Streaming Video News: November 15, 2019

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with dozens of Indian films added in the last week. Notable additions in the last day include Sanjay Dutt’s September theatrical release Prassthanam and the Amazon original series One Mic Stand, in which celebrities like Taapsee Pannu and Richa Chadha are coached in the art of standup comedy. Other recently added 2019 releases include:

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with the additions of the Telugu film Guna 369, the Naseeruddin Shah-narrated nature documentary SunGanges, and the Netflix original comedy House Arrest, starring Ali Fazal and Jim Sarbh.

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Movie Review: The Warrior Queen of Jhansi (2019)

2 Stars (out of 4)

The Warrior Queen of Jhansi takes an in-depth look at a pivotal battle between Indian resistance fighters and British soldiers, but filters it though a morally questionable lens.

The film is an international production, with dialogue in both English and Hindi. Filmmaker Swati Bhise directs her daughter Devika — who co-wrote the screenplay — in the role of Rani Lakshmibai, the titular warrior queen.

Lakshmibai spends only a few minutes narrating the story of her marriage to Gangadhar Rao (Milind Gunaji), King of Jhansi, and the loss of their infant son. The action shifts to Lakshmibai’s preparations for a siege by forces from the British East India Company. In the years since her husband’s death and her assumption of sole rule, her army has been decimated by attempted takeovers by neighboring kingdoms and skirmishes with the Brits. Herself a skilled fighter, Lakshmibai trains the women of Jhansi in the arts of war.

The Brits too are in bad shape. More than a year into a rebellion against the cruelty of the East India Company, their forces are strained, suffering from cholera and heatstroke. It’s up to veteran soldier Sir Hugh Rose (Rupert Everett) to take Jhansi, whether by force or persuasion. Local governor Robert Hamilton (Nathaniel Parker) wants blood, but Major Ellis (Ben Lamb) — a former confidant of Lakshmibai — hopes he can convince her to surrender.

When Ellis fails, the war begins. The exhausted Brits fire cannons into the castle walls while Lakshmibai tries to keep up morale inside. Both sides hope for reinforcements. It’s not exciting, but the agony of waiting adds realism. The story provides enough context to understand the stakes for both sides as well as all the key players, whether in India or England.

Bhise plays Lakshmibai as appropriately dignified, but it’s a one-note performance. She’s always in royalty mode, even when she’s alone with her adopted son Damodar Rao (Arush Nand) or her closest servants. The only time we see the woman behind the title is when she’s in mourning.

However, the real problem in The Warrior Queen of Jhansi is a moral perspective that places all of the blame for atrocities committed by the British solely on capitalism, and not also imperialism — as if they can be disentangled. In England, Queen Victoria (Jodhi May) frets to her prime minister Lord Palmerston (Derek Jacobi) that the East India Company’s brutal tactics reflect badly on England (and thus her). When her instructions to quell the rebellion with minimal bloodshed are disregarded, she is sincerely shocked. Yet she never suggests calling off the assault, even though her favorite councilor Saleem (Omar Malik) has family in Jhansi. All she offers are thoughts and prayers, as if she’s powerless and not the single person who could stop it with a word.

Ellis is another example of the “not all Brits” approach the film takes. Despite his obvious infatuation with Lakshmibai, all he offers in her defense are forceful objections. He never risks anything for her sake until it’s too late to matter. Closing scenes explain that he returned to England and started a family — but I’m sure he thought about Lakshmibai from time to time.

England ruled India for another ninety years after the rebellion. The movie notes that the East India Company’s shareholders were compensated for the corporation’s dissolution. While the context is appreciated, I wish The Warrior Queen of Jhansi had kept its focus on Lakshmibai instead of trying to absolve Britain for some of its crimes.

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Movie Review: Manikarnika — The Queen of Jhansi (2019)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Manikarnika on Amazon Prime
Buy the soundtrack at iTunes

As pure spectacle, the historical epic Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi is top notch, with thrilling battles, dazzling sets, and gorgeous cinematography. However, its narrative fails to make meaningful connections between the protagonist and her supporting characters.

The film is based on the life of Rani Lakshmi Bai, nee Manikarnika, who ruled the Indian state of Jhansi in the 1850s. (A note at the start of the movie admits to taking some cinematic liberties with the story.) From her youth, Manikarnika (Kangana Ranaut) was raised on patriotic ballads that sang of spilling one’s blood for the sake of the motherland. She was taught to fight with swords and to tame horses.

That feistiness is just what the bachelor King of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao (Jisshu Sengupta), needs in a potential bride, according to his advisor Dixit Ji (Kulkhushan Kharbanda). Jhansi is one of the last independent kingdoms that hasn’t ceded to rule by the British East India Company or been taken over outright. Gangadhar is a pragmatist, but he’s not happy kowtowing to the Brits. He marries Manikarnika, renaming her Lakshmi Bai in the process. When British officers come to the palace to pay their respects, Manikarnika refuses to bow to them. Gangadhar is delighted.

Manikarnika is unwavering in her judgement of right and wrong. Her character grows as her elevated position allows her to witness a greater spectrum of British cruelty, and she takes responsibility for counteracting it. Ranaut plays Manikarnika as clear-eyed and determined. Her posture is taut, as though she’s always ready for a fight. She’s only at ease when she’s with Gangadhar, who loves her and admires her spiritedness.

Trouble comes not just from the British lurking outside the gates, but from a traitor within: Gangadhar’s brother, Sadashiv (Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub). The Brits have promised to name Sadashiv king if he helps depose Gangadhar. Granted, it would be a title in name only, without the limited independence Jhansi currently enjoys.

When the tension between Manikarnika and the Brits turns to all-out war, the movie is at its best. Co-director Krish (more on him to come) previously directed Telugu historical epics, and it shows in the scale of the world he creates. The battles are impressive in scope and require a lot of skilled horsemen and other extras. CGI effects — from injured animals to explosions — are well-integrated, and the fight choreography is exciting.

The plot isn’t complicated, since the Brits are obvious bad guys and the good guys just have to fight them. However, it’s not always clear exactly who the good guys are or how they fit into courtly life in Jhansi or the larger Indian political landscape. When Dixit Ji first proposes a marriage contract with Manikarnika, she’s sword-fighting with three characters who I thought were her brothers–but perhaps weren’t (one of them is played by Atul Kulkarni in a microscopic role). Also present are her biological father and the man who raised her, who is some kind of politician, maybe? She eventually helps one of her probably-not-brothers take the throne of another kingdom, and it would’ve been nice to know why.

There are several female supporting characters who are either from her original home (like Kashi Bai, played by Mishti), from a nearby village, or appointed to take care of her in Jhansi. All are so underdeveloped and shown so fleetingly that they blur together.

This shoddy organization is largely a result of a behind-the-scenes battle for the director’s chair. Krish left the film when it was nearly finished — purportedly pushed out by Ranuat — who re-shot portions of the film herself and recast Ayyub in a role originally played by Sonu Sood. Ranuat is the first co-director listed in the end credits, ahead of Krish, who is credited by his birth name, Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi. According to Krish, many of the scenes filmed with Mishti and Atul Kulkarni were left out of the final film. Perhaps those scenes would have helped to flesh out the characters and their relationships with Manikarnia.

One other complaint is the direction of the characters playing the British officers. The dialogue delivery throughout the film is quite slow, but the British officers speak with an especially unnatural cadence. It’s so strange that I was surprised to discover that Richard Keep, who plays the villain General Hugh Rose, is actually English. I’m not sure which of the co-directors deserves the blame for that, but it’s an unfortunate distraction in a movie that really has a lot going for it.

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Streaming Video News: November 8, 2019

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with the addition of dozens of Indian films added in the last week. Two Hindi releases from this year — Section 375 and Gone Kesh — just became available for streaming today. Other recently added 2019 releases include:

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix because the following titles are set to expire on November 15: Fireflies in the Abyss, M Cream, O21, and Shukranallah. Season 3 of the Hindi series Little Things will be available starting November 9.

Movie Review: Drive (2019)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Drive on Netflix
Buy the soundtrack at iTunes

If you tried to make an uncool version of The Fast and the Furious, you could not make anything as uncool as Drive. Dharma Productions’ straight-to-Netflix heist film lacks sex appeal, thrills, and all of the other exciting qualities about the series they tried to emulate.

To ensure that everyone knows this is a Fast & Furious knockoff, Drive repeatedly shows different women in short shorts standing between two race cars, their backs to the camera, ready to drop a flag to start the race. There are lots of white women of average attractiveness wearing bikini tops and jean shorts, setting a low bar for what constitutes sexiness in Drive.

Jacqueline Fernandez is gorgeous as ever as notorious thief Tara, her cleavage working overtime to add some spice to this bland dish. Sapna Pabbi looks stunning as well, as Tara’s best bud, Naina. But when the two best looking men in the cast are Boman Irani and Pankaj Tripathi — who really do look quite handsome — you’ve got problems.

Tara, Naina, and her boyfriend Bikki (Vikramjeet Virk) are a trio of thieves who moonlight as underground street racers. They want to rob the Presidential Palace in Delhi, but they need the help of a mysterious fellow crook known as The King to pull off the job. Brash driver Samar (Sushant Singh Rajput) may be able to help them, but the crew is being watched by Irfan (Irani), an agent from the Prime Minister’s office.

Irfan takes command of the government agency that polices black money, run by corrupt bureaucrat Vibha Singh (Vibha Chhibber). Where do Vibha and her goon Hamid (Tripathi) hide the money they extort? In the Presidential Palace, of course!

A hallmark of movies directed by Drive‘s producer, Karan Johar, is characters rich enough to buy whatever their hearts desire. That flippant materialism is taken to an absurd extreme in Drive, where objects seem to manifest out of nothing. Need some mannequins to help explain the heist plan? Poof, they magically appear in the thieves’ lair. Need the world’s supply of gold lamé fabric to outfit hundreds of guests at an impromptu wedding? Done!

The most cynical example of this pointless extravagance is a video montage of a trip the group takes to Tel Aviv. It’s purely an advertisement paid for by Israel’s tourism bureau that has nothing to do with the rest of the plot. It’s just five minutes of them clubbing, swimming, and zip-lining. The montage the film’s only sequence shot with grainy handheld cameras, making it stand out for the blatant cash grab it is.

Drive‘s plot is simplistic but still makes no sense. Writer-director Tarun Mansukhani yada yadas a lot of the operation planning and Irfan’s investigation. Much is made of the core trio’s suspicion of outsiders, but they seem to have any number of random flunkies on call to pose as police officers and shepherd the stolen loot away from their crime scenes. Didn’t they learn anything from Total Dhamaal? Don’t let anyone else handle your loot!

There is exactly zero chemistry between Fernandez and Rajput, who smirks like a dope through much of the film. The characters never seem in any real danger, neither from cues we’ve come to expect from other movies (someone has to die just before or after the wedding, right? No.) nor from explicitly mentioned threats, such as the Presidential Palace guards’ standing “shoot on sight” order. This is a heist film with no stakes.

And my god, the driving! Samar impresses the crew by cruising around is a suped-up Tata Nano — which sorta looks like a Honda Fit — while wearing ugly brown loafers. Fancy cars like Ferraris and Porsches are all CGI. The most time the cast spends in actual cars is during a sequence in which they discuss their plans in a parking garage. Every thirty seconds, the camera cuts to them sitting in a different parked car. Why? The movie’s not called Park! It’s called Drive!

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Streaming Video News: November 1, 2019

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with the worldwide premiere of the Hindi heist film Drive, starring Jacqueline Fernandez and Sushant Singh Rajput. Producer Karan Johar wasn’t confident enough to release this trash fire (my review’s in progress) into theaters, so he sent it to Netflix as part of his content creation deal with the streaming service. The 2019 Tamil film Mehandi Circus was also added to Netflix recently, even though it’s been available on Amazon Prime since May (disclaimer: all my Amazon links contain an affiliate code that may earn me a commission on purchases made via the links).

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with dozens of movies added in the last few days, including the following 2019 releases:

In other Amazon news, it looks like the Malayalam film Jallikattu joins Prime on November 3, even though it just released in North American theaters yesterday.

If you just can’t get enough Sushant Singh Rajput this weekend, Chhichhore is now available on Hotstar.

Opening November 1: Ujda Chaman

I don’t know why Ujda Chaman — the Hindi remake of the Kannada film Ondu Motteya Kathe (which is on Netflix) — is opening in Chicago area theaters on November 1, 2019. Housefull 4 ate Saand Ki Aankh‘s and Made in China‘s lunch last weekend. This isn’t going to go well.

Ujda Chaman opens Friday at the AMC River East 21 in Chicago, MovieMax Cinemas in Niles, and AMC South Barrington 24 in South Barrington. It has a listed runtime of 2 hours and heads to Amazon Prime when its theatrical run ends.

Housefull 4 continues to dominate the local market, carrying over at the River East 21, MovieMax, South Barrington 24, Regal Round Lake Beach in Round Lake Beach, Marcus Addison Cinema in Addison, Regal Cantera in Warrenville, Cinemark at Seven Bridges in Woodridge, and AMC Woodridge 18 in Woodridge.

Saand Ki Aankh gets a second week at MovieMax, South Barrington 24, Woodridge 18, and Cantera, which is the only theater holding over War.

Made in China sticks around at MovieMax and the South Barrington 24.

Other Indian movies playing in the Chicago area this weekend (all films have English subtitles):

Bollywood Box Office: October 25-27, 2019

It’s no surprise that Housefull 4 came out on top among this year’s trio of Diwali releases. From October 25-27, 2019, the comedy sequel earned $904,808 from 315 theaters ($2,872 average) in North America, according to Box Office Mojo. That’s not a particularly robust per-theater average, so we’re probably looking at a final total short of $3 million.

The other two new releases wilted against the competition. Saand Ki Aankh earned $101,900 from 204 theaters ($500 average), according to Bollywood Hungama. Made in China was just behind with $72,349 from 95 theaters ($762 average).

War still raged in its fourth weekend of release, earning $80,866 from 59 theaters ($1,371 average), bringing its total to $4,566,986.

Other Hindi and multilingual releases still in North American theaters:

  • The Sky Is Pink: Week 3; $10,741 from 14 theaters; $767 average; $713,682 total
  • Dream Girl: Week 7; $5,786 from seven theaters; $827 average; $2,332,417 total
  • Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy: Week 4; $924 from four theaters; $231 average; $2,622,634 total

Sources: Bollywood Hungama and Box Office Mojo

Streaming Video News: October 28, 2019

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with dozens of Indian and Pakistani films added in the last week or so. The September theatrical release Pailwaan is available in its original Kannada, along with Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu versions. (Disclosure: my Amazon links include an affiliate tag that may earn me a commission on purchases made via the links.) The Malayalam movie Ittymaani: Made in China is also now available, in both standard and 4K, as is the 4K Kannada version of Saaho. Other recently added 2019 releases include:

The Vishesh Films and Dharma Productions back catalogs have departed Prime, but some titles — including Kapoor & Sons — are still available for rent. Others like Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham… moved to Eros Now.

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with the addition of the interview special My Next Guest with David Letterman and Shah Rukh Khan. A handful of titles are set to expire in the first few days of November, including the Hindi films Mirror Game: Ab Khel Shuru and Sameer.

Movie Review: Saand Ki Aankh (2019)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the soundtrack at iTunes

The real-life women who inspired Saand Ki Aankh (“Bull’s Eye“) are extraordinary, but the film about their lives is less so, because the actresses who play them are miscast. That isn’t to say that thirty-somethings Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar are bad in their roles. They’re just not convincing playing women in their sixties.

The main factor that keeps the movie from being immersive is that the “old lady” makeup and hair coloring applied to Pannu and Pednekar throughout looks absurd. It’s impossible not to notice it. Their temporary gray hair dye isn’t applied realistically and seems like something that you’d find at a Halloween store, meant to be sprayed on in the morning and washed out at night (if it hasn’t all flaked off by then). The same dye looks especially bad when painted onto Pednekar’s eyebrows. The texture of their face makeup might be passable for a stage performance, but it doesn’t holdup under the gaze of a movie camera.

Pannu and Pednekar play Prakashi and Chandro Tomar, respectively, two sisters-in-law living in a village in Uttar Pradesh in 1999. Their crowded household is shared by their husbands, children, and grandchildren, and governed by their husband’s older brother, Rattan Singh Tomar (Prakash Jha), along with his own wife and offspring.

All of the other performers in Saand Ki Aankh play characters their own age, with Rattan and his brothers played by younger actors in the film’s few flashbacks. Pannu and Pednekar are the only constants, further drawing attention to the age difference between the actresses and their characters. Given how brief the flashbacks are, there’s no logical explanation for why actresses aged closer to sixty weren’t cast in these roles.

Prakashi and Chandro have toiled for decades on behalf of their family: cooking, cleaning, stacking bricks, and each birthing eight children while their husbands lounge about. When Dr. Yashpal (Vineet Kumar Singh) opens a shooting range, promising government jobs to those who excel, the boys in the Tomar family scoff at the notion of working for a living. But Prakashi and Chandro recognize a chance for their granddaughters to break out of the stifling patriarchal system and chart their own destinies.

Secretly, Chandro brings her granddaughter Shefali (Sara Arjun) to the range, while Prakashi accompanies her daughter Seema (Pritha Bakshi). To encourage the two girls, the older ladies take their turns firing, only to discover that they are naturals. Dr. Yashpal convinces Chandro and Prakashi to enter a shooting tournament for seniors. In order to compete, they have to trick their husbands and brother-in-law into letting them travel to the city — no easy feat since Rattan’s strict rules for women includes veiling their faces even inside the house. The ladies pull off the ruse and win the tournament, starting their careers as clandestine sharpshooters.

For all its faults, Saand Ki Aankh is very clear about who Chandro and Prakashi are and what motivates them. They are housewives, and even after they taste success, they don’t expect more from life. When the husband of a fellow shooter talks about how proud he is of is wife, the sisters-in-law can barely understand how that’s possible. They accept that there is nothing they could accomplish that would make their husbands feel proud of them. They can only meet expectations or face potential violence for failing to do so.

It’s refreshing that, even though the story is inspiring, inspiration was never the goal of the characters. Everything Chandro and Prakashi do is for the betterment of the lives of their daughters and granddaughters.

Saand Ki Aankh‘s structuring is awkward, which is unfortunate, since this is the directorial debut of experienced screenwriter Tushar Hiranandani. Though Hiranandani didn’t write this script (which is credited to Balwinder Singh Janjua), perhaps he could have given it a final polish to reorganize it a bit. The film’s opening sequence — which repeats after about an hour when the story catches up to it chronologically — is overly long and not attention-grabbing enough to warrant a double take. Shefali serves as the off-screen narrator for a few random scenes, so it would’ve made more sense to open with her narration and use it consistently throughout. Trimming at least half-an-hour off the overall runtime would’ve helped, too.

The Tomar sisters-in-law have certainly lived lives worth making into a movie. I just wish this one was a little better.

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