Movie Review: PK (2014)

PK3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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PK — filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani’s exploration of religion — is a laugh riot. Hirani points out the absurdities of religious customs without causing offense by filtering his observations through an innocent protagonist: an alien called PK (“Tipsy”).

A spaceship drops the alien (played by Aamir Khan) in the middle of a desert in Rajasthan, with no clothes and no ability to communicate. The first human PK comes into contact with steals the glowing pendant that allows PK to contact his ship and request a lift home.

PK’s best chance to recover his pendant comes when he meets a rookie TV journalist named Jaggu (Anushka Sharma) in Delhi. Six months removed from a heartbreaking end to a whirlwind romance in Belgium with a grad student named Sarfraz (Sushant Singh Rajput), Jaggu is stuck reporting dull human interest stories about depressed dogs.

Hesitant as Jaggu is to believe PK’s alleged otherworldly origins, she’s intrigued by his take on human religion. Everyone he asks for help finding his pendant tells him, “Ask God.” But which god? How is he supposed to pray in order to get an answer?

PK’s bumbling attempts to navigate varying faiths are hilarious. He gets the nickname “Tipsy” because everyone assumes he must be drunk in order to be so clueless. Seeing wine served in a Christian church, he brings two bottles to a mosque. Whenever someone pulls back a hand to slap him, PK puts stickers depicting Hindu deities on his cheeks, since no one would dare slap Ganesha or Shiva. PK calls the stickers “self-defense.”

Even though the jokes relate to religions more common in India than in the West, the movie supplies enough information for international audiences to get the jokes without needing to know anything about Jainism or Hinduism. Besides, the point of the jokes is that they could be made about any religion anywhere in the world.

From the perspective of international accessibility, PK is as good as it gets. The English subtitles are phenomenal, incorporating slang like “chillax” and “kaput.”

A terrific cast helps, too. Sharma and Rajput are completely adorable together. She strikes the perfect balance as an ambitious career woman principled enough not to exploit her vulnerable new friend. Boman Irani is great in a small role as Jaggu’s boss.

Another great supporting performance comes from Sanjay Dutt, playing a band leader who befriends PK shortly after his arrival on Earth. Like Jaggu, he’s canny but honestly fond of the befuddled extraterrestrial.

Khan is tremendous as PK. He’s earnest and not at all goofy, making the ridiculous situations PK finds himself in that much funnier. It’s especially fun to watch PK adapt to his environment. He learns which mistakes will provoke a slap, and he’s always a step ahead of the angry mob chasing him. A scene in which PK figures out how money works is side-splitting.

The story slows down in the second half as laughs give way to serious questions of exactly what the faithful get for their devotion. However, the ultimate payoff to PK’s and Jaggu’s story is beautifully done.

The universality of PK‘s subject mater, the accessible way it’s presented, the nicely incorporated song-and-dance numbers, and the fact that this is just a damned funny movie make PK a great starter Bollywood film.


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Streaming Video News: December 19, 2014

I updated my list of Bollywood movies streaming on Netflix to reflect one new expiration date. On December 24, 2014, Tere Naal Love Ho Gaya leaves the video service. I thought this overlooked romantic comedy from 2012 starring real-life spouses Riteish Deshmukh and Genelia D’Souza was adorable.


Opening December 19: PK

Aamir Khan returns to the big screen on December 19, 2014, with PK, co-starring Anushka Sharma.

PK opens on Friday in eight Chicago area theaters: AMC River East 21 in Chicago, Regal Gardens Stadium 1-6 in Skokie, MovieMax Cinemas in Niles, AMC South Barrington 30 in South Barrington, Marcus Addison Cinema in Addison, Regal Cantera Stadium 17 in Warrenville, AMC Loews Woodridge 18 in Woodridge, and AMC Loews Crestwood 18 in Crestwood. Most theaters have preview shows starting on Thursday night. PK has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 33 min.

Other Indian movies playing in the Chicago area this weekend include Lingaa (Tamil w/English subtitles) at the Cinemark at Seven Bridges in Woodridge and Pisasu (Tamil), Cousins (Malayalam), and Ala Ela (Telugu) at MovieMax.

Bollywood Box Office: December 12-14

It was a slow weekend for Bollywood movies at the North American box office, thanks to an absence of new titles and competition from Rajnikanth’s Tamil-Telugu blockbuster Lingaa (which earned $1,343,151 from 136 theaters in the United States and Canada).

Action Jackson added just $19,753 from 50 theaters ($395 average), bringing its two-week total to $215,002. AJ‘s business dropped nearly 89% from Week 1 to Week 2.

Happy Ending added another $580 from two theaters in its fourth weekend, bringing its total North American earnings to $247,511.

In its third weekend, Ungli added $328 from two theaters to bring its total earnings to $78,864. Those two theaters — one in the U.S. and one in Canada — posted very different returns. The Canadian theater contributed $322 to the total, while the American theater earned just $6. That means that, over the course of the whole weekend, only one person watched Ungli (and likely purchased a matinee priced ticket). Wow.

Sources: Box Office Mojo and Rentrak, via Bollywood Hungama

Movie Review: Bhopal — A Prayer for Rain (2014)

Bhopal_a_prayer_for_rain_poster3 Stars (out of 4)

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The 1984 industrial disaster at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, isn’t a common reference in the United States the way that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster is, but it’s an event Americans should be aware of. Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain depicts a catastrophe of almost unbelievable proportions.

In 1969, American company Union Carbide builds a plant in the central Indian city of Bhopal to produce agricultural chemicals. By 1984, the decrepit plant situated in the middle of a slum struggles to make ends meet, as a drought decreases the market for the company’s products. One night in December of that year, a gas leak from the plant exposes a half-million Bhopal residents to toxic fumes.

The story of the tragedy is told from several perspectives, including those of Motwani (Kal Penn), a journalist desperate to warn the city of impending danger, and Roy (Joy Sengupta), a plant safety officer trying to prevent a disaster in the face of unsympathetic management, failing equipment, and unqualified staff.

At the film’s heart is Dilip (Rajpal Yadav), a rickshaw driver who quickly ascends from plant janitor to equipment safety monitor. He’s as unqualified for the job as everyone else at the plant, but he’s a devoted employee.

Dilip personifies the conundrum of the plant’s existence. There aren’t enough trained engineers available to operate the equipment, especially for the wages Carbide can pay in an unprofitable market. But Dilip’s meager paycheck is enough to lift his family out of dire poverty. Closing the plant permanently would economically devastate the city.

In the film, the events of the disaster coincide with the wedding of Dilip’s younger sister, an event made possible by the same company ultimately responsible for killing thousands and injuring scores of thousands more.

Though the filmmakers take sides regarding the cause of the disaster — citing corporate negligence as opposed to Carbide’s official attribution to sabotage by a disgruntled worker — the portrayal of the key figures is nuanced. Carbide’s CEO, Warren Anderson (Martin Sheen), expresses his desire to continue the social progress made possible by the Green Revolution of the 1960s. He’s proud of the economic opportunity the plant provides for the citizens of Bhopal.

Yet it takes a special kind of callousness to enable the circumstances that lead to the disaster. Anderson and Carbide refuse to admit that the chemical being manufactured in Bhopal — MIC — is dangerous to humans. Who would work there if it was? This denial leaves the ramshackle local hospital unequipped to handle an industrial disaster and gives most of the employees an unwarranted sense of security. If they were in danger, surely someone would tell them, right?

Perhaps the most chilling aspects of the story are the mechanisms are already in place to shield Carbide from corporate responsibility. The plant is technically run by an Indian subsidiary, so it’s the subsidiary’s fault for hiring untrained workers and letting the machines fall apart. It’s the subsidiary’s fault for failing to prepare for an accident that Carbide said couldn’t happen.

Scenes showing the night of the disaster are haunting not just because of the human suffering but because of the context in which it takes place. A deadly cloud blows through a shanty town of nearly half a million people going about their daily lives. As wedding guests start to fall ill, the expression in Dilip’s sister’s eyes is not fear of imminent doom but frustration: “Why is this happening on my special day?”

Performances in the film are generally good, especially Sheen’s role as Anderson. Mischa Barton’s turn as an American journalist is awkward and poorly integrated into the story. Though only the Hindi dialogue is subtitled, there are enough strong accents — including Kal Penn’s Indian accent and that of a European Carbide executive — that perhaps the English dialogue should’ve been subtitled as well.

Thirty years after the Bhopal disaster, industrial accidents caused by corporate irresponsibility are still too common all over the world. Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain implores us to (paraphrasing George Santayana) remember the past, so that we may stop repeating it.


Streaming Video News: December 12, 2014

I updated my list of Bollywood movies streaming on Netflix to reflect one change: Salman Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger leaves the service on Friday, December 19. It’s not a great movie, but the novelty of the scenes shot in Cuba may make it worth a watch.

In Theaters: December 12, 2014

With Aamir Khan’s P.K. looming over the horizon, no new Hindi films are opening in the Chicago area on Friday, December 12, 2014. Action Jackson carries over for a second weekend at the Regal Cantera Stadium 17 in Warrenville and AMC South Barrington 30 in South Barrington, which also holds over Happy Ending.

Starting Friday, the South Barrington 30 will carry Brahmin Bulls, an English-language feature that played at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival in September.

This weekend’s big new release is Rajnikanth’s Lingaa, which debuts locally on Thursday, December 11. MovieMax Cinemas in Niles, Muvico Rosemont 18 in Rosemont, and Cinemark at Seven Bridges in Woodridge are all carrying both the Tamil and Telugu versions of the film, both of which reportedly have English subtitles.