in regards that both films are the youth’s mouthpiece, reflecting a time of hopeless ennui and disillusionment.