Movie Review: M.S. Dhoni — The Untold Story (2016)

m-s-dhonitheuntoldstory2 Stars (out of 4)

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Watching M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story leaves one encumbered with questions. Chiefly: “Why does this movie exist, other than to cash in on a nation’s love for its cricket captain?” The choice to make a fictionalized biopic about Dhoni’s life is bizarre.

The choice is especially weird because Mahendra Singh Dhoni has an unremarkable origin story. A gifted natural athlete, he chooses cricket over his first love, soccer, simply because his middle school team needs defenders. He excels quickly, gaining renown throughout the region. The community enthusiastically supports the lad, although his dad (Anupam Kher) also wants young Dhoni to study, just in case his sporting career doesn’t pan out.

Dhoni’s mundane childhood eats up the first hour of a three-hour-long movie. Yet writer-director Neeraj Pandey doesn’t allow enough time to explain the more complicated aspects of Dhoni’s career as he grows into a young man, played by Sushant Singh Rajput.

Audience members who don’t already understand the interconnections between India’s various cricket leagues — youth, national, semi-pro, etc. — are at a loss. Without such understanding, there are no meaningful stakes. When Dhoni misses out on a chance to play for the national under-19 team but gets called to play for another trophy instead, the significance and impact on his career trajectory aren’t explained.

The most compelling part of Dhoni’s journey comes during a multiple-year stint playing cricket for a team owned by a railroad that also requires its players to work for the railroad during the day. The company-provided accommodations sleep four people in a one-bedroom apartment. Is this how professional cricket in India works? Couldn’t he find better working conditions elsewhere? Why does a railroad even own a cricket team?

Pandey’s story doesn’t answer those questions, nor does it delve into Dhoni’s feelings during this lull. The closest we get to introspection is Dhoni telling his boss that he’s depressed, and the boss responding with a “life is like cricket” speech.

The real Dhoni is a charismatic guy, yet we see none of that spark in the fictional version. Rajput’s delivery is flat, his demeanor serious. Pandey’s Dhoni is sanitized to avoid any chance of offending the man himself (or his rabid fans).

Instead of casting a third actor to play Dhoni as a teenager, Pandey uses computer effects to shrink Rajput, similar to the technique used on Chris Evans in the first Captain America movie before scrawny Steve Rogers mutates into a superhero. The effects in M.S. Dhoni are not up to the same standard as those used in the Marvel movie, so Rajput just looks like a creepy, miniature version of his 30-year-old self. The brief sequence isn’t essential to the narrative, so it should’ve been left out.

M.S. Dhoni is a sports movie devoid of inspiration. A documentary would’ve been more compelling since it would’ve allowed us to hear from Dhoni in his own words, offering insight into the athlete’s persona that Pandey refuses to examine. There is no “untold story,” as promised by the subtitle.

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Opening September 30: M.S. Dhoni — The Untold Story

The sports biopic M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story is the only new Hindi film opening in the Chicago area on September 30, 2016. Sushant Singh Rajput plays the legendary Indian cricket captain.

M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story opens Friday in the following local theaters: AMC River East 21 in Chicago, Century 12 Evanston/Cinearts 6 in Evanston, Regal Round Lake Beach Stadium 18 in Round Lake Beach, MovieMax Cinemas in Niles, Muvico Rosemont 18 in Rosemont, 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 3 hrs. 4 min.

Banjo carries over for a second week at the South Barrington 30. Pink gets a third week at the South Barrington 30, Cantera 17, and MovieMax, which also holds over Baar Baar Dekho.

Other Indian movies showing in the Chicago area this weekend:

Bollywood Box Office: September 23-25, 2016

Pink just did something really unusual. In its second weekend of release in the United States and Canada, it earned 98.9% of what it earned in its first weekend. From September 23-25, 2016, it earned $366,826 from 78 theaters ($4,703 average), bringing its total to $919,852. To put Pink‘s holdover rate in context, consider that the median holdover percentage from Weekend 1 to Weekend 2 this year is 23%. Of the hundreds of Hindi films released in North America in the last ten years, only 22 have managed to carry over even 60% of their opening weekend business (I’m excluding international co-productions The Lunchbox and Bhopal because of their limited or atypical release strategies). Just four have held on to more than 90%: 3 Idiots, Kahaani, Queen, and now Pink. This shows just how powerful positive reviews and good word-of-mouth can be.

As for the weekend’s new release, Banjo performed to expectations. It opened in just 29 theaters — third lowest for the year — and earned $18,173 ($627 average). My rule of thumb is: if you don’t think your film can carry at least thirty theaters in North America, don’t release it here. It won’t make any money and will look worse for failing to do so.

Baar Baar Dekho‘s business slowed way down in its third weekend. It earned $30,002 from 38 theaters ($790 average), bringing its total to $973,008. As of now, Baar Baar Dekho‘s total stands at approximately 1.6x its first-weekend total. Ideally, Bollywood movies want to double their first-weekend earnings over the course of their theatrical run, but a multiplier of 1.7 will still land a film in the top half of releases for this year. With business slowing as much as it has, Baar Baar Dekho will struggle to hit that 1.7x benchmark — further proof of the power of buzz, good and bad.

Other Hindi movies still showing in North America:

  • Rustom: Week 7; $2,705 from four theaters; $676 average; $1,914,302 total
  • Naam Hai Akira: Week 4; $301 from two theaters; $151 average; $220,608 total

Source: Rentrak, via Bollywood Hungama

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)

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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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