Movie Review: Mission Majnu (2023)

1 Star (out of 4)

Watch Mission Majnu on Netflix

Not much thought went into Mission Majnu, but the filmmakers probably figured they didn’t need to bother. Slap together a bunch of cliches from the historical patriotic genre playbook that’s so popular in Bollywood right now, and voilà! — Mission Majnu.

The film kicks off its spy story with a soapy romance set in mid-1970s Pakistan. Humble tailor Tariq (Sidharth Malhotra) falls for a stunningly gorgeous, blind woman Nasreen (Rashmika Mandanna). They get married over the objections of her father, who owns a garment shop that makes military uniforms and therefore knows just how little Tariq earns. Nevertheless, love prevails.

Little do Nasreen and her father know that Tariq is actually Amandeep Singh — an Indian spy who’s been living in Pakistan for an indeterminate period of time. We know very little about Tariq/Amandeep other than his father was a traitor, and so the son became a spy as a kind of penance for Dad’s misdeeds. His instructor at the academy R.N. Kao (Parmeet Sethi) — who serves for a time as India’s RAW chief — says Amandeep was the best student he’d ever had.

Amandeep is tasked with finding out information about Pakistan’s burgeoning nuclear weapons program. The film opens by saying that Pakistan started developing nukes in response to losing the war with India in 1971, painting Pakistan as over-reactionary sore losers. Moments later, the narrator clarifies that actually, Pakistan didn’t start its nuclear program until after India tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974 with Operation Smiling Buddha.

This is par for the course in Mission Majnu. India’s actions are always justified even when they are problematic, and any politicians who think about engaging in diplomacy with Pakistan are naïve wimps. Likewise, Pakistan is portrayed as fundamentally deceitful, and their sweets aren’t as good as Indian sweets. No level of insult is too petty.

With a viewpoint rooted in such simplistic nationalism, there can be no question as where Amandeep’s loyalties lie. Duty to country obviously has to win. There’s no tension or moral conflict regarding his marriage to Nasreen, unlike the emotional tug-of-war the main character faces in the much better historical spy drama Raazi (which came out back when movies with political nuance were still acceptable).

Nasreen isn’t much of a character. As written, she exists to give a Amandeep a reason to be emotionally conflicted (even though he’s not), but to never get in his way. Nasreen is perpetually smiling and supportive, grateful that someone was willing to marry her despite her blindness. She’s aware that her husband keeps secrets from her but she doesn’t press him about it, despite the enormous cost she (unknowingly) pays for those secrets.

Any intrigue in the story happens at a national level. Israel is just as worried about Pakistan developing a nuclear weapon as India and has its own spies on the case. But if Israel is mistaken about where the test is happening and bombs the wrong site, India will be on the receiving end of retaliation from Pakistan. Therefore, it’s imperative that India’s spies — which include Aslam (Sharib Hashmi) and Raman Singh (Kumud Mishra) in addition to Amandeep — get the correct location. But even this crisis is handled in a cheesy manor, with imminent destruction being averted just as a countdown from ten reaches one.

Malhotra is quite hammy in Mission Majnu. He plays up his “aw shucks” simple tailor act while goading Pakistan’s generals into bragging about the nuke program, then furrowing his brow and looking concerned when they divulge useful intelligence — as though they wouldn’t notice his abrupt change in demeanor mid-conversation. When Raman Singh shaves his beard and ditches the Muslim scholar garb he’s been wearing for ten years, no one in town cares. And don’t get me started on Aslam’s ridiculous method for reaching for a phone when assassins are after him.

Mission Majnu was cobbled together from tropes and cliches we’ve seen a million times before. Give the movie about as much thought as the filmmakers did — none at all.

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Streaming Video News: January 20, 2023

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with today’s premiere of the new Hindi spy thriller Mission Majnu, starring Sidharth Malhotra. Earlier in the week, the Malayalam film Kaapa became available for streaming, and the Telugu movie Dhamaka becomes available tomorrow.

Netflix announced earlier this week that it secured the rights to a slate of 18 Tamil movies and 16 Telugu movies that will stream on the service after their theatrical release. Netflix has long been criticized for its heavily Hindi-focused catalog, and this is a strong statement about the company’s desire to expand its Indian offerings into other languages.

This week’s other new direct-to-streaming Hindi film is the comedy Chhatriwali on Zee5.

I’m planning to review Mission Majnu and Chhatriwali next week. Today and tomorrow, I’m catching up on movies so I can vote in the annual Online Film Critics Society awards. The winners will be announced on January 23. This year’s list of nominees contains some really, really good movies, including RRR, which is nominated in three categories.

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with yesterday’s debut of the documentary series Cinema Marte Dum Tak, which covers cult films from the 1990s. Gunda is featured, so obviously I have to watch it at some point.

Finally, I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Hulu with the addition of the 2022 Marathi film Sarsenapati Hambirrao and the debut of Season 2 of the Telugu series Jhansi (also available in Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, and Tamil). Hulu/Disney+Hotstar just released the trailer for the new Anil Kapoor-Aditya Roy Kapur series The Night Manager, which premieres February 17:

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Movie Review: Double XL (2022)

0.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Double XL is a trainwreck. Good intentions can’t save a movie so utterly clueless.

Rajshri (Huma Qureshi) wants to be a sports broadcaster, and Saira (Sonakshi Sinha) aspires to be a fashion designer. Both face discrimination in their personal and professional lives for being overweight. A chance meeting convinces the two to travel to London for a week, working together to enhance their portfolios and build a lasting friendship.

It’s a simple story setup that in no way requires the forty minutes of annoying backstory that leads up to the two meeting. In fact, the setbacks that bring them together — Rajshri is denied the chance to audition for a job because of her weight, and Saira discovers her boyfriend is cheating on her with a thin woman — should have been used to introduce the main characters and establish them as underdogs.

Rather, much of the superfluous character development actually makes the characters less likeable. Both Rajshri and Saira yell at service workers or people who aren’t in decision-making roles about unfair policies, despite knowing that the person they are screaming at isn’t responsible or able to fix the situation. The solution to systemic discrimination is not bullying.

The story of Double XL feels like it was made with minimal effort and zero research. Rajshri and Saira are both 30 but act like they were frozen in time after they earned their bachelors degrees and only recently thawed out. In the intervening years, they appear to have learned nothing about career paths in their chosen fields and instead expect to be magically elevated to the top of their industries, just as soon as the powers that be can look past their weight.

For a movie about weight bias, it has very little insight to offer on the topic. When characters discuss the subject, it’s with a surface-level understanding that is belabored to death. Some problems that aren’t necessarily weight-related are made so for the sake of keeping the film on topic. The movie offers nothing new to viewers already attuned to weight bias, and it won’t do much to change to the minds of those who weren’t concerned or aware of the problem.

There’s nothing that Sinha and Qureshi — two actors I enjoy — can do performance-wise to save this film, and they get no help from the supporting cast. It’s further confounding that Qureshi co-produced Double XL and didn’t remedy its obvious shortcomings. I really wanted to like this film. I just couldn’t.

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Streaming Video News: January 13, 2023

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with two new additions today: the 2022 Hindi comedy Mister Mummy — starring married couple Riteish Deshmukh and Genelia D’Souza — and the new Netflix Original series Trial By Fire, which is based on a true story. The Tamil film Varalaru Mukkiyam becomes available for streaming tomorrow.

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with today’s surprise streaming debut of Ajay Devgn’s thriller sequel Drishyam 2. Amazon also released the trailer for Shahid Kapoor’s first OTT series Farzi, which debuts on February 10:

Finally, I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Hulu with yesterday’s addition of the 2022 Malayalam film Mukundan Unni Associates, which is also available in Hindi and Tamil.

[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: Phone Bhoot (2022)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Phone Bhoot is almost a very good movie. It has a distinct style and point of view, and Ishaan Khattar gives a hypnotic performance. But it badly needs editing.

It’s not just that Phone Bhoot is too long (though it is, especially for a comedy) or that scenes are too slow (though they are). It’s that all the cruft in the film makes the jokes less funny than if they were quick hits. There’s a reason why the Hamlet quote “Brevity is the soul of wit” endures over the centuries.

For example, take how the film’s main characters acquire their superpowers. Friends Major (Siddhant Chaturvedi) and Gullu (Khattar) are two horror-obsessed slackers. While fixing the glowing eyes of their Frankenstein-like monster statue named Raaka, our heroes are electrocuted. Instead of just convulsing for a few seconds then dropping, director Gurmmeet Singh has the camera repeatedly cut between Major, Gullu, and Raaka as the humans convulse for what feels like forever. The prolonged electrocution sequence has been a tired Bollywood comedy trope for a long time.

When the guys wake up, they find that they can see ghosts. Specifically, they can see Ragini (Katrina Kaif), a beautiful spectre who makes them a proposition. She will help them start an exorcism business, thereby earning enough to pay back the money that the guys owe their fathers. In exchange, they have to help her with a favor, no questions asked.

An interesting theme that comes up as the trio’s exorcism business takes off is the financial ramifications of death. The ghost of a young woman haunts the family of the man who killed her in a hit-and-run not just because of the unfairness of her life being cut short. It’s also because the woman was the breadwinner for her aging parents, who now live in poverty. Other ghosts have similar stories. It’s a thoughtful acknowledgement that justice may be best served in forms other than jail time or equivalent physical punishment.

Another cool thing about Major and Gullu is that they are obsessed expressly with Indian horror movies. There are very few references to Hollywood horror films in the movie, and all of the posters and props in their apartment are from older Bollywood flicks. Ragini’s name obviously comes from the Ragini MMS series, and I’m sure there are tons of other references for those with a deeper knowledge of spooky Hindi classics than I have.

Unfortunately, as with the electrocution sequence, the movie draws too much from outdated comedy and storytelling styles. Jokes last so long that they stop being funny. The story moves too slowly, especially since there isn’t really a b-plot. There’s plenty of room in the narrative for characters like the Major’s and Gullu’s dads to reappear to check on their unconventional sons’ progress, or for there to be more to the guys’ thin association with a witch whose name translates in the English subtitles as Wicky Witch (Sheeba Chaddha).

Likewise, it would’ve been better to have the guys encounter the movie’s villain Aatmaram Shastrashakti (Jackie Shroff) earlier in the story, rather than keep the evil sorcerer sequestered in the underground lair he’s leasing from Big Trouble in Little China‘s David Lo Pan.

Another disappointment is that the songs and choreography are forgettable. None of the numbers will rank among Kaif’s greatest hits, despite pairing her with an excellent dancer like Khattar. (Chartuvedi holds his own on the dance floor, too.)

Kaif’s performance is solid as the stand-in for the audience, rolling her eyes at the two dopes she’s forced to rely on for help. Chaturvedi’s mugging as Major is a bit much at times but mostly fits with his character’s personality. Khattar is the real standout, totally immersing himself in every scene, no matter how silly, and reacting authentically.

Were it 30 minutes shorter, Phone Bhoot would be a real winner.

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Streaming Video News: December 22, 2022

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with today’s streaming debut of Akshay Kumar’s adventure flick Ram Setu and the Kannada sports movie 10. Earlier this week, Prime added the Ajay Devgn-Sidharth Malhotra film Thank God and the Telugu movie Jayamma Panchayathi to the catalog.

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Hulu with today’s addition of the Malayalam film Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey (also in Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu).

Finally, I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with the streaming premiere of the Hindi flick Tara VS. Bilalthe Malayalam movie The Teacher, and the addition of some older Telugu films: Anukokunda Oka Roju, Dikkulu Choodaku Ramayya, Dongala Muta, and Oohalu Gusagusalade. Check the “Coming Soon” and “Expiring Soon” sections of my Netflix page to see which Indian titles are on their way in and out of the catalog before the end of the month.

Posts will be sparse over Christmas break. In the meantime, please check out the MASSIVE update on all of the new Netflix Indian Originals coming in 2023 that I wrote for What’s on Netflix. Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year! — Kathy

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Movie Review: Govinda Naam Mera (2022)

1 Star (out of 4)

Watch Govinda Naam Mera on Hulu

Watching Govinda Naam Mera feels like watching a video played backwards. Writer-director Shashank Khaitan started with the outcome he wanted, then engineered his story in reverse to achieve that end amidst a series of shocking revelations. But when you play the story forward, you find that the biggest reveals of all are an inscrutable plot and characters that never engender sympathy.

The title character is played by Vicky Kaushal, who projects far more charisma than the movie deserves. Govinda is a wannabe choreographer and background dancer living in large home bequeathed to him by his father — who ditched his first wife and son to marry Govinda’s mom, Asha (Renuka Shahane). Govinda is married to Gauri (Bhumi Pednekar), a woman who hates him as much as he hates her. His dance partner Suku (Kiara Advani) is also his mistress.

Several axes hang over Govinda’s head, though there’s no timeline as to when any of them will fall. Suku wants Govinda to divorce Gauri, but Gauri won’t agree until he repays her dowry money. Govinda owes money to a cop from whom he illegally bought a gun, for some reason. And Govinda’s stepbrother Vishnu is about to win a lawsuit that will force Govinda to relinquish rights to his house, leaving him homeless and penniless. Then Govinda gets involved with a drug dealer, further complicating matters.

As the story proceeds, characters act in ways that suit neither their personalities nor the situation. Just as the audience reaches a maximum level of confusion, a card appears on screen reading something like “3 Days Earlier.” This happens over and over again — as though the point of the story structure is to trick the audience.

Because we don’t see the events in sequence, there is no tension or ambiguity about the outcome. We only ever learn the truth of characters plans after they’ve succeeded (or not). It also means we don’t get to see relationships between the characters develop. We only get the “ta-da!” reveal that people were working together all along, but not how such cooperation changed their relationship.

The worst example of a story element that exists solely for the reveal is Govinda’s mom. The audience learns early in the film that she’s not really partially paralyzed and in need of a wheelchair, but is faking it all to garner sympathy. Yet she’s been doing it for fifteen years! There’s no story reason for her to perform this long con (and make her own life more difficult), except to shock other characters when she eventually reveals the truth.

One of the selling points of Govinda Naam Mera is the chance to watch Kaushal and Advani dance together. Their performances in that regard do not disappoint. But save yourself a bunch of time and trouble and just watch this YouTube playlist of songs from the movie.

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Streaming Video News: December 16, 2022

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with a bunch of recently added titles, including today’s premiere of the Original true crime series Indian Predator: Beast of Bangalore. Two Hindi theatrical releases — Parineeti Chopra’s thriller Code Name: Tiranga and Ayushmann Khurrana’s social issue picture Doctor G — were added in the last week, along with nine other movies:

There are a lot of movies still to come to Netflix before the end of December, so head to my Netflix page to see the titles we already know about. I’m half-expecting to see one more big Hindi theatrical release debut on the service during Christmas break, but that’s just a hunch.

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Hulu with yesterday’s premiere of the comedy Govinda Naam Mera, starring Vicky Kaushal, Bhumi Pednekar, and Kiara Advani.

Finally, I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with yesterday’s debut of the new Hindi family series Half Pants Full Pants.

[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: Blurr (2022)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Blurr on Zee5

Blurr — a remake of the 2010 Spanish movie Julia’s Eyes — is like two movies in one. The first half is a compelling thriller about a married couple at odds with each other about how to deal with a family tragedy. The second half is an inadequately-set-up horror film.

Gayatri (Taapsee Pannu) gasps for breath as she wakes from a nightmare about her identical twin sister, Gautami (also Pannu). She convinces her reluctant husband Neel (Gulshan Devaiah) to drive to the forest cabin where Gautami lives to check on her. There, they find Gautami’s body hanging from a noose in the attic.

The police are eager to close the case on Gautami’s apparent suicide, but Gayatri sensed in her dream that her sister wasn’t alone when she died. Gautami hated rap music, but her stereo blasts it out at full volume when turned on. Gayatri heard the whining sound of a camera flash in her dream — a sound she hears again in the house and around town as she and Neel decide their next steps.

Gayatri’s relationship with Neel is the most interesting part of Blurr. He acts sketchy, but he’s also right that maybe Gayatri doesn’t want to accept the obvious. After all, Gautami had been blind for the last year, the result of a degenerative eye condition that Gayatri also has. Given that the condition is exacerbated by stress, Neel’s worried about his wife’s health. Pannu and Devaiah have a terrific chemistry whether their characters are fighting or reminiscing about the good times. They make a great on-screen duo.

Eventually, Neel’s fears come true, and Gayatri is forced to undergo emergency surgery to restore her sight. She must keep her eyes bandaged for two full weeks in order for them to properly heal. Instead of recovering in the hospital, Gayatri insists on returning to her sister’s house.

This is purely a plot convenience to endanger Gayatri, but it makes little sense given her state of mind to this point. Before the surgery, she was convinced that the unknown person she believes killed her sister was following her and was able to enter her house at night. Staying in a fully staffed hospital is obviously safer, so her insistence on recuperating at home is absurd.

Gayatri’s loss of eyesight dovetails with the film’s theme of social invisibility. Multiple characters mention feeling as though people look past them — a cue to the audience to pay attention to characters on the periphery of the story. But writer-director Ajay Bahl is so stingy with clues that invested viewers will not find their diligence rewarded. The film’s last act is more of a survival horror story than it is a mystery.

Even though the second half of Blurr is a letdown, it’s generally an engaging and watchable thriller. Yet the biggest mystery of all is not what happened to Gautami, but why the killer needs a darkroom to develop Polaroid photos.

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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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