Movie Review: Qala (2022)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Qala on Netflix

Writer-director Anvitaa Dutt makes must-see movies. First with 2020’s Bulbbul and now with her second feature film Qala, Dutt has shown an immaculate attention to visual detail and the ability to create lush color palettes that Sherwin-Williams would envy.

As in Bulbbul, Qala finds Triptii Dimri playing another naive young woman trapped in a gloomy mansion with someone who wishes her ill. Qala‘s story, however, lacks the depth and layers that made Bulbbul so memorable.

Qala (Dimri) is the only child of Urmila Manjushree (Swastika Mukherjee), a famous singer who is the widow of an even more renowned musician that died before his daughter’s birth. Qala had a twin brother who did not survive, with the doctor noting that sometimes the stronger of the two fetuses will take the nutrients meant for the other. Urmila spends the rest of Qala’s life punishing the girl for this.

The movie opens with Qala at the height of her fame. She’s the most popular singer in the burgeoning Calcutta movie industry in the 1930s, and she’s just earned her first gold record. She lives in a gorgeous art nouveau home from which she grants interviews to a room full of reporters clad in sage green suits. But her achievements still aren’t enough to win her distant mother’s approval.

Through flashbacks, we learn that music isn’t Qala’s passion, but something she does because her mother demands it. That changes when Urmila meets Jagan (Babil Khan, Irrfan’s son in his film debut), a self-taught singer who has no family of his own. Urmila immediately adopts him, hoping to make him into the most popular movie singer in Calcutta. She predicts that one day he’ll earn a gold record. Urmila stops instructing Qala in music and instead tries to find her a husband.

Urmila’s emotional abuse takes its toll on Qala, who has elaborate hallucinations that are interesting to look at but do little to inform her character. Beyond Qala’s psychological damage, there’s little to her personality, almost like she only exists in the scenes we see in the movie. Of course the extent of her mother’s control is extreme, but for Qala to be as devoid of desire or social awareness as she is strains credulity. She’s shown reading in one sequence. However, the point is not to show books as Qala’s window into the outside world, but instead for the audience to notice the symbolism of the title she’s reading.

Dutt is heavy-handed with her metaphors, especially during Qala’s hallucinations and one particular shot of a gargoyle (if you know, you know). Qala‘s message isn’t so subtle that it needs such obvious symbolism. There’s a theme about Qala using her fame to promote women in an industry that relies on women’s involvement on- and off-screen while simultaneously shaming them for it, but it’s only surface level. The film has no subplots.

Still, a period movie set in the worlds of classical and film music and directed by a filmmaker with such a distinct visual style is meant to be watched for more than just its story and characters. In addition to the stunning lighting, filters, costumes, and interiors, the beautiful songs by Amit Trivedi and background score by Sagar Desai demand constant attention from the viewer. Even with its flaws, Qala is an unforgettable sensory experience.

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Streaming Video News: December 1, 2022

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with today’s premier of the Netflix Original film Qala, starring Bulbbul‘s Triptii Dimri and Babil Khan, son of the late Irrfan Khan. Today also saw the additions of Amitabh Bachchan’s movie Goodbye, the Tamil film Nitham Oru Vaanam, and a trio of kids’ cartoons: Chhota Bheem aur Mahavinashini ka Vinaash, Chhota Bheem aur Malongh ka Raaz, and Chhota Bheem ki Citi Pitti Gul.

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Hulu with today’s premier of Kartik Aaryan’s romantic thriller Freddy. The Telugu movie Repeat was added to Hulu yesterday.

Today also marked the straight-to-streaming release of the Covid-themed drama India Lockdown on Zee5.

Finally, I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with the premier of the Tamil series Vandandhi and the streaming debut of the Malayalam movie Kooman. Comedian Zakir Khan’s latest stand-up special Tathastu released yesterday on Prime.

[Disclaimer: my Amazon links include an affiliate tag, and I may earn a commission on purchases made via those links. Thanks for helping to support this website!]

Movie Review: Four Samosas (2022)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Four aimless friends in Los Angeles’s Little India neighborhood rob a grocery store in the goofy heist movie Four Samosas. A well-established sense of place and likeable characters make this indie comedy a delight to watch.

Life came to a standstill for Vinny (Venk Potula) when his girlfriend Rina (Summer Bishil) broke up with him. That was three years ago. He works in a sari shop, still wearing his old gym uniform from middle school. His confidence is so low that he won’t share his rap lyrics with anyone but his younger cousin and biggest fan, Nikki (Maya Kapoor).

When he finds out that Rina is engaged to a manure salesman from India named Sanjay (Karan Soni), Vinny comes up with a plan: steal the diamonds that are set aside to pay for Rina’s wedding. See, Rina’s dad (played by Tony Mirrcandani) is one of the neighborhood big shots. He owns a grocery store, which makes him rich — at least by comparison to Vinny and his friends.

Vinny gathers a crew of oddballs to help him steal the diamonds from the grocery store safe, tailoring his reasons for the theft to the person. He appeals to his wannabe actor buddy Zak (Nirvan Patnaik) out of friendship. He convinces the “under-over-achiever” Anjali (Sharmita Bhattacharya) that some of the money will go to charity (although she’s really just interested in spending time with her crush, Zak). Finally, there’s Paru (Sonal Shah) — a “malcontent engineer” who’s eager to wreak havoc while she waits in endless limbo for her green card.

The world in Four Samosas is tiny, no bigger than the neighborhood where the characters work and live. It’s the reason why Vinny can convince himself that stealing from Rina’s dad will help him achieve whatever it is he thinks it will achieve. It also makes the obstacles to the plan very local and small potatoes, from neighbors putting on a play about King Ashoka to another group of slackers petitioning to build an independent South Asian state on an empty piece of land near the railroad tracks.

Even if it’s not strictly realistic, Four Samosas feels authentic. The character growth driving the whole story — Vinny needs to either confess his love to Rina or move on — is modest enough to suit the setting.

The real treats in Four Samosas are the performances. Everyone understands the assignment and executes, but there are a few standouts. Maya Kapoor’s shouty, pizza-centric rap audition as Cousin Nikki is bonkers. Samrat Chakrabarti has an amazing cameo in a double role as Sunny and Salim: characters from a fictitious movie about twin brothers separated at birth who avenge their mother’s death.

But the absolute star of Four Samosas is Sharmita Bhattacharya. She is hysterical as Anjali, and every line is delivered for maximum laughs. The movie is very good, but she’s simply fantastic.

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Movie Review: Brahmāstra Part One – Shiva (2022)

3 Stars (out of 4)

There’s a reason why you don’t use the phrase “first annual” to describe an event: you can’t guarantee the “second annual” event will actually happen. Writer-director Ayan Mukerji put extra pressure on himself when he titled the first film in his ambitious planned superhero trilogy Brahmāstra Part One – Shiva. Fortunately, Brahmāstra Part One is a solid foundation for future films in the franchise.

The movie opens with the establishment of the story’s foundational lore. Centuries ago, a group of sages received powerful weapons called astras, the most powerful of which is the Brahmāstra. The sages named their order the Brahmānsh, using their powers to protect humanity, keep the Brahmāstra from spinning out of control and destroying the world, and passing their powers down across the generations.

The powers themselves are pretty cool. One member of the Brahmānsh has the strength of a thousand bulls, another the agility of a monkey, and one can shoot snakes as arrows. It’s not totally clear how the powers are inherited, though. Some powers are explicitly tied to physical artifacts like bracelets, while others seem to transfer genetically and don’t require a sacred object. The first film in a planned series is the place to make those rules crystal clear.

In the present day, orphaned disc jockey Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor) is struck by a confluence of life-changing events in a temple during Durga Puja. He has visions of a scientist (Shah Rukh Khan, in a movie-stealing cameo) being tortured by three people with strange powers. He also sees a beautiful woman, Isha (Alia Bhatt), with whom he falls instantly in love.

As Isha and Shiva get to know one another, he has more visions in which the scientist reveals that an artist named Anish (Nagarjuna Akkineni) is in danger from the three strangers, and that the location of an ashram must be protected at all costs. Isha corroborates details of Shiva’s visions, and the two head out to warn Anish.

There they encounter the mysterious strangers, each wearing a piece of rock that emits a sinister red glow. Their beautiful, terrifying leader Junoon (Mouni Roy) wants to ignite the Brahmāstra’s full power and resurrect an entity called Dev. A battle ensues, but Shiva and Isha are able to reach the ashram.

The ashram is run by Raghu (Amitabh Bachchan), leader of the Brahmānsh and tutor for all astra wielders. He promises to explain Shiva’s visions and his strange connection to fire to him — and even tell him about his parents — but only if Shiva agrees to stay and send Isha back to the city.

Brahmāstra Part One employs a lot of superhero origin story tropes, right down to the main character being an orphan (a 30-year-old one at that). Character development isn’t high on Mukerji’s priority list, at least not in this phase of his saga.

Dialogue also isn’t a main priority, as much of what the characters utter is matter-of-fact or utilitarian. It’s also repetitive, as Isha says Shiva’s name fully 83 times, by one Reddit user’s count. It might even be more than that in the streaming video version, as Mukerji added some scenes to better establish the central romantic subplot.

Mukerji’s main focus in this first film is in establishing a visual language for the series. What he creates is stunning. Each scene is perfectly lit to focus the audience’s attention or set the emotional tone. Characters sport wardrobes in eye-catching hues. Best of all are the gorgeous ways the astras manifest, as collections of ethereal sprites of varying colors, depending on who wields them. Battles are vibrant as opposing magical forces clash, eschewing grittiness in favor of pure fantasy.

The scale of the film’s fight sequences feels appropriate. Battles are fought in enclosed spaces or in remote areas away from prying eyes, which makes sense, since the existence of the astras is supposed to be a secret. This approach provides a welcome respite from the tiresome city-wide destruction used in every Marvel film.

Brahmāstra Part One‘s sensory appeal is enhanced by an excellent soundtrack, written by Pritam and sung beautifully by Arijit Singh. The memorable songs come to life when performed by Ranbir Kapoor, who dances with a spontaneity that belies the hours of training that went into creating each song sequence.

Superhero origin stories have a formula for a reason, so Brahmāstra Part One – Shiva gets a pass for the elements that feel a little generic. Mukerji was smart to zero in on the aspects that set his film apart, including a distinctive look and approach to special effects that can enhance the array of possible superpowers yet to be introduced. I’m looking forward to Brahmāstra Part Two.

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Streaming Video News: November 18, 2022

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with today’s additions of the Hindi thriller Dhokha: Round D Corner and the political drama Godfather, available in its original Telugu and in Hindi. Yesterday, Netflix added the Malayalam horror movie Kumari for streaming.

In other Netflix news, though the streamer hasn’t officially announced it, Pinkvilla reports that Sidharth Malhotra’s forthcoming movie Mission Majnu is releasing directly on Netflix on January 18, 2023. What’s on Netflix noticed that the Excel Entertainment movies will expire on December 15. Netflix just released a trailer for Randeep Hooda’s undercover series CAT, which debuts December 9.

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Hulu with Wednesday’s addition of the Telugu film Iravatham. Disney+ Hotstar announced that Vicky Kaushal’s comedy Govinda Naam Mera will premiere directly on Disney+ Hotstar/Hulu on December 16.

Finally, I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with the addition of the Tamil film Iravin Nizhal. Have a great weekend!

[Disclaimer: my Amazon links include an affiliate tag, and I may earn a commission on purchases made via those links. Thanks for helping to support this website!]

Movie Review: Monica, O My Darling (2022)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Monica, O My Darling on Netflix

Sometimes, getting everything you ever wanted just isn’t worth it. Monica, O My Darling — based on mystery author Keigo Higashino’s story “Burûtasu No Shinzou” — explores the dangers that lurk at the top of the socioeconomic ladder.

Jay (Rajkummar Rao) worked his way up from nothing to become an engineer. He’s just been named to the board of directors of Unicorn Robotics, and he’s engaged to Niki (Akansha Ranjan Kapoor), the bubbly daughter of Unicorn’s founder and CEO.

Jay’s also about to lose everything thanks to an affair with the CEO’s assistant, Monica (Huma Qureshi). She tells Jay she’s pregnant with his baby, which she wants to keep. She’ll happily stay quiet about it so long as he pays her.

Jay considers confessing his infidelity to Niki. But when Niki relays a story about a man who cheated on her cousin and says her family will likely kill him or send him to jail, Jay believes her and says nothing.

The thing about Jay is, he’s ambitious but not ruthless. Not in the way rich people are. Not in the way his jealous future brother-in-law Nishi (Sikander Kher) is.

Nishi arranges a meeting with Jay and Arvind (Bagavathi Perumal) — the company’s head of accounting — at a seedy motel. (Special kudos to whoever is responsible for the delightfully bizarre animal art on the walls of the motel.) Apparently, Monica has told all three men that they are the father of her baby and demanded money from each of them. Nishi’s solution is to kill Monica and have Jay and Arvind dispose of the body. If they’re all involved, then none of them will rat on the others. There’s no way regular guys like Jay and Arvind would come up with something so dastardly on their own.

Of course, there are hiccups in the plan’s execution. People die, and Jay falls under suspicion from an unusual detective, ACP Naidu (Radhika Apte).

The tone of Monica, O My Darling isn’t that of a straightforward mystery, but it’s not as colorful and brash as another Netflix Original comic thriller, Ludo. Director Vasan Bala strikes a balance where the film feels simultaneously realistic and unrealistic. The audience is aware they’re watching a film — in particular in scenes when a frame appears around the edges of the screen to mimic the shape of an old TV console and the men imagine Monica scheming like a movie villain — but the stakes feel high nonetheless.

Perhaps the best example of this is in the film’s fight scenes. There are only a few fights in Monica, O My Darling, but they are the movie’s most emotionally impactful sequences. The fight choreography is loose to the point that it appears at first like the actors are just goofing around. As the fight drags on, the gravity of the situation builds and becomes oppressive.

The casting in Monica, O My Darling is outstanding. Rao is the perfect normal guy and Qureshi an ideal vamp. Perumal provides great comic relief. Sukant Goel is creepy as Gaurya — a childhood acquaintance of Jay who wants to be more important than he is. Kher and Apte chew through their scenery like a couple of sharks. They are so fun to watch.

The mystery driving the story forward is compelling, but the payoff is a little unsatisfying. It doesn’t meet Aristotle’s standard of “surprising yet inevitable.” Nevertheless, Monica, O My Darling is an engrossing film with a killer soundtrack. It’s a wonderful followup to Bala’s previous feature film: the excellent karate movie Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (“The Man Who Feels No Pain.”)

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Streaming Video News: November 4, 2022

I updated my list of Bollywood movies streaming on Hulu with today’s addition of Brahmāstra, Part 1: Shiva (sometimes called Shiva No. 1). The superhero flick has Hindi and English dialogue options.

Also new today is the straight-to-streaming film Tadka on Zee5. This Hindi remake of the Malayalam film Salt N’ Pepper stars Nana Patekar, Taapsee Pannu, and Ali Fazal. (Update: if you’re trying to watch Tadka via the Zee5 app on Apple TV and use subtitles, the subtitles will appear at the top of the screen, obscuring the picture. See the photo below for an example.)

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime yesterday with the streaming debut of Ponniyin Selvan: 1. Mani Ratnam’s latest has Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada audio options.

Finally, I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with a few new additions this week: the Tamil-dubbed films David and Uyire and the 2022 Telugu action flick The Ghost (also available in Tamil and Hindi). If you missed any of the Indian films added to Netflix in October, check out my monthly roundup for What’s on Netflix.

[Disclaimer: my Amazon links include an affiliate tag, and I may earn a commission on purchases made via those links. Thanks for helping to support this website!]

Movie Review: Dobaaraa (2022)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Science fiction films are rare in Bollywood, so when a sci-fi Hindi film doesn’t quite work, it’s extra disappointing. Dobaaraa — a remake of the 2018 Spanish film Mirage — doesn’t lean hard enough into sci-fi genre tropes, making it feel identity-less.

Night closes in on a subdivision in Pune in 1996, bringing with it a powerful electrical storm. 12-year-old Anay (Aarrian Sawant) consoles himself by watching old videos of his dad, who’s working abroad. As Anay switches the camera to record himself, he sees a commotion through the window of the house next door. He goes to investigate and winds up dead.

25 years later, new occupants move in to Anay’s old house. Antara (Taapsee Pannu) is unhappy in her marriage to Vikas (Rahul Bhat), but she’s trying to keep things civil for the sake of their 6-year-old daughter Avanti (Myra Rajpal). The couple’s college pal Abhishek (Sukant Goel) still lives in the neighborhood, and he tells them over dinner the story of what happened to Anay, his childhood best friend.

Vikas mentions later that it’s weird that Abhishek didn’t mention this when they bought the house, which is true. The movie ignores Abhishek’s omission, missing a chance to build tension by putting suspicion on him for the events to come.

After dinner, Abhishek explains more about Anay’s video camera, which Antara found in a closet in the boy’s old room. This information comes in handy later that night, when Antara is woken by an eerily similar electrical storm. Rather than head back to bed, she turns on Anay’s camera. She sees him in 1996, he sees her in 2021, and they are able to talk to each other. When he hears the commotion next door, she convinces him not to investigate. She saves his life but turns her own upside down in the process.

At this point (about a quarter of the way through the film), I was so sold on Dobaaraa that I turned it off so that I could watch it from the beginning with my husband. Whether in books, shows, or films, time-space anomalies are our jam. We recently finished watching the great 2016 Korean series Signal, which also features characters communicating across time via outdated tech, so Dobaaraa seemed like a great pick for a Saturday night movie.

Unfortunately, after we caught up the point where I’d stopped watching, the movie all but abandons its sci-fi trappings to become a lukewarm mystery in which the audience figures out what’s happening long before the main character does. Antara spends a ton of time grilling the people in her life about why they remember things differently, bogging down the story in dialogue that fails to progress the plot or develop the characters.

With a more traditional sci-fi approach to the story, Antara would try to figure out how to recreate the conditions that led her to contact Anay in the first place, and there might be more details about the nature of the electrical storm. If this were a true thriller, Antara would be up against a deadline or in peril herself. Without genre hooks or a true sense of urgency, Dobaaraa‘s conventional drama approach doesn’t really work, because the characters are less interesting than their situation.

A few scenes of Anay in the altered timeline where he survived have the level of danger associated with the thriller genre. But even then, it gets the beats wrong, putting Anay in harm’s way, only to change scenes before we see how he gets out of it.

There’s not a ton the actors can do with the script. Young Aarrian Sawant is pretty good as Anay. Taapsee Pannu builds sympathy for Antara in the early parts of the film but stalls out as her character’s emotional range shrinks. Antara may be frustrated in Dobaaraa‘s second act, but not as frustrated as the audience waiting for her to connect the dots.

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Movie Review: Laal Singh Chaddha (2022)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Laal Singh Chaddha — an official remake of Forrest Gump — was released with the expectation that it would be yet another blockbuster for Aamir Khan, along the lines of 3 Idiots and PK. Such a high bar was always going to be tough to clear. Laal Singh Chaddha is a perfectly nice movie, but that’s it.

In this version, the Forrest Gump character is Laal Singh Chaddha (Khan). He admits that he’s not too smart, but his life has been full of twists and turns. He recounts his story to his neighbors in a train carriage — an unwilling audience at first, but they wind up riveted by the end.

Young Laal (Ahmad Ibn Umar) grows up in a small farming town where he’s teased for wearing leg braces. His only friend is a girl named Rupa (Hafsa Ashraf). Laal follows every order from Rupa to the letter, so when she orders him to run from bullies, he does so, discovering that he no longer needs his braces.

When Rupa’s father murders her mother during a spat over money, Rupa comes to live with her aunt at Laal’s house, where the older woman works as a housekeeper. Rupa vows to get very rich when she grows up so that she never has to be on the receiving end of the kind of abuse that killed her mom.

Rupa (played as an adult by Kareena Kapoor) is a much more interesting character than Laal. Rupa’s motivations are understandable, and she’s willing to take risks to get what she wants. Those risks come with high-stakes consequences she’s forced to deal with.

Laal, on the other hand, floats through life like a feather on the wind — an obvious visual metaphor the film uses during the opening credits. He doesn’t want anything other than to be with Rupa, and when he can’t be, stuff just happens to him.

A selling point for both Forrest Gump and Laal Singh Chaddha is that both lead characters accidentally wind up in proximity to pivotal events in national history. When Forrest Gump released in 1994, the technology used to put Tom Hanks’ character into historical footage was cutting edge. Thanks to the advent of Photoshop and proliferation of deepfakes in the twenty years since Atul Kulkarni started his Indian adaptation of the screenplay, the altered archival videos in Laal Singh Chaddha are no longer so novel.

There’s also the fact that the movie has little to say about the historical events it features. They exist more as name checks, and Laal’s proximity is often no more consequential than a fan’s attendance at a sporting event.

The magnitude of these historical events belie the film’s themes, which are actually quite small and personal in nature. The moral lessons are things like loyalty and following through on promises even when there’s no one around to hold you accountable. This isn’t a movie about a man who changes the world.

There’s nothing wrong with Laal Singh Chaddha‘s modest goals. It’s a totally watchable film, if a bit too long. Mona Singh is sweet as Laal’s loving mother. Aamir Khan’s wide-eyed performance is not dissimilar from his turn in PK, although that was a better movie.

Kareena Kapoor turns in a masterclass in acting in every scene she’s in. It’s almost unimaginable that she wasn’t first choice for the role (which was reputedly supposed to go to Manushi Chhillar). She may not play the title character, but Laal Singh Chaddha belongs to Kareena Kapoor.

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Streaming Video News: October 21, 2022

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with yesterday’s addition of the Tamil family film Senior Super Heroes. Look for the Telugu movie Krishna Vrinda Vihari to become available for streaming some time tomorrow afternoon. And just a reminder that tons of Hindi flicks are set to leave Netflix on November 1, so plan your weekend viewing accordingly.

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with yesterday’s additions of the Marathi film Boyz 3 and a third season of Four More Shots Please!.

Finally, I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Hulu with the addition of the 2012 flick Filmistaan, which I really enjoyed.

One note about Hulu is that it seems like they’re the streaming service with the most disparate regional restrictions on marquee content. With some regularity, stuff that they promote on their social media channels is ultimately available in India, but not in the United States. For example, Liger is now streaming in Hindi in India, but not here. [Update: Liger in Hindi was added to Hulu over the weekend. I guess the other lesson is: stuff isn’t added to Hulu as quickly as it’s added to Disney+Hotstar.]

Plenty of titles are available on Amazon Prime in India that aren’t free with Prime in the US, but they aren’t usually titles that are promoted in advance. All this is just to say that, while I try to be accurate in the “Coming Soon” section on each of my three streaming pages, don’t be surprised if some titles mentioned on the Hulu page never make their way to the USA.

[Disclaimer: my Amazon links include an affiliate tag, and I may earn a commission on purchases made via those links. Thanks for helping to support this website!]