Author Archives: Kathy

Movie Review: AK vs AK (2020)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch AK vs AK on Netflix

AK vs AK is the most novel Hindi film to release in 2020, but novelty is just part of its appeal. Director Vikramaditya Motwane’s meta take on the Indian film industry — and two members of it in particular — is smart, insightful, and a lot of fun.

The AKs of the title are Anil Kapoor and Anurag Kashyap, who play outlandish versions of themselves, as do other members of the Kapoor family. The story is fictional but trades on the participants’ real-life reputations and circumstances. AK vs AK‘s Anurag is a temperamental and self-important arthouse director who feels he deserves more acclaim, while Anil is an aging star who’s slow to accept that his biggest films are behind him.

Anil’s character seems further removed from the real person (no offense to Anurag), but he serves to highlight both the importance of the Bollywood star system and the refusal of many of the men within it to acknowledge the passage of time, insisting on playing college students into their fifties. The fact that Kapoor chose to play the character as he does in AK vs AK shows why he’s the model for aging gracefully in Bollywood.

The story opens with Anurag and Anil onstage for a question and answer session with film students. They trade barbs, bringing to the surface a simmering resentment from when Anurag was a young filmmaker and Anil turned down a role in one of his movies. Anil accidentally spills water on Anurag’s expensive shoes, and Anurag retaliates by throwing water in Anil’s face.

All of this is captured by a video camera operated by Yogita (Yogita Bihani), a filmmaker shadowing Anurag for a documentary project. Yogita helps Anurag concoct an audacious revenge plan to kidnap Anil’s daughter Sonam (playing herself) and film Anil’s search for her. Anurag believes this will cement his directorial genius by capturing Anil’s most realistic performance ever.

What follows is a nighttime chase, as Anil tries to find Sonam before sunrise, at which time the kidnappers who’ve nabbed Sonam have promised to kill her. A video of a tearful Sonam bound and gagged convinces Anil that Anurag is not joking. The two cruise around in Anil’s SUV along with Yogita, who documents the search.

The chase involves a stop at Anil’s house to put in a cursory appearance at his own birthday party to placate his suspicious family, who don’t know about the kidnapping. Anil and Anurag get in a fistfight and destroy a Christmas tree, but it’s somehow not even the funniest part of the sequence at the house. That honor goes to Anil’s son Harsh (playing himself), who is desperate to work with a director of Anurag’s caliber. Harsh acts out his pitch to play an action figure while Anil tries to get him to leave, ending with Harsh screaming about AK vs AK director Vikramaditya Motwane ruining his career when their movie Bhavesh Joshi Superhero flopped. It’s insidery, but hilarious.

Those familiar with the Hindi film industry will get more out of AK vs AK than those who aren’t. I’m sure I missed some references to films from earlier in Kapoor’s career. That said, the overall story is totally comprehensible for those who aren’t Bollywood fans. The way it’s shot — with long takes and clever camera angles that keep Yogita out of frame except for when she’s part of the story — is reason enough to watch it.

There’s also a great examination of the price of stardom. In his most vulnerable moments, Anil can’t get anyone to help him without first taking a selfie with them. Years of entertaining people onscreen isn’t enough for a cop or taxi driver to give Anil information without demanding an additional toll. Not only does he not get special treatment in his hour of need, he doesn’t even get the same courtesy one would afford a complete stranger.

Motwane walks a fine line, making sure the audience always knows how to react to a given scene. AK vs AK is funny when it’s supposed to funny and sad when it’s supposed to be sad. Even the uncomfortable moments where the audience is forced to consider whether something is funny or not clearly feel intentional. Motwane always makes great movies, and AK vs AK is no exception.

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Streaming Video News: January 11, 2021

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix because a number of films from Aamir Khan Productions that expired in December returned to the service over the weekend. Here are all the titles that are available once again:

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with a handful of Indian titles added over the weekend, including three 2021 Telugu films: Missfire, Point Blank, and Valasa.

[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!]

Streaming Video News: January 8, 2021

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with two new additions today: the animated series Mighty Little Bheem: Kite Festival and the 2018 Hindi film Is Love Enough? Sir. The indie drama made the festival rounds under the title Sir (which is how it’s listed at IMDb and Wikipedia) but added the alternative title Is Love Enough? above the main title on promotional posters (like the one to the right) at some point after that. Netflix uses the updated, full title for alphabetization purposes.

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with a number of recently added Indian titles, including yesterday’s world premiere of R. Madhavan’s Tamil film Maara.

Amazon revealed that the second season of The Family Man will debut on February 12.

[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!]

Streaming Video News: January 5, 2021

Happy New Year! After a holiday break, I’ve finished updating my lists of Bollywood movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime. The 1999 action romance Hello Brother was added to Netflix the other day. Prime continues to add Indian titles on a daily basis, but what’s notable is what’s been removed recently. More than 60 Pakistani TV series and 17 movies disappeared, leaving just 23 Urdu films on Amazon Prime.

Here’s a look at new Indian titles debuting on streaming video this month:

January 8Maara (Tamil) on Amazon Prime

January 14Bhoomi (Tamil) on Hotstar

January 15Tandav (Hindi series) on Amazon Prime

January 15Tribhanga: Tedhi Medhi Crazy (Hindi) on Netflix

January 22The White Tiger (English) on Netflix

Streaming Video News: December 26, 2020

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix because I found another batch of titles set to expire on January 1, 2021. Including the 48 expiring films I wrote about in my December 24 Streaming Video News, that brings the total number of Hindi movies poised to leave the service in the next week to 53. That’s 10% of Netflix’s Hindi film catalog!

Here are the titles expiring on January 1:

What’s on Netflix just posted my preview of new Netflix Original Indian movies and series coming to the service in 2021, along with updates on returning series. Please check it out!

Streaming Video News: December 24, 2020

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with dozens of Indian titles added in the last week, including today’s premiere of Coolie No. 1 (also in 4K UHD), the Varun Dhawan remake of the classic Govinda comedy.

I also updated my list if Bollywood movies on Netflix with the debut of the Netflix Original dark comedy AK vs AK, starring birthday boy Anil Kapoor and Anurag Kashyap as sinister versions of themselves.

The other gigantic Netflix news is that 48 Hindi movies are scheduled to expire on December 31. Most of them are Shemaroo Entertainment titles that were added to Netflix on December 31, 2019, and almost all are also currently available on Amazon Prime. Since there are no expiration dates listed for the versions on Prime, I’m guessing that Amazon is their permanent home for the time being. I don’t expect the movies expiring from Netflix to return anytime soon. Nevertheless, I’m gonna wait until January 2 to purge my Netflix list, because it would be super annoying to remove them all and have to re-add them two days later if the contract renews. Here’s the full list of Hindi movies expiring from Netflix on December 31:

Merry Christmas, everybody! — Kathy

[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: Durgamati (2020)

1 Star (out of 4)

Watch Durgamati: The Myth on Amazon Prime

Durgamati: The Myth‘s intriguing first half is undone by its messy, twist-happy conclusion.

Writer-director G. Ashok stuck closely to the premise of his 2018 bilingual film Bhaagamathie for this Hindi remake. Bhumi Pednekar takes over the role of an imperiled bureaucrat from Anuskha Shetty.

Pednekar plays civil servant Chanchal Chauhan. Her long association with the squeaky-clean politician Ishwar Prasad (Arshad Warsi) brings her to the attention of the Central Bureau of Investigations. The CBI has been tasked with finding dirt on Prasad because his righteousness is making his fellow politicians look bad. Prasad has promised to leave the country in fifteen days if he can’t find the culprits who’ve been stealing ancient idols from remote village temples — a high standard other politicians don’t want to be held to.

Chanchal is an easy target because she’s in prison awaiting trial for killing her fiance Shakti (Karan Kapadia) — a crime that seems out of character from what little we know about her. Shakti’s vengeful brother Abhay (Jisshu Sengupta) is the police chief responsible for Chanchal’s safety after the CBI moves her to an abandoned palace in the jungle. Locals believe the mansion is haunted, so there’s no chance of anyone interrupting the CBI’s illegal interrogation.

Before Partition, the palace was the home of Queen Durgamati, known for merciless treatment of her enemies. Chanchal is locked in the mansion alone, only brought out during the day for fruitless questioning by CBI Director Satakshi Ganguly (Mahie Gill). Night after night, unseen forces torment Chanchal, psychologically and physically. A psychiatrist and a holy man disagree on the cause of the problem, but one thing is clear: Chanchal is not safe in Durgamati’s palace.

It’s hard to talk about any of the events after this point in the story without getting into spoiler territory. But we can examine what’s happened so far for indications of the kinds of problems that turn the ending into a total circus.

Take the plan to move Chanchal to the palace. The isolation is a selling point, but the mansion is huge and would be difficult to secure. It likely has numerous servants’ exits and other means of egress, but Abhay’s police team padlocks the front gate and calls it a day. Chanchal stays in the mansion alone, while the two cops assigned to guard her sleep in a shack beyond the gate. (The officers periodically get comic side bits that don’t fit the tone of the film at all.) Abhay has cameras installed in the mansion — hard to see how since the layers of dust inside are undisturbed and all the police are too scared to enter — but he doesn’t put one in Chanchal’s bedroom. No one from Satakshi’s CBI team sticks around to monitor the camera feeds overnight anyway. Chanchal could sneak out, and no one would be the wiser until morning.

The point of all this is that director Ashok wanted to use the palace setting no matter what, without thinking through all of the problems the setting presented. This inattention to detail gets worse as the story progresses, diffusing the sense of mystery built in the first half. Events happen for the sake of dramatic twists, and not because they would logically happen that way. Many of the solutions provided aren’t hinted at beforehand, but rather conjured as if by magic.

Gill and Sengupta are careful not to overplay their characters, both of whom undergo some welcome growth. Pednekar and Warsi are good in the parts of the script that allow them to be, less so in the moments that would have been hard for anyone to make convincing.

Throughout the film, elaborate plans like the palace interrogation scheme hinge on characters behaving in very specific ways. When a whole plan could come unraveled if one person makes an unexpected choice, says the wrong thing, or steps in the wrong direction, it strains credulity. Durgamati isn’t detail-oriented enough to be believable.

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Movie Review: Chhalaang (2020)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Chhalaang on Amazon Prime

A character archetype Bollywood screenwriters return to time and again is the “loafer with a heart of gold”: a leading man with limited career prospects and few likeable qualities (other than being handsome) who is nevertheless beloved in his small town and allowed to boss around whomever he wants. His only acknowledged flaw is that he doesn’t have a girlfriend — though he will by the end of the movie.

As someone who didn’t grow up watching films with this archetype, it’s a character I’ve never warmed to. The presumed inherent perfection of the main character — whom the audience is supposed to like because of their affinity for the actor playing him — precludes meaningful character growth.

Chhalaang turns the trope on its head, introducing a typical “loafer with a heart of gold,” exposing his shortcomings, and forcing him to fix them — especially if he wants to get the girl.

Montu (Rajkummar Rao) works as a gym teacher at his old high school in Haryana, even though he’s not interested in teaching. Principal Gehlot (Ila Arun) doesn’t care about the subject either, which is why she hired Montu to fill the job.

The school’s beautiful new computer teacher Neelu (Nushrat Bharucha) piques Montu’s interest. They get off on the wrong foot when Montu publicly embarrasses her parents while he and his boys are out harassing couples celebrating Valentine’s Day. More importantly, Neelu recognizes Montu as a guy who only does things that are easy, avoiding challenges.

Things change with the sudden arrival of a new gym teacher, I. M. Singh (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub). A new state law makes physical education compulsory, forcing Principal Gehlot to hire someone with actual teaching credentials. She tells Montu he can stay on as Singh’s assistant, but Montu’s pride won’t allow it. He throws down the gauntlet: he and Singh will train two teams of students for a sports tournament, and the winner gets to keep the job.

It’s a silly premise, but this is a comedy after all — and a pretty good one at that. There are lots of well-written jokes that are carefully translated in English subtitles by Laxminarayan Singh. Rao is always good, and he plays Montu with sincerity. Rao and Bharucha have a nice chemistry as well. Even better is the relationship between Rao and Saurab Shukla, who plays Montu’s former teacher and best friend, Mr. Shukla.

Coaching the kids in preparation for the tournament — which features funny play-by-play announcing by Mr. Shukla and Principal Gehlot — helps Montu learn the importance of seeing a task through to its completion, regardless of the outcome. However, it’s a little morally questionable that the kids are forced to partake in the competition over their parents’ objections and at the expense of their academics. And Montu’s training methods — which include siccing dogs on them to make them run faster — aren’t exactly orthodox.

A preponderance of moral inconsistencies keep Chhalaang from  being the family-friendly classic it could have been. Neelu — who is established as a dedicated and compassionate educator — suffers for the sake of Montu’s character growth. When parents pull their children from the competition, Neelu threatens to fail the students in retaliation. Montu’s lawyer father Kamlesh (Satish Kaushik) joins her, threatening legal action against the parents unless the kids participate. It’s not funny and seems out of character for both Neelu and Kamlesh.

Neelu is part of another insensitive scene that errs while trying to make a valid point. She brings Montu to a school for students with special needs where she volunteers in her off-hours. The purpose is to show Montu — whose team for the competition is made up of kids who’d rather be studying math, while Singh’s is all jocks — that every student can flourish with the help of a dedicated teacher. Neelu tells Montu, “Any teacher can take a student from 90 to 100, but only a good teacher can take a student from 10 to 40.” It’s a clever line, but there had to be a better way to make this point than calling specials needs students a bunch of 10s out of 100.

Chhalaang‘s writing is its best and worst feature. The dialogue is top notch. Director Hansal Mehta does what he can to make the film enjoyable and to make Montu’s evolution feel earned. But the screenplay, by writers Luv Ranjan, Aseem Arrora, and Zeishan Quadriis, needed more  moral consistency.

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Streaming Video News: December 11, 2020

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with today’s addition of the new Sanjay Dutt drama Torbaaz.

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with a bunch of Indian titles added this week, including yesterday’s debut of the Bhumi Pednekar supernatural flick Durgamati: The Myth.

Both services have new stuff lined up for the next two weekends. Here’s what’s coming up:

[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: Bulbbul (2020)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Bulbbul on Netflix

With her first go as a feature film director, screenwriter and lyricist Anvita Dutt proves herself a master of atmosphere in the gorgeous gothic horror movie Bulbbul.

The story begins in 1881 somewhere in the Bengal Presidency at the wedding of Bulbbul (Ruchi Mahajan), a precocious 5-year-old who doesn’t really understand what’s happening. She is reassured in the carriage ride to her new home by Satya (Varun Buddhadev), a boy a few years older than her that she assumes is the person she’s been married to. Only upon arriving at the lavish estate of Lord Indranil (Rahul Bose) does she learn that her husband is not Satya but Indranil himself, Satya’s much older brother.

While Indranil waits for his child-bride to grow up, Bulbbul and Satya become inseparable companions. He regales her with legends of the “demon woman,” a witch who prowls the trees at night on feet turned backwards, hoping to find the little princess and gobble her up. They share the palace with Indranil’s identical twin brother Mahendra (also Bose) — who has an intellectual disability and an unsettling fascination with Bulbbul — and Mahendra’s beautiful but jealous wife, Binodini (Paoli Dam).

Two decades later, Satya (now Avinash Tiwary) returns home after several years abroad to find his home radically changed. Mahendra was murdered, Binodini lives in a colony with other widows, Indranil left the palace, and Bulbbul (now Tripti Dimri) rules in his place. The bookish, demure girl Satya remembers has become confident and aloof. She lounges, fanning herself with an ostentatious fan made of peacock feathers. Satya asks Bulbbul, “Where did the sweet little lady I knew disappear? What did you do with her?” “I gobbled her up,” she teases.

Something is clearly wrong in the jurisdiction, but what is a matter of opinion. Satya wants to solve a series unexplained murders, including Mahendra’s. There’s also the matter of the blood-red night sky and sense of foreboding that pervades the woods around the palace. But Bulbbul and her close confidant, Dr. Sudip (Parambrata Chattopadhyay), are more concerned about domestic issues, like the suspicious injuries sustained by Master Dinkar’s wife.

Violence against women is a theme throughout the film, and a couple of scenes are quite brutal. Not the scenes of violence themselves, but shots of the grisly aftermath. Dutt is careful not to make the violent acts in any way titillating. The scenes are simply sad, accompanied by a heartbreaking musical theme from composer Amit Trivedi.

Rather than focusing on the violent acts themselves, the story highlights a key mechanism that allows such violence against women to go unchecked: the otherwise good men who refuse to see it, as personified by Satya. He’s not violent, but he won’t believe that the men around him are. When Bulbbul and Sudip bring up Master Dinkar (Subhasis Chakraborty), Satya’s first reaction is to call him “a fine man.” Satya is so ensconced within the ruling patriarchy that he assumes that the way other men treat him is the way they treat everyone, and he’s willing to accept their version of events without question. Satya is more suspicious of those who challenge his perception of reality — especially an outsider, like Sudip.

Tiwary is successful at portraying Satya as a nice enough guy who just doesn’t get it, but whose ignorance has devastating consequences. Dimri’s ability to convey how much Bulbbul adores Satya amplifies the significance of those consequences.

Dimri has to play essentially two characters: Bulbbul before Satya leaves, and Bulbbul after he returns. She’s so good at both, but she’s particularly fun to watch as Bulbbul the ruler. The film’s best scenes are between Bulbbul and Sudip, Satya’s foil. Chattopadhyay is terrific when he plays the sidekick to a powerful woman, as he did in Kahaani.

Bulbbul‘s most memorable element is its color palette. Dutt uses filters liberally to set the mood of scenes, deploying super saturated tones for specific effect. The red night sky is discomforting, but it’s surprisingly bright. By contrast, the interior of the palace after dark is a heavy blue that allows shadows to proliferate. It doesn’t have the same unnatural quality of the sky outside, but it feels more dangerous. Dutt’s bold and effective use of color in Bulbbul sets a high bar for her next project — one that she seems more than capable of reaching.

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