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Book Review: Bollywood Kitchen (2017)

Author, screenwriter, and producer Sri Rao just released a new book called Bollywood Kitchen: Home-Cooked Indian Meals Paired with Unforgettable Bollywood Films. Trust me: you want this book.

Bollywood Kitchen is organized as a dinner-and-a-movie entertainment guide. Rao chooses one of his favorite recent Hindi films and pairs it with entrées and sides designed to complement one another–and the movie. For example, Kaahani‘s entry features recipes for kati rolls, which originated in Calcutta, where the movie is set. The meal for the family film Chillar Party consists of Rao’s take on fish sticks and healthy vegetables with a kid-friendly twist.

The first thing you’ll notice about Bollywood Kitchen is how extraordinarily colorful it is. Rao’s publishers secured the rights to use images from all of the films he mentions, so the book is full of amazing posters and stills. On top of that, the food is beautifully photographed.

One of the many gorgeous movie stills featured in Bollywood Kitchen.

The second thing you’ll notice is the effort Rao put into making his ideas for dinner-and-a-movie night doable. The films he selected are generally available on streaming services or for rent or purchase from places like iTunes. My public library has nineteen of the twenty-two films featured available on DVD or Blu-ray. For each entry in the book, Rao suggests three similar movies also worth checking out.

Rao’s recipes are easy to execute, as well. It’s clear that his goal is to get his readers cooking, while leaving them with enough time and energy left to actually enjoy the movies. Chickpea dishes use canned beans, not dry beans that need to be soaked for hours. Rao suggests time-savers like using pre-cut squash from the grocery store.

The very first recipe in Bollywood Kitchen requires zero cooking skills. Rao’s “Bollywood Popcorn” puts a spicy twist on a movie-night staple, and all that’s required is mixing together some common pantry spices to make a topping for do-it-yourself microwave popcorn in a paper lunch bag. The novelty of the lunch bag alone was worth it to me (not to mention it tasted great).

Using ingredients found in most American homes plays an important role in the story of Bollywood Kitchen. As he mentions in the book’s introduction, Rao was born and raised in small-town Pennsylvania to Indian parents who moved to the United States in the late 1950s. Decades before the internet made accessing products from around the globe a snap, Indian-American home cooks had to get creative, adapting their family recipes to use ingredients easily found in major grocery stores. This often meant using spices common in Mexican food — such as cayenne in place of Indian red chilli powder — or substituting ground beef for hard-to-find mutton.

These aren’t necessarily dishes that would be served in a restaurant, so the only way to taste them is with an invitation to someone’s home. Now that Indian ingredients are more accessible, I wonder if Indian-American home cooks have adjusted their recipes or if they’ve stuck with the recipes they used in the decades before the internet? Whatever the case, Rao’s description of his upbringing gave me greater insight into the lives of my high school classmates and the compromises their parents made to fit into an America that was not nearly as interested in diversity as it is today.

Confession time: I am not a good cook. I’m a good baker, but the idea of being responsible for dinner stresses me out. My wonderful husband, Greg, has handled most of the cooking in our household for the last dozen years, for which he has my eternal gratitude. Nevertheless, I actually made a couple of the dishes from Bollywood Kitchen, and they turned out great!

I chose two recipes crafted to accompany the gripping thriller NH10 — Northern Indian fare that one might find in the region where the movie is set. I started with something in my wheelhouse: kheer. Rao warns that Indian desserts can be quite sweet, so I only used about two-thirds of the recommended amount of sweetened condensed milk. The resulting dish was perfectly sweet (to my taste) and had a wonderful creamy texture, slightly thinner than American-style rice pudding.

One word of caution is that most of Rao’s recipes are designed to feed from four to six people, and with generous portions at that. I wound up eating more kheer in a week than one human should reasonably consume, not that I’m complaining.

The other dish I made was Rao’s chana masala, and it was amazing. The spicy chickpeas make for a hearty vegetarian entrée, especially when accompanied by naan. Greg and I have vowed to make it one of our go-to dishes; it’s that tasty. If someone with as limited a skillset in the kitchen as I have can make something as delicious as this chana masala, the recipe has to be good.

The cherry on top is that Rao has wonderful taste in movies. Almost all of the films featured in Bollywood Kitchen — big hits like Kapoor & Sons and gems like Haider — wound up on my “Best Of” lists for their respective release years. As the producer of New York and Badmaash Company and the writer of Baar Baar Dekho, Rao has enough experience in the film industry to know a good flick when he sees one.

Bollywood Kitchen is a must-have book for hardcore Hindi-film fans, but the movies featured offer a great introduction for any Bollywood newbies. The recipes themselves suit those new to cooking Indian dishes at home, although even those who prepare Indian food regularly will appreciate the meal-planning that Rao’s done. This really is a terrific book. Get it here.

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Streaming Bollywood Movies: Review of Amazon’s Heera Channel

Try Heera for Free!

In March, 2017, Amazon added a new Indian movie channel to its American lineup of add-on subscriptions to Prime Video. The Heera channel boasts hundreds of titles in Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, and Telugu. Here’s my take on the service.

Foremost in the minds of many consumers when choosing a streaming provider is the strength of the service’s catalog. With nearly 400 titles in the Hindi collection alone, Heera has a lot to offer fans of Indian cinema. As of the time of this writing (October, 2017), Heera already carries twelve movies released theatrically in 2017. The service has a number of new stand-up comedy specials by Indian comedians, as well as the original TV series Inside Edge starring Richa Chadha and Vivek Oberoi. (Much of the content available with the additional Heera subscription in the States is available with a standard Amazon Prime subscription elsewhere in the world.)

Maybe even more important, Heera has what are arguably the two most desirable Bollywood films for repeat viewing: Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham… and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Streaming services have been racing to sign contracts for access to the full catalogs of the most prominent Indian studios and production houses. Netflix has a deal with Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment, while Amazon/Heera have contracts with Yash Raj Films and Farhan Akhtar’s Excel Entertainment. Heera’s recent addition of several films starring or produced by Salman Khan point to a relationship between the star and the streaming service as well. (At the time of this writing, Netflix, Amazon/Heera, and iTunes are all vying for Eros International’s huge catalog.)

Another nice feature of Heera’s collection is a subset of movies produced by the National Film Development Corporation, an organization devoted to financing films of artistic merit that might otherwise struggle within the traditional studio format. Heera also has a number of older titles from the 1970s and earlier.

Heera’s deep, diverse catalog — I haven’t even touched on movies in other languages or Heera’s collection of animated children’s shows — appeals to a wide audience. A multi-generational household will find something for everyone in the family to enjoy, for less than the cost of a movie ticket.

That leads to another key determining factor for streaming subscriptions: price. If you live in one of the estimated 64% of US households that already subscribe to Amazon Prime, paying an additional $4.99 per month for Heera is a no-brainer. It’s cheaper than Netflix’s most basic one screen/standard definition plan for $7.99 per month, and you get access to an extensive collection of Hollywood and international movies available through the basic Prime membership, with includes dozens of Indian films.

Things get more complicated if you’re only subscribing to Heera for the movies and wouldn’t otherwise use Amazon Prime. You can save a little money with a year-long subscription to Prime for $99, bringing the per-month cost of a Heera subscription down to $13.24. (Amazon offers a 30-day free trail of Prime, if you’re unsure about a long-term commitment.) A strictly month-to-month plan costs $14.99 — $10 for Prime plus $4.99 for Heera. That’s three dollars more than the current cost of Netflix’s most expensive four-screens, Ultra-HD plan.

Of course, there are other aspects to consider when choosing a streaming service. One really cool feature available with Amazon/Heera is the ability to change the size and background color of subtitles. There are five text sizes available, as well as three color options: white text/no background, white text/translucent grey background, or yellow text/black background. You can preview a sample of what each style and size subtitles will look like, even if you adjust the settings in the middle of watching a movie. Keep in mind that some titles do not have English subtitles (including my beloved horror flick Khamoshiyan). Heera also allows you to download movies for later viewing, and the video quality is good on an iPad.

The biggest downside for Heera is that — as an Amazon subsidiary — its catalog shares the same abysmal organization that plagues the rest of Amazon’s video catalog. It’s not just that catalog is disorganized; some movies are impossible to find unless you specifically search for them by title. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge isn’t mentioned on any of the twenty-four pages of movies listed under the “Heera Bollywood Movies” section. I only knew to search for it by name because so many other Yash Raj films are available.

It’s also impossible to skip more than one page ahead through Heera’s desktop catalog (okay, you can jump from Page 1 to Page 3). With titles sorted by “Newest Available” — which gives the fullest possible iteration of the Bollywood catalog — it took me 1 minute 45 seconds to scroll all the way to the last title — and that’s on a new computer without stopping to actually read the titles. Woe unto you who forgets the name of a movie listed on Page 24 and has to look for it on a computer with an ancient operating system.

The Heera app available on my smart TV has a few lists — such as “Heera Popular Movies” or “Heera Comedy Specials” — that sort the movies available in that category in order of popularity. That means that you’ll have to scroll through 150 or so titles to find Fanaa under the “Heera Bollywood Movies” section, which only lists about half of the movies available in that category anyway. The “Heera Recently Added Movies” section is a couple of weeks out of date as well. Your best bet is to set aside some time to add the movies you want to see to your Watchlist using the full website. OR you could select movies from this handy list I made of all of the Hindi titles available on Heera. (Tips via PayPal are always appreciated.)

As of right now, Heera is my preferred Bollywood streaming service, over Netflix and Eros Now. The catalog is both current and deep, and the price point for Prime subscribers is hard to beat. Heera’s launch triggered a scramble among service providers, and Hotstar‘s recent foray into the American marketplace could mix things up once again. As great as Heera is, its reign as the best Bollywood streaming service could be brief if Amazon isn’t vigilant.

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Chicago South Asian Film Festival 2017 Highlights

The 2017 Chicago South Asian Film Festival recently announced its lineup. This year’s event — which runs from September 28 through October 1 — includes a number of intriguing celebrity appearances. Here are some of the notable screenings and question and answer sessions:

  • September 28, 7 p.m.: Signature Move (Q & A with Shabana Azmi)
  • September 29, 8:30 p.m.: Newton (Q & A with Rajkummar Rao)
  • September 30, 2 p.m.: Sonata (Q & A with Shabana Azmi)
  • September 30, 7 p.m.: You Are My Sunday (Q & A with Shahana Goswami)
  • October 1, 5:30 p.m.: Trapped (Q & A with Rajkummar Rao)
  • October 1, 8:15 p.m: Gurgaon (Q & A with Akshay Oberoi)

Festival passes are already on sale. Tickets for individual screenings go on sale September 4.

Guest Appearance on Bollywood Is For Lovers Podcast

Erin Fraser and Matt Bowes of Bollywood Is For Lovers graciously invited me to appear on a recent episode their podcast (after getting Shah Shahid of the Split Screen Podcast to waive my non-compete clause). They even let me pick the movies to discuss! Despite their having already covered a bunch of my favorite topics on previous episodes — Bipasha Basu horror movies, Jism 2, and a Randeep Hooda special with Shah — I was able to find a sub-genre Erin and Matt hadn’t yet discussed: Bollywood martial arts movies!

The two movies featured in the episode are the underrated Commando: A One Man Army and the ridiculous Baaghi. The films star two very different leading men: lifetime martial arts devotee Vidyut Jammwal and Bollywood scion Tiger Shroff. (I was excited to learn that Erin is also a huge fan of Tiger’s A Flying Jatt!) Commando and Baaghi both spawned sequels, so check them out — then listen to the podcast!

Thanks again, Erin and Matt!

Split Screen Podcast, Episode 30: The Tubelight Trailer vs. The Little Boy Trailer

In a first for the Split Screen Podcast, Shah Shahid and I spent an entire episode comparing two movie trailers! That’s because the trailer for Salman Khan’s upcoming flick Tubelight is almost beat-for-beat the same as the trailer for the movie on which it’s based: Little Boy. Check out the two trailers at the bottom of this post for yourself, then listen to the podcast to hear our thoughts.

You can subscribe to the Split Screen Podcast at iTunes, or you can listen to Episode 30 in your browser on this page at Shah’s website, Blank Page Beatdown. Every episode of the Split Screen Podcast can be found here. I’m featured in the following episodes:

Split Screen Podcast, Episode 28: The “Dulhania” Franchise

At long last, Shah Shahid and I reunite for another episode of the Split Screen Podcast, this time comparing the films Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania and Badrinath Ki Dulhania. We were inspired to tackle the “Dulhania” franchise in Episode 28 because of how wildly the two films differ in their representations of gender equality in romantic relationships. In short, everything great about the main characters and their relationship in Humpty goes straight down the crapper in Badrinath. Shah and I also discuss what differentiates Bollywood franchises from true sequels.

You can subscribe to the Split Screen Podcast at iTunes, or you can listen to Episode 28 in your browser on this page at Shah’s website, Blank Page Beatdown. Every episode of the Split Screen Podcast can be found here, including Shah’s take on the recent Hollywood reboot of Power Rangers. I’m featured in the following episodes:

Recap: First Ten Reviews of 2017

Having published ten reviews of Bollywood movies that released in Chicago area theaters so far this year, I wondered: how many of the movies released early in a calendar year tend to wind up on my Best Bollywood Movies list at the end of that year? How many wind up on my Worst Bollywood Movies list for the year?

I looked back at my “Best of” and “Worst of” lists for the last five years to see just how many of the finalists in my top ten and bottom ten were among the first ten theatrical releases of each year. Here are the names of those films, as well as the position they finished in each list:

Best of 2012: Kahaani (1st)
Worst of 2012: Ekk Deewana Tha (1st)

Best of 2013: Kai Po Che! (3rd), Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (4th), ABCD (7th)
Worst of 2013: Zila Ghaziabad (8th)

Best of 2014: Queen (2nd), Highway (5th), Dedh Ishqiya (6th)
Worst of 2014: Karle Pyaar Karle (2nd)

Best of 2015: NH10 (6th), Badlapur (7th)
Worst of 2015: Shamitabh (4th), Roy (10th)

Best of 2016: Neerja (8th)
Worst of 2016: Mastizaade (1st), Kyaa Kool Hain Hum 3 (2nd), Ghayal Once Again (5th)

The first few months of the year certainly offer up a mixed bag in terms of the quality of the films released. Three of my worst movies of last year were among the first ten films release in 2016, but I gave a four-star rating to all three of the above titles that made the Best of 2014 list.

I’m skeptical that any of the releases from this year will ultimately land on my Best of 2017 list. I gave ratings of at least 3.5 stars to all of the “Best of” titles listed above, and the film presently sitting atop my 2017 list — Commando 2 — only earned 3 stars. If it makes the cut, it will only be because there weren’t ten titles that I rated more highly than it, which is kind of a depressing prospect.

On the flip side, zero-star Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hai and 0.5-star Kaabil have already locked up a spots on this year’s “Worst of” list. 1-star Badrinath Ki Dulhania will almost certainly make the list, too, barring a glut of really offensive films that manage to make it look comparatively progressive. That’s a depressing prospect as well.

While none of the 2017 films released thus far have blown me away, there are a number of movies yet to release that I’m really looking forward to — comedies like Phillauri and Noor and the action-thriller Naam Shabana. 2017 could be a strong year yet.

Here are links to my first ten Bollywood reviews of 2017 (in chronological publishing order):