Book Review: Don’t Call It Bollywood (2016)

Hindi film fans take a lot of things on faith, especially those of us who didn’t grow up immersed in Bollywood. For example, a Bollywood punch doesn’t simply knock a person to the ground, it sends him flying through a wall. Also, ball gowns are appropriate attire for women no matter the environment, be it a sand dune or a snowy mountaintop.

One aspect of Hindi cinema it never occurred to me question is why Punjab and Punjabi characters feature so prominently in films made in Mumbai. In her new book, Don’t Call It Bollywood, Margaret Redlich explains how Punjabi refugees shaped modern Hindi films, resulting in the mustard fields of Punjab becoming the industry’s visual symbol for the nation: “the India you want to remember.”

Redlich’s book is part film history, part industry insight, and part personal essay. Each chapter begins with Redlich’s own accounts of her experience with Hindi cinema, as well as her efforts to introduce it to others. Like me, she didn’t grow up with Bollywood films, only really finding a passion for them as an adult. The dismissive attitudes of (I presume) her fellow film studies counterparts toward Indian cinema prompted her to write this book.

Don’t Call It Bollywood is a good jumping-off point for movie fans ready to take the leap from the screen to the page. Because the e-book does not contain any photos or illustrations, it helps to be familiar enough with Hindi films or Indian culture to have some preexisting image in mind when Redlich mentions something like a character wearing “a typical Parsi hat.”

The book features several addendums, including suggestions for further reading. The most helpful is the “Useful Hindi Words to Recognize” addendum, which serves as a key for translating almost any Hindi film title.

Redlich’s writing style is very accessible, and for $2.99, the price of the e-book is undeniably reasonable. Click this link to check out Don’t Call It Bollywood on Amazon. More of Redlich’s writings on Hindi films, plus her movie reviews, can be found at her website, also called Don’t Call It Bollywood.

Bollywood Box Office: July 22-24, 2016

Madaari quietly performed to expectations in North America on a weekend overshadowed by the titan Rajinikanth. From July 22-24, 2016, Madaari earned $94,268 from 61 theaters ($1,545 average) in the United States and Canada. That’s pretty good considering the competition: Rajinikanth’s Tamil/Telugu film Kabali, which took in nearly $4 million in its first four days.

The cannibalization of screenspace by Kabali and Hollywood blockbusters greatly reduced Sultan‘s footprint, throttling the film’s performance in its third weekend in North American theaters. Sultan earned $298,753 from 114 theaters ($2,621 average), bringing its total to $5,897,836.

Sultan‘s competition further increases this Friday with the release of the Varun Dhawan-John Abraham action flick Dishoom, so it looks as though my projections for Sultan were a bit on the high side last week. A $7 million total seems much less likely now, especially with Sultan poised to lose half of its remaining theaters on Friday. It could still surpass the $6.53 million made by 3 Idiots in 2009, but even that’s not a given.

Sources: Box Office Mojo and Rentrak, via Bollywood Hungama

Movie Review: Madaari (2016)

Madaari1 Star (out of 4)

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Madaari (“The Puppetmaster“) is phony populism at its worst. The entire story hinges on unrealistic assumptions presented in an annoying manner.

Man-on-the-street footage is among the laziest of filmmaking cliches because it serves as a form of storytelling peer pressure. The audience is shown that they must feel a certain way because that’s how these hundreds of random, nameless characters feel. It removes the burden from the filmmaker to craft a convincing narrative while simultaneously assuming that the audience wouldn’t be able to understand a convincing narrative even if they saw one.

Without man-on-the-street footage, Madaari wouldn’t exist. Time and again, we are presented with montages of nobodies telling the audience how to feel, gathered around screens and nodding in unison. It’s irritating.

Take the opening of the film. News channels report that the son of Home Minister Prashant Goswami (Tushar Dalvi) has been kidnapped. An anonymous citizen is so shocked that he nearly drives into oncoming traffic. Cut to a shot of a teenage daughter telling her father that he must have misheard the news, since it would be simply too shocking if the home minister’s son was really kidnapped.

WE GET IT! The kidnapping of a politician’s child is a big deal. We’d understand that just as clearly if the information was presented to us with a shot the minister himself receiving the news that his son was kidnapped. Also, this news has no direct impact on the lives of ordinary citizens, so why do they react so dramatically? It’s not like the news was: “Zombies have taken over India! Run for your lives!”

The kidnapper in Madaari is Nirmal (Irrfan Khan), who doesn’t demand ransom but rather information about the fate of his own 7-year-old son, Apu. It’s clear from Nirmal’s choice of target that he suspects government corruption is at play.

Apparently, much of the public also considers the government corrupt since Nirmal immediately becomes a folk hero. But let’s be clear about this: Nirmal becomes a folk hero for kidnapping a little boy!

It’s not enough for the movie to imply that the home minister had it coming (twisted as that would be). The story blames 8-year-old Rohan (Vishesh Bansal) for his own kidnapping because he’s insufficiently Indian. He eschews traditional street food in favor of french fries and drinks bottled water because local tap water makes him sick. As if kidnapping a “foreign” kid is somehow morally justifiable.

Let’s reiterate: Rohan is eight. He’s eight! He’s entirely a product of his upbringing and his environment, neither of which he has any control over because he’s a little kid.

This is important because, even though Rohan is not in mortal danger early on, Nirmal eventually threatens the boy’s life. Yet that doesn’t change Nirmal’s folk hero status. How is it heroic to threaten to kill a kid?

And why should it matter what the public thinks of this guy anyway? Director Nishikant Kamat and writers Ritesh Shah and Shailja Kejriwal overestimate the public’s ability to influence operational decisions in a case like this, pushing the story in a direction that is absurd and stupid.

Lead investigator Nachiket (Jimmy Shergill) adopts a wait-and-see strategy as his rescue plan, since the members of Prashant’s party are most concerned about the optics of the situation. “If he can’t protect his own son, how can he protect the nation?” This doesn’t leave much for Shergill to do, an unfortunate victim of the film’s pathologically boring tendencies.

When given the opportunity, Khan shows all the skills in his acting arsenal. He’s grounded in his depiction of Nirmal, portraying him as a man shattered but functional. Nirmal’s post-traumatic flashback scenes are more informative and emotionally effective than the news footage Kamat uses as filler.

The climax of Madaari is not only unrealistic, it doesn’t satisfy the hunger for social justice the story so desperately tries to stoke. Madaari isn’t even substantial enough to qualify as populist junk food.

Links

Opening July 22: Madaari

Thanks to Kabali taking over every screen at MovieMax and construction work shuttering several screens at the South Barrington 30, the social drama Madaari is getting a very limited release in the Chicago area on Friday, July 22, 2016. The only local theater carrying the Irrfan Khan-starrer is the Regal Cantera Stadium 17 in Warrenville. The movie has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 14 min.

With so many screens either out of commission or devoted to Hollywood summer blockbusters, Sultan is set to lose a lot of local theaters come Friday. It gets a third weekend at the Cantera 17, AMC South Barrington 30 in South Barrington, and one show per day at the Regal Round Lake Beach 18 in Round Lake Beach. That’s down from the nine theaters that carried Sultan during its first two weeks.

The only other Indian movie in town this weekend is Rajinikanth’s Kabali. Starting Thursday morning, Kabali shows in both Tamil (with English subtitles) and Telugu (no subtitles) at MovieMax Cinemas in Niles, Muvico Rosemont 18 in Rosemont, Century Stratford Square in Bloomingdale, Cinemark at Seven Bridges in Woodridge, and Marcus Addison Cinema in Addison (Tamil only). It has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 32 min.

Bollywood Box Office: July 15-17, 2016

With no new competitors entering the fray, Sultan dominated the Bollywood box office in North America for a second weekend in a row. From July 15-17, 2016, it added another $956,949 from 298 theaters ($3,211 average) to bring its total to $5,321,818. The movie continues to receive outsized support from Canada, where the weekend’s per-theater average was $7,349, versus an average of $2,849 in theaters in the United States.

Last week, I looked at the performances of past blockbusters to gauge how Sultan might fare going forward, so let’s continue that exercise this week. Sultan‘s second weekend earnings were about 41% of what it earned in its first weekend in theaters. That’s better than the 31% Dhoom 3 carried over, but worse than both PK (47%) and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (60%). Bajrangi Bhaijaan‘s business grew at a significantly slower pace than that of PK or Dhoom 3, which concentrated their earnings early in their theatrical runs. By the end of their second weekend in theaters, here’s what each of those three films had earned, as well as what percentage of the films’ total earnings those figures represent:

  • Bajrangi Bhaijaan: $5,558,910 after second weekend; 69% of total earnings
  • PK: $7,785,486 after second weekend; 74% of total earnings
  • Dhoom 3: $6,817,835 after second weekend; 84% of total earnings

Applying those percentages to Sultan‘s second weekend haul yields total earnings of $7.7 million, $7.1 million, and $6.3 million, respectively. Sultan‘s week-to-week retention rate hints at it performing more like PK or Dhoom 3 than slow-growing Bajrangi Bhaijaan, so a final total right around $7 million seems most likely.

Other Hindi films still in theaters:

  • Udta Punjab: Week 5; $5,694 from four theaters; $1,424 average; $1,234,838 total
  • Dhanak: Week 5; $170 from one stalwart theater; $12,624 total

Sources: Box Office Mojo and Rentrak, via Bollywood Hungama

Movie Review: Udta Punjab (2016)

UdtaPunjab4 Stars (out of 4)

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Several years ago, an affluent community near me realized it had a heroin problem. It did so when a pair of high school students — disturbed by the overdose deaths of three classmates within a single school year — filmed fellow students discussing their own drug use.

The students screened their documentary Neuqua on Drugs for a library auditorium full of horrified school administrators, media, and parents. The adults in the room were shocked that such a problem had festered under their overprotective noses. This kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen in neighborhoods with million-dollar homes. It wasn’t supposed to happen to “good” kids.

Punjab is in the middle of its own drug crisis, without the resources of a wealthy American suburb to fight it, nor the collective will to protect a generation of potential Ivy Leaguers. Writer-director Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab (“Punjab on a High“) provides context and scope for the state’s drug problems in a film that is as entertaining as it is enlightening.

A quartet of lead characters showcase different aspects of the crisis. Musician Tommy (Shahid Kapoor) made a fortune churning out songs celebrating drug culture. Just as it becomes apparent that Tommy’s own drug abuse is hampering his ability to write new music, he’s arrested, the easy scapegoat in a police attempt to look like they are cracking down on drugs.

That’s impossible to do, however, when the cops themselves are profiting from the drug trade. Officer Sartaj (Diljit Dosanjh) even complains that police deserve bigger bribes to look the other way when truckloads of narcotics cross the border. Only when Sartaj’s younger brother, Balli (Prabhjyot Singh), is hospitalized from an overdose does the young cop realize his part in fomenting the problem.

Dr. Preeti Sahni (Kareena Kapoor Khan) is more than happy to place blame on Sartaj and the police. She operates a rehab clinic, so she’s seen first-hand the devastation drugs wreak on individuals, their families, and the community at large. Eager to thank the doctor for helping to dry out Balli and atone for his own profiteering, Sartaj joins forces with Preeti to trace the drugs to their source.

Sartaj locates the region’s main distribution hub, a compound where a young woman nicknamed Bauria (Alia Bhatt) is imprisoned as a sex slave. When Bauria found a packet of powder — thrown over the Pakistani border discus-style — in the field where she worked, she’d hoped to sell it and get rich. Only the intended recipients of the packet found out, capturing her, hooking her on drugs, and using her to service clients, including the police chief, who happens to be Sartaj’s cousin.

Everything and everyone in Udta Punjab is connected, right down to the poster of Tommy hanging on Balli’s wall. In the same way that the character’s lives entwine, so do the region’s fortunes. It only takes a few corrupt cops and politicians to sustain a catastrophe that keeps the beds at Preeti’s clinic full.

Chaubey’s story — co-written by Sudip Sharma — wisely embeds the drug crisis within the purview of ordinary life. Crops still need to be harvested, and love still blossoms, as it does between Sartaj and Preeti. His crush on the beautiful doctor develops quickly, but he’s too shy to express his feelings, intimidated as he is by her intelligence. He gathers the intel, but she has to explain to him (and thus the audience, thankfully) the intersection between government officials, chemical manufacturers, and the gangsters controlling the drug trade. She grows increasingly charmed by his enthusiasm and dedication.

Rooting the narrative within a real-life framework requires room for humor as well, tinted appropriately dark given the subject matter. Chaubey juxtaposes funny moments with grim ones, occasionally blending the comic with the tragic in the same scene. For example, a singer croons, “Her smile makes the flowers bloom,” over a shot of Bauria vomiting.

The film’s performances are likewise balanced between the straightforward deliveries of Kapoor Khan and Dosanjh, and the wilder turns of Bhatt and Kapoor. The horrors of Bauria’s circumstances are made clear but not dwelt upon, focusing instead on the character’s strength and ingenuity, movingly depicted by Bhatt. Kapoor plays Tommy with a manic energy that doesn’t dissipate even when the singer is sober.

Chaubey’s film is perfectly balanced, in every respect. That makes the Censor Board controversy surrounding Udta Punjab‘s release seem even more ridiculous. There’s nothing in the film that comes close to glorifying drug use, so attempts to stall its release with demands that every reference to Punjab be removed is simply an attempt by vested interests to deny that Punjab has a drug problem. People in my own community and thousands of Punjabi citizens know the truth: while politicians bury their heads in the sand, people are dying.

Links

Streaming Video News: July 15, 2016

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with two new additions to the catalog. The Hindi-dubbed version of the 2015 Telugu historical epic Rudhramadevi is now available for streaming, as is the 2014’s Margarita with a Straw, an important drama about a disabled college student’s exploration of her sexuality. For everything else new on Netflix, check Instant Watcher.

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with one new addition — the 2004 English-language flick Indian Cowboy: A Love-Love Story.