Streaming Video News: September 24, 2016

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with one new addition to the catalog. 1920 London is now available for streaming, following a brief theatrical run back in May. If you need to catch up on the first film in the horror series, 1920 is available for free on Amazon Prime.

In other Netflix news, three Indian TV series were recently added to the service: Ekaant, Mumbai Railway, and Siyaasat. Three other TV series — Adaalat, C.I.D., and Maharana Pratap — will expire from the service on October 15, exactly one year after they were added.

For everything else new on Netflix, check Instant Watcher.

Movie Review: Banjo (2016)

banjo1 Star (out of 4)

Buy the soundtrack at Amazon

One of the reasons I started reviewing Bollywood films was so that I could warn non-Hindi speakers and those without Indian cultural roots about movies that don’t translate well internationally. Banjo is one of those movies. Botched English subtitles and not enough context make Banjo confusing.

There are a number of problems with the subtitles. Dialogue spoken by off-camera characters — including the narrator — is frequently not subtitled at all. When it is, the subtitling is incomplete or improperly synchronized. Even the spoken English dialogue is sometimes written incorrectly in the subtitles, so who knows how well the Hindi dialogue is translated.

The missing subtitles are troublesome because Banjo is already terrible in regard to context. It’s often unclear why things are happening.

Let’s start with the film’s female lead, Chris (Nargis Fakhri). She’s an American musician or DJ — the subtitles and dialogue contradict each other — in need of two songs to submit to a music festival in New York. She gets an audio file from her friend, Mikey (Luke Kenny) — whose name is written as “Mickey” — of a band performing at a Ganesh Chaturthi festival, and she drops everything to fly to Mumbai and find them.

For reasons that aren’t made clear, it is apparently impossible for Mikey and Chris to find the band he recorded at the festival. I guess simply asking people in the neighborhood is not an option, which is unfortunate because literally everyone knows who they are.

The band is fronted by Taraat (Riteish Deshmukh), the group’s vocalist and banjo player. His day job is shaking down people for money at the behest of a local politician, Patil. The other three members of the band are drummers: a mechanic named Grease (Dharmesh Yelande in an embarrassing wig), a paperboy named Paper, and another guy named Vaja.

With zero leads, Chris is forced to turn to the slimy uncle of her New York friend Mira (Shruthi Mathur). The subtitles cut out right as Uncle gives Chris an assignment, but this is what I surmise the assignment to be: go to a particular slum and take unflattering photos of it, and Uncle will use the photos to have the place condemned so that a rich builder can demolish it and build a high-rise. I have no idea how much of that Uncle directly conveys to Chris, but she heads to the slum, camera in hand.

There, she’s introduced to Patil, who may or may not understand why she’s really there to take pictures. I’m not sure. The guide he assigns to show her around is Taraat.

Here’s where the film really falls on its ass. Writer-director Ravi Jadhav doesn’t explain why, but apparently it’s disreputable to be a banjo player (or one of his backup drummers). This is kind of important because Taraat lies to Chris when she asks if he knows any banjo players. All of the conflict in the first half is built around this lie, conveniently maintained by no one slipping up and outing Taraat by accident.

After watching the whole movie, I have no idea why it’s so bad to be a banjo player. Maybe Indian viewers understand, but it isn’t explained in the story. Without context, the central conflict of the first half of the film makes no sense.

Then again, the conflict in the second half of the film doesn’t make any sense either. The truth is revealed, and Chris forms a band with them…wait, what’s her role in the band? She sings a few lines, but she doesn’t seem to write the music, so why is Chris suddenly in charge?

Chris sucks because she can only see her predicament in terms of herself. She NEEDS a song for the festival, and Taraat and co. HAVE to help her! She can’t understand why these guys who live in a slum want to be paid for playing and don’t like working for exposure.

She’s also totally, totally uncool. I’ve seen better dancing at an Iowa wedding reception than Chris’s rigid, off-tempo bobbing. The movie’s single dumbest moment is when another musician filches one of her belongings. “He stole the plectrum,” she yells. You know what a plectrum is? It’s a freaking guitar pick. No one calls it a plectrum!

Nargis Fakhri is miscast as Chris. A better choice for a cool American would be Lisa Haydon. Besides Fakhri’s stiffness, her delivery is all wrong when she speaks in her native English. I can only imagine how bad she sounds in Hindi.

Riteish Deshmukh is much more fun to watch in dramatic roles than in the slapstick sidekick parts that pay his bills, but he deserves a better movie than this. Banjo doesn’t make enough sense to enjoyable, despite a decent soundtrack. Skip it.

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Opening September 23: Banjo

One new Hindi film gets a very limited release in the Chicago area on September 23, 2016. The musical romance Banjo stars Riteish Deshmukh and Nagris Fakhri.

Banjo opens on Friday at the AMC South Barrington 30 in South Barrington. It has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 21 min.

Baar Baar Dekho gets a third week at the South Barrington 30, MovieMax Cinemas in Niles, Regal Cantera Stadium 17 in Warrenville, and the AMC Loews Woodridge 18 in Woodridge.

Pink carries over at MovieMax, Cantera 17, and South Barrington 30, which also holds over Rustom for a seventh week. MovieMax gives another week to Naam Hai Akira.

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

Movie Review: Parched (2015)

parched4 Stars (out of 4)

Buy or rent the movie at Amazon or iTunes
Buy the soundtrack at iTunes
Parched is also available for streaming on Netflix in the US.

Writer-director Leena Yadav’s Parched thoughtfully examines the sorry state of gender equality in rural India. Brave performances by a talented cast give context to a complex, entrenched culture that dehumanizes women.

The culture is explored through the experiences of four very different women: an infertile wife named Lajjo (Radhika Apte), a 15-year-old newlywed named Janaki (Lehar Khan), a dancer and prostitute named Bijli (Surveen Chawla), and a 32-year-old widow named Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee). Rani is the link between the other women: a longtime friend to Bijli, a neighbor and buddy to Lajjo, and Janaki’s mother-in-law.

Rani is a difficult and unconventional lead, for sure. One is conditioned to expect a pivotal character like Rani to be an agent for change, especially when she’s being played by an immense talent like Chatterjee, but that’s not who she is. Rani is surprisingly ordinary.

Take her first scenes in the film. On a visit to a neighboring town to arrange a bride for her drunken waste of a son, Gulab (Riddhi Sen), Rani coos over young Janaki’s beauty, deliberately ignoring the terrified expression on the girl’s face and offering her no comfort.

When Rani returns from her trip, she and Lajjo sit passively through a disheartening town meeting. Another young bride, Champa (Sayani Gupta), fled to her parents’ home after enduring repeated rapes by her brother- and father-in-law, but the male heads of the village insist on sending her back to her husband, even if it means her death. The leader of the village women offers to pool the money they earn selling handicrafts to buy a communal TV, giving the women something to do while their husbands are away, working as long-haul truckers. The men laugh, jokingly wondering if the women will start wanting to wear jeans next. Rani and Lajjo laugh, too.

With each successive horrible thing that happens to a woman in Parched because of her gender, one wonders what will be the final straw. When will Rani and her friends finally make a stand? This isn’t that kind of movie.

Millions of women live in these kind of conditions, and Parched explores how they do that when there’s no one to appeal to, where there’s literally nowhere to run. Even Kishan (Sumeet Vyas) — the man who brokers sales of the women’s handicrafts — can only do so much when the rest of the men resent him. Among the women, Lajjo personifies resilience, her bright eyes shining at the prospect of a day of hooky, regardless of the hell it will cost her at the hands of her abusive husband, Manoj (Mahesh Balraj).

Yadav emphasizes that there is more to lives of her characters than just suffering. There is room for joy and friendship, along with unmet sexual desires. All four female leads have suffered sexual abuse, yet the desire for sexual gratification remains, even if hope for an attentive, caring partner is dim. When Bijli vividly describes an encounter with a man exclusively concerned with satisfying her needs, Rani and Lajjo dismiss her story as fantasy.

One of the courageous choices Yadav and Chatterjee make with Rani is using her to show how women in an oppressive patriarchy can help perpetuate it. Janaki’s marriage to Gulab awakens a cruel side of Rani, the role of mother-in-law giving her license to haze her new daughter-in-law in the same way she once was. The morning after Gulab violently consummates his marriage with Janaki, Rani shows no sympathy toward the girl, who shuffles about in obvious pain. Rani scolds her for sleeping late: “Get to work! This isn’t your mother’s house.”

Yet Rani struggles with the fact that she raised an awful misogynist for a son. With time, her acceptance of culpability in creating a monster softens her stance toward Janaki. As grim as their lives are, the film ends on a hopeful note for all four of the women. Great writing and mesmerizing performances make Parched extraordinary.

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Bollywood Box Office: September 16-18, 2016

Pink got off to a terrific start at the North American box office. During the weekend of September 16-18, 2016, it earned $371,043 from 71 theaters ($5,226 average). That’s the seventh best opening weekend average of the year, from a film that ranked 24th out of 37 films in terms of opening weekend theater count.

Pink is star Amitabh Bachchan’s third release of the year, with each film opening in fewer theaters than the one before it. Wazir released into 127 theaters here in January, earning $575,908 in its opening weekend. In June, Te3n earned $250,677 from the 116 theaters it opened in. Releasing Pink in just 71 theaters seems like an overreaction to Te3n‘s slight underperformance. Bachchan is still enough of a draw here that his movies should open in at least 90 theaters.

Baar Baar Dekho held over reasonably well in its second weekend, losing about 77% of its opening weekend business (which isn’t as dramatic as it might seem). The time travel romance earned $141,833 from 123 theaters ($1,153 average), bringing its total earnings to $900,159.

Freaky Ali faced a more precipitous second-weekend drop, with business falling by about 84%. It took in $6,621 from fourteen theaters ($414 average) to bring its total to $64,254. As I noted last week, that’s a very respectable total for a movie that opened in just 42 theaters.

In its sixth weekend, Rustom earned $6,499 from seven theaters ($928 average), bringing its total to $1,909,782.

Naam Hai Akira closed out its third weekend with $2,732 from two theaters ($1,366 average). Its North American total earnings stand at $217,515.

Source: Rentrak, via Bollywood Hungama

CSAFF 2016 Lineup Announced

The feature films competing in the seventh annual Chicago South Asian Film Festival have been announced. Competitors predominantly hail from India, but the festival includes films from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the United States as well.

Hindi films account for half of the competition lineup. I’ve previously reviewed four of them:  Aligarh, Waiting, Masaan, and Island City. Two of the other three Hindi features — Nil Battey Sannata and Budhia Singh: Born to Run — released theatrically in India earlier this year, but not in the United States.

Aligarh, Waiting, and Masaan are all terrific, and Island City has its moments as well. This is a compelling lineup, and that’s just in regard to the Hindi films. The festival runs from October 5-10, 2016. The full schedule of screenings will be posted soon at the CSAFF website.

Movie Review: Pink (2016)

pink3 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the soundtrack at iTunes

Pink is a clear, convincing skewering of the double standards women are held to regarding their sexuality, and an indictment of the way those standards enable violence against women.

Two vehicles speed toward Delhi late one night. One car carries three male friends, one of whom bleeds profusely from a head wound. A cab ferries three somber women, the only indicator that something is wrong being Minal’s (Taapsee Pannu) smudged lipstick.

We can guess what happened. The bleeding man, Rajveer (Angad Bedi), forced himself on Minal, who defended herself with a glass bottle. She and her roommates Andrea (Andrea Tariang) and Falak (Kirti Kulhari) hope that the guys — Rajveer, Dumpy (Raashul Tandon), and Minal’s schoolmate Vishwa (Tushar Pandey) — will leave things be.

The men seem willing to until another friend, Ankit (Vijay Verma), whips them into a frenzy of wounded male pride. They harass and torment the women, hoping to drive them out of town. When the women file a police report, the men use the political clout of Rajveer’s family to file a counter charge of attempted murder against Minal.

All of this occurs under the watchful eye of the women’s odd neighbor, Deepak Sehgal (Amitabh Bachchan). He walks the neighborhood wearing a black mask and stares intimidatingly at the women’s apartment. Yet the former attorney reveals himself to be an ally, emerging from retirement to defend Minal in court.

One important note for international viewers is that the English subtitles leave much to be desired, and not just because of spoken English dialogue that doesn’t match the captioning. I understand enough Hindi to tell when translated subtitles don’t quite capture what is being said, sacrificing content for brevity, and that happens a lot in Pink.

Poor subtitling may explain why I found some parts of the story confusing. It’s unclear precisely what mental illness forced Sehgal to retire, or why he comes across as sinister early in the film. Bad translating may also be to blame for a perplexing scene late in the film featuring Falak on the witness stand.

Where director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury and writer Ritesh Shah excel is in the film’s structure. They start with the aftermath of the instigating event and proceed from there, without flashbacks or man-on-the-street reactions (thank heavens). Cases of rape are almost always “he said, she said,” so the audience is limited to the same kind of evidence that a jury might have. Only during the closing credits do we actually see the events that led up to Minal braining Rajveer with the bottle.

Pannu, Kulhari, and Tariang give nuanced performances that portray the range of emotions the women experience in a realistic way. Minal is the “strong” one, but there are limits to what even she can endure. Falak’s instinct to agree to whatever terms will make their problems disappear most quickly is understandable.

Likewise, the actors playing the perpetrators portray their characters as generally normal guys who bring out the worst in each other. Vishwa is reasonable and even a little sympathetic when he’s not with his friends, though he’s clearly not strong enough to stand up to them. Rajveer isn’t a cartoon villain, but rather an entitled bully. He’s gets what he wants because no one stops him.

The morality tale exacted by the younger characters is distilled into tidy lessons by Bachchan’s character during the courtroom scenes. I’m not sure if lawyers in real Indian courtrooms are allowed to monologue as long as Sehgal does, but his words are impactful.

The movie proceeds at a cautious pace to make sure that the audience has time to absorb the moral message being doled out. For those already versed in feminism and issues of violence against women, the pacing feels slow. But Pink is a movie made to change minds, and hiring a legend like Amitabh Bachchan to deliver the message is a smart way to ensure that people listen.

[Update: Thanks to @karansingh9008 and @Djimitunchained for letting me know via Twitter that Sehgal’s illness wasn’t explained in the Hindi dialogue either.]

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