Author Archives: Kathy

Streaming Video News: February 27, 2017

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with one new addition to the catalog. Last year’s action sequel Force 2 — starring John Abraham and Sonakshi Sinha — is now available for streaming. It’s a fun followup to a really terrific thriller. It’s also the sixth 2016 release added to Netflix this month. Let’s hope Netflix’s renewed fondness for recent mainstream Bollywood fare continues.

For everything else new on Netflix, check Instant Watcher.

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Movie Review: Rangoon (2017)

rangoon3 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the soundtrack at Amazon or iTunes

Director Vishal Bhardwaj explores the intersection of World War II and the Indian independence movement in Rangoon. The film starts strong but loses momentum and finesse as it progresses.

Aware of the potential to reach an international audience of WWII-movie buffs, Bhardwaj opens Rangoon with an efficient summary of the political climate in India in 1943, when the events of the film take place. The British still ruled India and thus employed hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers to fight the Japanese in places like Burma and Singapore. As a counter to Gandhi’s non-violent protest methods, the rebel Indian National Army (INA) allied with Japan to engage in a guerilla war against the Brits in the hopes of forcing them to relinquish control of India.

In Rangoon, not every Indian is interested in taking sides. Mumbai movie producer Rusi Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan) and his family have prospered by cooperating with the occupying British, particularly Major General David Harding (Richard McCabe). Staying on the Brits’ good side ensures access to rare materials like film stock, allowing Rusi build a successful studio around his mistress, gorgeous action starlet Julia (Kangana Ranaut).

However, such a dependent relationship allows for exploitation, and Harding threatens to cut Rusi off unless he sends Julia to Rangoon to perform for the troops. A last-minute bit of trickery by Rusi’s grandfather — who disapproves of his married, high-brow grandson carrying on a public affair with a low-class actress — finds Julia heading to Rangoon on her own.

Well, not entirely on her own. In addition to her acting troupe, Julia is assigned a bodyguard: gruff former prisoner of war, Officer Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor). When a Japanese attack separates Julia and Nawab from the rest of the traveling party, the bond they form over their shared survival instincts turns into a dangerous attraction.

Only under duress does Julia come to question what it means to be free, not only on a national scale but on a personal one. Rusi literally bought Julia from her mother at the age of fourteen, after watching the girl perform knife-throwing tricks on the street. He molded her into a superstar, in the process turning her sense of gratitude into one of dependence. While Julia longs for the material security and fame that Rusi can provide as a patron and potentially a husband, he makes it clear that he controls her fate so long as she is tied to him. The inequality of their relationship mirrors the exploitative relationship between Britain and India.

Major General Harding personifies Britain’s sense of inherent superiority but also its fascination with Indian culture. He prides himself on his Hindi vocabulary and uses it to assert himself — in his mind — as more Indian than native Indians. A sequence in which a kurta-clad Harding plays a harmonium and sings a classical tune is uncomfortable to watch, so effective is it at depicting cultural appropriation. McCabe is very well cast for the part.

Of course, Harding’s affinity for India only extends so far. After Julia and Nawab find their way back to the group — which now includes Rusi — the trip becomes more perilous as it heads further into INA territory. Harding and his second-in-command, Major Williams (Alex Avery), are quick to assert their race-based authority over Indian soldiers they deem suspicious, with Harding stating: “I’m white. I’m always right.”

That blunt line of dialogue exemplifies the story’s late shift from subtle character development to broad, obvious drama. Scenes are dragged out, as if hammering away at the same emotional beats will enhance their impact, even though it just slows down the film. It’s an unfortunate choice, as if the filmmaker lost faith in his audience’s attentiveness and sought to make sure they didn’t miss the climax. The result is a breaking of the spell he’d so carefully built for the first three-quarters of the movie.

With the spell broken, special effects deficiencies become impossible to ignore. The setting for the climax requires a lot of green-screening and CGI, and it’s clear that the budget didn’t allow for more seamless execution. Then again, the scale of the setting doesn’t make the ending more meaningful, so a less grand arena filled with more practical effects would have worked just as well. An early battle scene between troops in a confined area is particularly stirring, and a better example of what Bhardwaj can accomplish when he deploys his resources for maximum impact.

As always, Bhardwaj’s best asset is the music he writes for his films, and Rangoon does not disappoint in that regard. The numbers Julia performs for the troops are fun, and “Yeh Ishq Hai” perfectly suits the sexy chemistry between Kapoor and Ranaut.

Both actors are as reliable as ever, with Ranaut bringing vulnerability to a woman who is more than capable of taking care of herself. As a royal descendant himself, Khan plays an aristocrat perfectly. Satoru Kawaguchi gives a notable performance as a Japanese soldier Julia and Nawab encounter in their time in the wild.

Even though the film ends with more of a whimper than a bang, there’s a lot to enjoy about Rangoon. International audiences should appreciate the opportunity to see an aspect of World War II rarely covered by Western cinema. Given the deftness with which Bhardwaj incorporates music into his movies, Rangoon is a fine introduction to Bollywood.

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Movie Review: Running Shaadi (2017)

runningshaadi2 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the soundtrack at Amazon or iTunes

Running Shaadi‘s problematic characters and convenient solutions hamper this romantic-comedy, at the expense of its likeable lead actors.

Amit Sadh plays Bharose, right-hand-man to a bridal shop owner in Amritsar. Bharose is in love with the boss’s daughter, Nimmi (Taapsee Pannu), who falls in love with him in return after he helps her out of trouble. The trouble is an unplanned pregnancy following a fling with a fellow student at her high school. Bharose takes Nimmi out of town to get an abortion, at her request.

This scene is important not only because it depicts abortion as a routine medical procedure, but because the filmmakers refrain from using it to define Nimmi’s character. Too often, movies and television shows insist on portraying female characters as torn by the decision to have an abortion, as if they’d never considered the possibility of an unplanned pregnancy before. Nimmi has the procedure and moves on with her life, and Bharose’s feelings for her don’t change because of it. Kudos to writer-director Amit Roy and his co-writer Navjot Gulati for their progressive handling of the subplot.

Throughout Running Shaadi, female characters assert control over their romantic and sexual lives. Nimmi does as well, and in doing so ditches Bharose in favor of her new, more sophisticated college classmates.

Disenchanted with romance, Bharose enlists his tech-savvy roommate Cyber (Arsh Bajwa) to create a website to assist couples wishing to elope: RunningShaadi.com. (Days before the movie’s release, a court order required the filmmaker to mute every utterance of the words “dot com,” which is hugely distracting.) They develop elaborate escape plans and enlist a lawyer to facilitate the paperwork for marriages across caste and religion.

Where RunningShaadi.com’s service falls apart is that it doesn’t handle the fallout from the marriages, which clearly wouldn’t require elopement if the couples’ families approved in the first place. Bharose knows that family disapproval is a huge, sometimes dangerous problem, but he’s possessed of naive confidence that he can smooth out any disagreements. Something tells me that parents willing to shoot their own children rather than see them marry partners of their own choosing aren’t interested in reconciliation.

Bharose’s naivete is tied to a personal belief that he doesn’t express to his clients: he doesn’t really approve of elopement, as evidenced by his reluctance to utilize his own company’s services when faced with his own romantic difficulties.

Most of Bharose’s romantic troubles are caused by Nimmi, who is not an easy woman to love. She repeatedly does stupid things to endanger herself, Bharose, and Cyber. She’s also not especially nice to Bharose, calling him “illiterate” to emphasize the class divide between the two of them. Pannu does what she can with Nimmi, but our sympathies always lie with Bharose, thanks to Sadh’s charming performance.

It’s hard to feel the romance between Nimmi and Bharose, because Cyber is with them all the time. Even during romantic song numbers, the couple gazes longingly into each other’s eyes as Cyber looks on in the background.

As the film progresses, the main characters take less and less of a role in solving their own problems, instead letting happenstance provide convenient solutions. In key regards like the main plot, the central romance, and the resolution, Running Shaadi is ultimately unsatisfying.

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Bollywood Box Office: February 17-19, 2017

Hindi films without A-list stars always face challenges at the North American box office, but February 17-19, 2017, seemed to be an especially difficult weekend for smaller titles. Here’s how the three new releases fared during the weekend in the United States and Canada:

  • The Ghazi Attack [combined earnings for Hindi, Telugu, & Tamil-dubbed versions]: $394,269 from 89 theaters* ($4,430 average); total including Thursday previews = $439,772
  • Irada: $13,134 from 31 theaters ($424 average)
  • Running Shaadi: $10,260 from 58 theaters ($177 average)

*Here’s my weekly caveat that my main source, Bollywood Hungama, often counts the Canadian theaters twice in their opening weekend totals. The correct theater counts as confirmed by Sumit Chadha (and the adjusted averages) are as follows: The Ghazi Attack — 90 theaters, $4,381 avg.; Irada — 27 theaters, $486 avg.; Running Shaadi — 51 theaters, $201 avg.

Though The Ghazi Attack fared well, the figures for Irada and Running Shaadi are unmistakably bad. However, it’s worth pointing out a couple of mitigating factors at work this weekend. First, there are presently seven Hindi films showing in the US. Here’s how the older releases fared at the box office over the weekend:

  • Jolly LLB 2: Week 2; $345,480 from 190 theaters; $1,818 average; (*166 theaters, $2,081 avg.); $1,408,472 total
  • Raees: Week 4; $38,169 from 18 theaters; $2,121 average; $3,595,707 total
  • Kaabil: Week 4; $10,185 from ten theaters; $1,019 average; $1,409,691 total
  • Dangal: Week 9; $4,840 from four theaters; $1,210 average; $12,340,930 total

Not only did the new releases face stiff competition from Jolly LLB 2 — which held on to almost half of its opening weekend earnings in its second weekend — the three oldest releases also had better per-theater average earnings than either Irada or Running Shaadi.

However, competition isn’t the whole story. According to Box Office Mojo, business at the overall North American box office was down over 20% from the previous weekend, and the share of business for Indian and Pakistani films in North America dropped by roughly the same percentage. Whether due to a hangover following high-profile Hollywood and Bollywood releases last weekend or unseasonably warm weather in big markets like New York and Chicago drawing people outdoors, this was a tough weekend for new releases across the board.

Sources: Sumit Chadha, Box Office Mojo and Rentrak, via Bollywood Hungama

Streaming Video News: February 20, 2017

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with an intriguing new addition to the catalog. 2016’s tale of star-crossed lovers — Mirzya — is now available for streaming. Hardly anyone watched it when it released in theaters little more than four months ago, which is kind of a shame because it’s visually stunning and has one of the best soundtracks of last year. It’s certainly worth checking out now that it’s on Netflix.

For everything else new on Netflix, check out Instant Watcher.

Streaming Video News: February 17, 2017

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with four newly added titles. In addition to the 2014 Hindi film Q, three movies from 2016 joined the streaming catalog today. The thriller Te3n — which I liked for its depiction of the ravages of aging — is the best of the lot. Also new is Madaari, a thriller I found problematic. Last but not least is Rocky Handsome, a disappointing but watchable remake of the superb Korean movie The Man From Nowhere, which sadly departed Netflix not long ago. For a real treat, listen to Shah Shahid and me compare Rocky Handsome to The Man From Nowhere in this episode of The Split Screen Podcast. You’ll get to hear my impersonation of RH‘s annoying kid actor, whose perkiness still haunts me. Let it haunt you, too:

For everything else new on Netflix, check Instant Watcher.

Movie Review: Irada (2017)

irada3 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the soundtrack at Amazon or iTunes

A case of industrial espionage exposes an ecological crisis, awakening a federal investigator’s sense of justice in Irada. Debutant writer-director Aparnaa Singh’s movie survives early missteps to culminate in a satisfying, performance-driven second half.

The investigator, Arjun Mishra (Arshad Warsi), doesn’t appear until the movie is more than thirty minutes old, which is one of the problems with Irada‘s first half. Only after Arjun arrives does the story really take shape, as it is his emotional journey that drives the narrative.

Instead, Irada opens with Parabjeet Walia, a character played by Naseeruddin Shah, the film’s other marquee star. Retiree Parabjeet trains his daughter, Riya (Rumana Molla), for the Air Force entrance exam, coaching her through swimming sprints in the local canal. A medical emergency reveals that Riya has cancer, likely from exposure to toxic canal water polluted by the local chemical factory.

While seeing a father watch his previously healthy child succumb to cancer is obviously affecting, Singh cuts corners with character development. We endure training montages when we should be getting to know more about the father and daughter and their relationship. Only much later do we learn that Parabjeet himself was a career military man, explaining Riya’s distress at her inability to follow in his footsteps. It’s as though Singh is so familiar with her characters’ backstories that she forgot to share them with the audience.

In fact, when we see Parabjeet again a year after Riya’s death, he has become a writer and part-time investigative journalist. He’s published a book, likely of poetry given his fondness for speaking in couplets, though the contents aren’t specified. He’s also become an authority on the shady corporate dealings of Paddy Sharma (Sharad Kelkar), wealthy owner of the chemical factory.

With the blessing of corrupt politician Ramandeep Braitch (Divya Dutta, who crushes every scene she’s in), Paddy is able to conceal his company’s polluting ways. The company disposes of waste through a process known as “reverse boring,” in which pollutants are injected into the ground where they can contaminate the local water supply. I’d never heard of reverse boring before Irada, and it’s not until the very end of the film that someone mentions that the process is illegal, which explains Paddy’s willingness to protect his secrets at any cost.

Paddy’s henchman, Jeetu (Rajesh Sharma), kidnaps an activist named Anirudh (Nikhil Pandey), triggering a series of events that exemplify the director’s tendency to forget that the audience doesn’t know her characters as well as she does. A journalist named Maya (Sagarika Ghatge) throws mud at Paddy during a speech. Someone watching the speech remarks that she and Anirudh are an item. This is followed by Maya wistfully remembering the romance she shared with Anirudh, in song form. We don’t know Maya or Anirudh well enough to care about them after seeing each of them in one brief scene, so a boring love song feels like time-wasting.

Arjun the federal inspector finally joins the story after Paddy’s plant explodes, the result of tampering from within. Ramandeep the politician wants Arjun to resolve the matter quickly, promising him a promotion if he does and reassignment to the dangerous hinterlands if he doesn’t.

Arjun’s character is initially all over the place. He condescendingly dismisses Maya’s offer to help, but he grills Jeetu based on minimal evidence. Arjun’s wall is covered in maps and photos linked together by pieces of string, in front of which he paces while blindfolded. Curse the BBC’s Sherlock for influencing every screenwriter since to make their detectives “quirky.”

In one unintentionally funny scene, Arjun deciphers a coded message about the explosion. He determines that the word “players” in the cryptic couplet refers to the number of competitors per team. He muses (incorrectly): “Volleyball has five players. Basketball has six players.” Cracking the code apparently depended on the solver not knowing the rules for sports, as Arjun arrives at the right answer.

When Arjun finally meets Parabjeet just before the midpoint, the movie gets really good, and it stays that way through the end. Parabjeet’s personal trauma opens Arjun’s eyes to the extent of the environmental tragedy, forcing the ambivalent bureaucrat to decide if it’s time for him to finally take a stand. Warsi and Shah are great in their scenes together, recreating their chemistry from the Ishqiya films.

With the story rolling, Singh gets great performances from the rest of her talented cast, including Sharma as the twitchy henchman and Ghatge, who handles the movie’s most thrilling scenes. It’s worth reiterating just how fun Dutta is as the entitled politician who’s too secure in her own power. Top-notch acting makes Irada worth a watch.

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