Movie Review: Jazbaa (2015)

Jazbaa1 Star (out of 4)

Jazbaa (“Passion“) is a mess from start to finish. It’s such a trainwreck that it manages to make top stars like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Irrfan Khan look silly.

From the very beginning, it’s obvious that something is off with Jazbaa. It just looks wrong. Director Sanjay Gupta is obsessed with putting filters on the camera, so every shot is a sickly green or yellow, with the occasional merciful blue. The grotesque palette makes Irrfan appear in urgent need of hospitalization.

That’s when you can actually see him clearly. Gupta also likes to play with lighting, to stupid effect. A group of cops sit around a dark conference table, light illuminating only their cheeks or chins. Their eyes and mouths — the parts of the face that actually convey meaning — are in shadow.

Although the plot has promise, Gupta mucks it up as well. Aishwarya plays Anu Verma, a successful defense lawyer who is happy to make evidence disappear if it will help her win. She’s also a single mom with an elementary-school-aged daughter, Sanaya (Sara Arjun). Anu’s best friend, Yohaan (Irrfan), is a corrupt but highly decorated cop who’s facing suspension.

At Sports Day at Sanaya’s school, Anu crosses the finish line first in the mother-daughter relay. But when she turns to celebrate with Sanaya, the girl has vanished.

Anu — who is standing in a crowd of people — calls for her daughter for all of five seconds before her eyes fill with tears and she starts shrieking her head off. Why does she immediately assume that something has gone horribly wrong? It’s almost like Anu knows she’s in a movie. The fact that Sanaya actually is missing doesn’t justify her overreaction.

A kidnapper calls, demanding that Anu free a rapist/murderer from death row in exchange for Sanaya’s safety. Anu enlists suspended Yohaan to help her, even though he’s the man who put the rapist behind bars in the first place.

All this happens in frantic fashion. Within the first fifteen minutes, Anu leads the cops on a high-speed car chase, even though we’ve hardly had time to get to know her, her daughter, or Yohaan. Gupta expects the audience to invest in the characters simply because they are there, not because they have earned our sympathy or affection.

Gupta’s obsession with using camera techniques for their own sake — rather than for the sake of the story — reaches its absurd apex in courtroom scenes. Every single shot is peppered with numerous micro-movements of the camera: up, down, in, out. It makes no sense. It’s as though Gupta is deliberately trying to distract us from the acting.

That may be a good thing, because the acting is bad. Aishwarya screams and sobs and pounds her fists on the ground. Irrfan throws a tantrum, kicking over barrels like a frustrated baseball player taking out a Gatorade cooler in the dugout. While sitting in a car with Anu, Yohaan emphasizes a point by breaking her passenger window with his elbow. It’s so stupid, it’s sublime.

The inspiration for Irrfan Khan’s character?

Chandan Roy Sanyal — who plays the rapist, Niyaz — is the hammiest of the hams, cackling as though he’s a villain from the 1960s Batman TV show. He’s nearly outdone by Sam, the rape victim’s old boyfriend who is now crazy from having taken too much “angel dust.” Don’t do drugs, kids.

The anti-drug message is secondary to the real moral behind Jazbaa. The screen fades to black as the movie ends, and sad piano music plays as Indian rape statistics appear on screen. The note ends not with a call for an end to rape or greater aid for victims, but for speedier executions of those convicted of rape (a death penalty offense in India).

The problem with the message is that the plot of the very movie that precedes it cautions against such haste. During the course of their investigation, Anu and Yohaan uncover enough evidence to suggest that the crime that got Niyaz thrown behind bars didn’t proceed the way the original prosecutor concluded it did.

Regardless of the fate of the fictional character Niyaz, Jazbaa presents a case in which a potentially innocent man is sentenced to death. The movie then ends with a note encouraging speedier executions, thus limiting the opportunities for a person wrongly convicted to overturn his or her own death sentence. Even if one agrees with the sentiment at the end of the film, it doesn’t follow logically from the actual events of the film.

Rather than trying to make a moral point, Gupta needs to focus on telling a good story. He fails to do that, getting hung up on distracting camera techniques and overacting that puts soap operas to shame. Jazbaa is a disaster.


Streaming Video News: October 9, 2015

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with one new addition to the catalog. 1994’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun — starring Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit — is now available for streaming. For everything else new on Netflix, check Instant Watcher.

In other streaming video news, Creature 3D is now on Spuul. This is one of my favorite So Bad, It’s Good movies. Everything about it is hilarious, including the ridiculous creature and a hero who seduces his lady-love by casually lounging against a tree in the hopes that she’ll notice him while driving by. It’s brilliant.

Hey baby, you drive through this forest often?

Opening October 9: Jazbaa

The Bollywood thriller Jazbaa (“Passion“) — starring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Irrfan Khan — opens in Chicago area theaters on October 9, 2015.

Jazbaa opens on Friday at the AMC River East 21 in Chicago, Regal Gardens Stadium 1-6 in Skokie, MovieMax Cinemas in Niles, AMC South Barrington 30 in South Barrington, Regal Cantera Stadium 17 in Warrenville, and AMC Loews Woodridge 18 in Woodridge. It has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 10 min.

Singh Is Bliing carries over at all of the above theaters except the River East 21. Talvar gets at second week at MovieMax, Cantera 17, and South Barrington 30, which also holds over Kis Kisko Pyaar Karoon.

Another new release with a South Asian focus is the documentary He Named Me Malala, about the heroic teen activist Malala Yousafzai. It opens on Friday across the Chicago area and the nation. Click here for a national theater list.

The documentary Meet the Patels carries over for a fifth week at the South Barrington 30, Music Box Theatre in Chicago , Wilmette Theatre in Wilmette, and Regal Lincolnshire Stadium 21 in Lincolnshire.

The Pakistani film Jawani Phir Nahi Ani gets a third week at the South Barrington 30 and Cantera 17.

Other Indian movies showing in the Chicago area this weekend include:

Movie Review: Talvar (2015)

Talvar4 Stars (out of 4)

*Author’s note: Though this film is based on a true story, I reviewed the film as a stand-alone piece of art, not as a referendum on the 2008 Noida double murder case.

A candlelight vigil is held following a teenage girl’s murder, protesters holding signs demanding justice for the victim. Director Meghna Gulzar and writer Vishal Bhardwaj highlight the subjective natures of truth and justice in the hypnotic mystery Talvar (international title: “Guilty“).

The girl is 14-year-old Shruti Tandon (Ayesha Parveen), found dead in her bedroom by her parents, who apparently slept through their daughter’s murder. Shruti’s father, Ramesh (Neeraj Kabi), and mother, Nutan (Konkona Sen Sharma), fall under suspicion after the original suspect — a servant named Khempal — is found murdered on the roof of their apartment building.

The initial police investigation is a calamity. Neighbors and detectives wander obliviously through the family’s apartment, contaminating the crime scene. Officers neglect to preserve crucial evidence because they are busy taking photos of each other next to the body on the roof.

With the most obvious suspect exonerated by virtue of his being dead, the police invent outlandish theories to establish the guilt of the parents. They rely heavily on the testimony of Ramesh’s employee, Kanhaiya (Sumit Gulati), who has a grudge against his boss.

At the press conference announcing formal charges against the Tandons, the police chief mispronounces Shruti’s name and assassinates her character. The chief accuses Ramesh of wife-swapping, adding, “He is as characterless as his daughter was.” Embarrassed by the conduct of the police, the government turns the case over to the Central Department of Investigation (CDI), handing the reins to officer Ashwin Kumar (Irrfan Khan).

As new theories of the crime are introduced, Gulzar reenacts each version as though it were true. Ramesh and Nutan are shown as either savvy killers or grief-stricken parents, depending on who is telling the tale.

The technique is integrated seamlessly into the narrative of the investigation, which changes hands three times. That means that Shruti’s death is shown over and over again, in gory detail. Even though the investigation is the focus of the story, the audience is never allowed to forget the two deaths that started it.

The point of Talvar is not so much to establish the truth of what happened — a fact made extraordinarily difficult thanks to the botched initial investigation — but the multiple ways that evidence can be interpreted. The different conclusions reached by the police, Ashwin, and his successor Paul (Atul Kumar), reveal as much about the investigators as they do about the crime itself.

Gulzar maintains the gravity of the story with sparing use of background music (also written by Bhardwaj). Uncomfortable interrogations are made even more uncomfortable without the distraction of a musical score. Gulzar also coaxes great performances from her cast, especially Kabi, Sharma, and Gulati, who have to act in the present day storyline as well as the reenactments of the murder.

Irrfan Khan is amazing, with Ashwin standing in for the audience as the objective observer. Well, as objective as Ashwin can be whilst being pressured into a divorce by his wife, Reemu (Tabu). The divorce subplot again highlights that the participants are human beings, not crime-solving robots. Same for the detail about Paul bringing his son with him to the crime scene because he can’t find a babysitter.

Talvar is an engrossing police procedural full of humanity. It’s both a joy and a nightmare to watch, knowing that the story is based on a real incident. Gulzar’s direction is tense, but never exploitative. This is a terrific film.


Bollywood Box Office: October 2-4

The North American box office report for October 2-4, 2015 offers an interesting look at what kinds of Bollywood movies are more popular in Canada than the United States. Spoiler alert: Canadians love comedies.

Singh Is Bliing got the wider release of the weekend’s two new films, debuting in 160 theaters: 140 in the US, 20 in Canada. It earned $478,888 total in North America, for average earnings of $2,993 per screen. Those 20 Canadian theaters — which made up about 13% of the total number of theaters showing the movie in North America — accounted for nearly a third of the film’s total earnings ($152,743). Those Canadian theaters saw average earnings of $7,637 per screen, versus an average of $2,330 in US theaters showing Singh Is Bliing.

By contrast, earnings for the weekend’s other new release — the crime drama Talvar — were divided among the countries more predictably. Talvar earned a total of $132,084 from 59 theaters in North America ($2,239 average). Canada’s nine theaters (15% of the total) contributed about 13% of the total earnings ($17,508).

The performance of second-weekend holdover Kis Kisko Pyaar Karoon confirms Canadian filmgoers’ fondness for Bollywood comedies. KKPK took in another $46,169 from 42 theaters across North America ($1,099 average), bringing its two-week total to $324,993. Nearly half of that amount — $22,697 — came from the 13 Canadian theaters carrying the film. The average earning per screen in Canada ($1,746) was more than double the US average ($809).

All of the growth in theater counts for Bollywood movies is happening in the US, while the greatest demand — especially for comedies, patriotic action flicks, and anything starring Akshay Kumar — seems to be in Canada. Some savvy distributor or theater chain needs to capitalize on this.

Katti Batti clung on for a third weekend, posting anemic earnings of just $608 from four theaters ($152 average). Its total North American earnings stand at $362,753.

Source: Rentrak, via Bollywood Hungama

Movie Review: Singh Is Bliing (2015)

SinghIsBling2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the soundtrack at Amazon

Singh Is Bliing is an imperfect but entertaining action comedy, and one of Prabhu Deva’s better directorial ventures. The movie offers one of the year’s best comic performances, from an unlikely source.

Akshay Kumar stars as Raftaar Singh, a totally different character from the one he played in 2008’s Singh Is Kinng. The two movies have nothing to do with each other, except that calling Singh Is Bliing a sequel provides a reason for Kumar to play a Punjabi Sikh again, as if one needs a reason.

Raftaar is a typical Bollywood layabout, far too old be mooching off his parents (Kumar is 48). He’s got a pair of lackeys — Pappi (Arfi Lamba) and Pompi (Anil Mange) — who follow him about. Raftaar’s father gives his son an ultimatum: take a job with Dad’s buddy in Goa, or marry an overweight woman, which is apparently a form of punishment.

Dad’s buddy (Pradeep Rawat) assigns Raftaar and his boys the task of guarding Sara (Amy Jackson), daughter of the boss’s friend, who also happens to be an international arms dealer. The problem is that Sara only speaks English, and Raftaar and his friends only speak Hindi.

They hire a translator, Emily (Lara Dutta), who immediately steals the whole film. Dutta is hilarious. Emily gets so into her role that she starts imitating Raftaar’s mannerisms, not just translating his words. She busts out some funky dance moves in a bar after matching Raftaar shot-for-shot.

A particularly clever song sequence sees one of Raftaar’s romantic daydreams about Sara made manifest. Pappi and Pompi notice Raftaar staring into space and decide to join him in his dream, dragging Emily in with them. As the boys provide the background music, Emily serves as Raftaar’s romantic surrogate, herself wooing Sara as she sings in English what Raftaar has just sung in Hindi. It’s very funny and smart.

Unfortunately, the rest of the plot isn’t as intelligent. Multiple story threads fail to come together in a satisfactory way. The big villain of the film — an arms dealer named Mark (Kay Kay Menon) who is a rival of Sara’s father — is a total afterthought, and his few scenes are poorly integrated into the rest of the story. He doesn’t steer the plot until the very end of the film, so Raftaar and Sara are in little serious danger for the bulk of the picture.

This is a shame, because Menon is a skilled scenery chewer. Sporting a ponytail, Menon channels Terry Silver from Karate Kid III, enhancing the similarity by shouting “I like it!”

In a surprising reversal of gender norms, Jackson gets to perform the best fight choreography, while Kumar plays Raftaar as brave but bumbling. Jackson is perfectly suited for action roles, but her acting and dancing could use some work if she wants to branch out. Kumar is likable as ever.

Though Singh Is Bliing isn’t overtly misogynistic like some of Prabhu Deva’s earlier films, there’s a disappointing sequence of victim blaming. Raftaar instructs a pair of women being manhandled by a pair of lecherous men to fight back. He takes the idiotic view that women can prevent sexual assault simply by slapping their attackers.

When the ladies kick their attackers into submission, Raftaar feels vindicated in his opinion (never mind that the two attackers know that Raftaar is waiting to pummel them should they overpower the women).

Later, Sara annihilates a room full of goons, and Pappi and Pompy credit her success to Raftaar’s speech. It’s unclear if this is meant to be a joke, but the statement is followed immediately by a shot of some dancers — one of whom had earlier been punched in the face — hitting the fallen goons, seeming to validate Raftaar as deserving of credit.

Though Singh Is Bliing falls short of its potential, surprisingly fun performances by Dutta, Menon, and butt-kicking Amy Jackson keep the sequel from ever being dull.


Opening October 2: Singh Is Bliing and Talvar

Two new Bollywood movies hit Chicago area theaters on October 2, 2015. Singh Is Bliing — the sequel to 2008’s Singh Is Kinng — gets the wider release of the two.

Singh Is Bliing opens Friday at the AMC River East 21 in Chicago, Regal Gardens Stadium 1-6 in Skokie, AMC South Barrington 30 in South Barrington, Regal Cantera Stadium 17 in Warrenville, and AMC Loews Woodridge 18 in Woodridge. It has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 20 min.

The weekend’s other new release is the crime thriller Talvar, starring Irrfan Khan and Konkona Sen Sharma.

Talvar opens on Friday at the South Barrington 30 and Cantera 17.

Kis Kisko Pyaar Karoon gets a second weekend at the Cantera 17 and South Barrington 30, which also holds over Katti Batti.

Meet the Patels carries over at the South Barrington 30 and expands to the Wilmette Theatre in Wilmette and Regal Lincolnshire Stadium 21 in Lincolnshire.

The Pakistani film Jawani Phir Nahi Ani gets a second week at the South Barrington 30 and Cantera 17.

If that’s not enough to keep you busy, the Chicago South Asian Film Festival is taking place this weekend, and includes a screening of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge on Saturday night.