Category Archives: Reviews

Movie Review: Kahaani 2 (2016)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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It’s unrealistic to expect Kahaani 2 to replicate the success of a movie as special as Kahaani, but the sequel lacks many of the elements that made the original so memorable.

Writer-director Sujoy Ghosh again taps Vidya Balan to play a character named Vidya searching for a lost loved one in West Bengal. Kahaani 2‘s Vidya — Sinha this time, not Bagchi — is mother to a 14-year-old girl, Minnie (Tunisha Sharma), who is paralyzed from the waist down. The pair lives in the town of Chandan Nagar, about an hour away from Kolkata. Vidya returns from work to find her daughter missing, the girl’s phone and wheelchair left behind.

While the original Kahaani‘s Vidya spent the film tracking her missing husband with the help of a smitten police officer, the sequel’s Vidya is sidelined early on. It falls on a different cop, Inder (Arjun Rampal), to discover what’s going on when he stumbles upon an accident scene and recognizes the injured woman. However, he knows the victim by the name of Durga Rani Singh, not Vidya Sinha.

Inder’s only clue is Vidya/Durga’s diary, which chronicles events from eight years ago, when Minnie was six years old (played by cute Naisha Khanna) and the duo lived north in Kalimpong. Most of Balan’s scenes in the film are from these flashbacks. It’s frustrating that her character is inactive for much of the present-day storyline.

Inder takes the lead on the case as he adjusts to a new environment. A “gut feeling” gone wrong got him demoted from Kolkata to normally uneventful Chandan Nagar. Precisely how he earned his demotion isn’t explained, but all signs point to Inder being a decent guy. He’s got a sweet daughter and a wife, Rashmi (Manini Chadha), with whom he shares a playful antagonism. Even though Rashmi knows her husband is keeping something from her, she resists the urge to snoop in Vidya’s diary, waiting until Inder is ready to tell her the truth.

While Inder is a fine character, his problems aren’t are dire as Vidya’s, thus Ghosh’s choice to present the two character arcs in parallel doesn’t work. Vidya and Minnie find themselves in a life-or-death struggle, only for the action to cut to Inder fretting about whether his work on the case will earn him a promotion back to Kolkata. The stakes are so unequal that juxtaposing them makes Inder look more frivolous than he really is.

Balan is compelling in everything that she does, and Kahaani 2 is no different. It falls on her to deliver Ghosh’s message about the enduring trauma of sexual abuse, and she does so powerfully. Both girls who play Minnie do a lovely job and show tremendous promise. Also noteworthy is a sweet turn by Tota Roychoudhury as Arun, Vidya’s mild-mannered suitor in Kalimpong.

There are some beautifully vivid shots of Chandan Nagar at night, but the town doesn’t have a strongly defined identity the way that Kolkata did in the original Kahaani. That’s most obvious difference between the films, and — more than anything else — it is what marks Kahaani 2 as the inferior of the two movies.

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Movie Review: Tiger Zinda Hai (2017)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Tiger Zinda Hai (“Tiger Lives“) has its share of highlights, but the relentless plot requires a degree of stamina that would challenge any action movie enthusiast. Quick transitions from one set piece to the next allow little space for story or character development.

Set eight years after the events of Ek Tha Tiger, Salman Khan’s titular hero and his then-girlfriend-now-wife Zoya (Katrina Kaif) live in Austria with their son, Junior. The novelty of seeing Khan play a father onscreen is noteworthy, owing to its rarity.

Though Tiger and Zoya are retired from active duty, they haven’t left the spy life behind entirely. Zoya keeps her combat skills sharp by subduing armed robbers in the local grocery store, and Tiger confidently fights a pack of wolves while snowboarding. He has a room dedicated to tracking the activities of Indian intelligence agency RAW across the globe.

Thus, he’s not surprised when his former boss Shenoy (Girish Karnad) comes to him with an urgent mission: Islamic militants captured twenty-five Indian nursing students working in Iraq, and America has given India seven days to rescue their people before they bomb the hospital where the students are being held.

Zoya knows that Tiger’s love of country surpasses even his love for her and Junior, so she sends him on his mission without complaint. What they don’t know is that the Indian authorities neglected to tell them that fifteen Pakistani nurses are also being held in the same hospital. Tiger’s not the only one to get called out of retirement.

Tiger Zinda Hai‘s cynicism about politics is its most interesting attribute. As in the original film, the main couple personify the idea that Indians and Pakistanis have more in common than not, and that it’s the fault of the governments of both countries for pursuing agendas that make peace impossible. The members of Zoya’s and Tiger’s support teams also come to see the wisdom of working together toward shared goals, a tactic they wish could be applied across borders to improve things like education and healthcare on the subcontinent.

The sequel’s story expands that cynicism globally to indict America for what is deemed to be imperialism in the Middle East, chiefly the greedy pursuits of oil and lucrative weapons contracts cloaked under the guise of the eradication of terrorism. Abu Usman (Sajjad Delafrooz) — the leader of the terrorist group in Tiger Zinda Hai — cites his years in detention at Guantanamo Bay as the very reason for his radicalization.

Unfortunately, these political ideas aren’t woven into the plot, instead existing as meta-commentary directing the audience on how they can find their own kind of woke nationalism. Zoya’s and Tiger’s teams shed their instinctive mistrust of one another within minutes. Most of the criticism of America arises from conversations between Abu Usman and Poorna (Anupriya Goenka), the head nurse, but as supporting characters, the plot doesn’t devote much time to their character growth.

Then again, none of the characters in the movie really grow. Tiger is what he is: a patriotic humanitarian killing machine. Not that there’s anything wrong with such a character; it’s just a question of how much time can an audience be asked to spend with a character that reacts but doesn’t evolve.

The answer to that question is: something less than Tiger Zinda Hai‘s lengthy 161-minute runtime. Apart from one romantic song early in the movie — before Tiger leaves his family and we bid adieu to Junior for most of the film — the plot races through each action sequence, followed by a brief break to set up the next action sequence. After a while, all the explosions and fisticuffs become too much of a good thing.

Yet, when it is good, Tiger Zinda Hai is pretty fun. All of the movie’s best moments belong to Katrina Kaif, and she proves herself to be a compelling action hero in her own right. From her stunt-driving through narrow alleyways to her own one-woman-wrecking-crew takedown of a bunch of bad guys, Kaif commands the screen.

Khan is no slouch when it comes to fight sequences, of course, and his obligatory shirtless scene is a hoot. His sidekicks have little to do, raising questions as to how that can be the case given how long the movie is. Delafrooz’s relaxed demeanor makes him an effective villain.

One personal complaint is that Tiger Zinda Hai cuts corners by casting non-Americans in American roles, leading to some head-scratching accents. Also unintentionally hilarious is the fact that one of the American military officers in Iraq has his first name — Gary — written on his name tag on his uniform. Gary zinda hai!

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Movie Review: Fukrey Returns (2017)

1 Star (out of 4)

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Fukrey Returns is a stale bore, populated by characters the filmmakers seem determined not to give us any reasons to care about.

Familiarity with 2013’s Fukrey is essential. The only plot refresher regarding the original film is a sequence of video-only clips that run behind the opening credits of Fukrey Returns. If you haven’t seen Fukrey recently — or if it didn’t leave much of an impression — you’re going to miss some references (I know I did).

The main characters from the original are back, including: smug ladies man Hunny (Pulkit Samrat); his psychic toady Choocha (Varun Sharma); the guy who’s too smart to be hanging around with these idiots, Zafar (Ali Fazal); and the guy who doesn’t really have anything to do in the story, Lali (Manjot Singh). Also returning are the guys’ shady mentor, Pandit (Pankaj Tripathy), and their gangster nemesis, Bholi (Richa Chadda).

After a year in prison, Bholi is eager to take revenge on the four friends who sent her there. She owes a large sum of money to crooked politician Babulal (Rajiv Gupta) for arranging her release, so she needs to use Choocha’s prophetic dreams in order to raise a lot of money, fast. The plan is for the guys to collect wagers from the public, promising to double investors’ winnings when Choocha dreams of the winning lottery numbers. In fact, the lottery pays out at a rate of ten-to-one, leaving Bholi with eighty percent of the winnings. In return, the guys get to continue living.

When their scheme is thwarted, the guys are pilloried for having defrauded the public and are forced to run for their lives. Fortunately, Choocha manifests a new prophetic power he calls “deja Chu” — premonitions that offer their only hope for clearing their names, freeing Bholi from her debt to Babulal, and getting themselves off of her hit list.

The plot doesn’t unfold as neatly as I’ve described it. Establishing what the guys have been doing since the events of the original film takes up a lot of time, yet reveals surprisingly little about the characters. Subplots are introduced and then forgotten about until the end of the movie. Hunny’s girlfriend Priya (Priya Anand) and Zafar’s fiancée Neetu (Vishakha Singh) stage their own disappearing acts until their presence is required for the climax.

The quality of the cast is uneven. When characters played by Chadda, Fazal, and Tripathy interact with one another, the gulf between actors of their caliber and the rest of the cast feels as wide as the Grand Canyon, especially considering how little the script gives them to work with. It seems like Samrat and Sharma have plateaued as performers.

Of course, the most damning indictment is that Fukrey Returns just isn’t funny. Right away, we get a tired gag about Hunny being bitten in the rear by a venomous snake and Choocha having to suck out the venom, and the same gag repeats later. Director Mrighdeep Singh Lamba also doesn’t know when to end a joke, lingering on reaction shots of other characters well past the point when the audience is ready to move on the next gag. Hopefully Lamba and his co-writer Vipul Vig will accept that Fukrey‘s well has run dry and move on themselves.

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Movie Review: Tumhari Sulu (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Actors Vidya Balan and Manav Kaul carry Tumhari Sulu, a task made more difficult by the story’s lack of perspective. It’s hard to tell how first-time feature filmmaker Suresh Triveni expects the audience to feel about his characters and their journey.

Balan plays Sulu, a bored housewife who entertains herself by entering radio contests. Her husband, Ashok (Kaul), ekes out a meager paycheck managing a dysfunctional tailoring shop. Their eleven-year-old son Pranav (Abhishek Sharma) earns money on the side by selling dirty DVDs and magazines to his classmates.

Sulu’s more successful sisters delight in their sibling’s lower-middle-class status, chiding Sulu for not having a job while reminding her that her lack of a degree precludes her from getting a reputable gig, anyway.

When Sulu goes to the radio station to collect her latest prize — a pressure cooker — she notices an ad for a late-night radio show host. She finagles a meeting with the station manager, Maria (Neha Dhupia), who gives Sulu a shot, if only for the chance to laugh at the frumpy, naive housewife. However, Sulu’s sultry delivery is just what Maria is looking for, and a new radio star is born.

Triveni’s story — which he wrote and directed — takes a long time to get to this point without advancing the characters’ development. The plot meanders, never lingering long enough to develop any of the potential themes — topics like Sulu’s self-worth, women’s financial independence, or the challenges of a two-income household — beyond a surface level examination.

Even if one assumes that Triveni is leaving it to the audience to draw their own conclusions, he doesn’t give them enough information to do so, chiefly because the characters don’t have meaningful conversations. Sulu doesn’t take her husband seriously, and she has no friends to confide in. Without substantive dialogues — or even internal monologues — it’s hard to infer what is important to the characters, and there’s only so much meaning we can derive from their actions alone.

Triveni also takes for granted the notion that a family’s ability to function is ultimately a woman’s responsibility. When complications arise concurrent with Sulu’s new job, it’s implied that, even if the problem’s aren’t specifically Sulu’s fault, they are her responsibility to fix. Nevermind that Ashok’s work situation was hardly ideal or that Pranav was already a junior pornographer before Sulu started her radio gig.

As is the case with every movie starting Vidya Balan, she is Tumhari Sulu‘s greatest asset, always fun and engaging. Yet, Kaul’s performance enables Balan to be her best. During Sulu’s and Ashok’s happier moments, the pair are adorable together — an unexpected delight, given that Kaul usually plays villains. Dhupia is a great choice to play a hip radio station manager, but her character is too easygoing to be convincing, given the competitive nature of that industry.

Songs are weirdly integrated into Tumhari Sulu, and the inclusion of random parkour stunts into one of them almost hints at an insecurity about whether the film itself is exciting and cool enough to grab the audience’s attention. Perhaps a co-writer for Triveni would have mitigated some of the burden on Balan’s and Kaul’s shoulders.

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Movie Review: Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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First Vicky Donor, and now Shubh Mangal Saavdhan. Ayushmann Khurrana is the go-to actor for reproduction-themed romantic comedies.

Khurrana plays a shy ad-man named Mudit who has his eye on Sugandha (Bhumi Pednekar). His initial attempt to talk to her is interrupted when a performing bear tries humping Mudit’s leg, a comical introduction to the movie’s theme of frustrated sexual congress.

The couple winds up in a kind of hybrid love-marriage/arranged-marriage scenario in which their mutual attraction requires the approval of both families. Sugandha is troubled by her family’s desire to rush her to the altar: “Mummy, Mudit and I just met a few days ago.” “What a time you’re living in,” Mummy (Seema Bhargava Pahwa) replies. “At least you two got to meet.”

The addition of these interested parties into the relationship takes its toll on the couple before their romance can really begin. When Sugandha’s family leaves town, the lovebirds seize the opportunity to get frisky. Yet the pressure for things to go well — under the watchful gaze of portraits of Sugandha’s departed grandparents, no less — leave Mudit unable to perform.

Rather than work the problem out between themselves, Mudit insists that he solve his issue his way, enlisting his two buddies for help and freezing out Sugandha. This leaves her blaming herself for the issue, with her equally inexperienced friend Ginni (Anshul Chauhan) her only support.

The real source of trouble for the couple is their unwillingness to talk to each other, which is an unusual problem to have in a movie as dialogue-heavy as Shubh Mangal Saavdhan. Many words are said with little forward plot movement and not a lot of visual dynamism.

That said, Sugandha’s mom gets plenty of funny lines, especially during a sex-ed lecture to her adult daughter themed around Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. “What happens if Ali Baba can’t get into the cave?” Sugandha wonders aloud. Soon enough everyone in both families knows that Mudit can’t get an erection.

Although geared at an audience old enough to understand the ins and outs of human reproduction, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan is sweet and not overly graphic. Khurrana is adorable, and Pednekar beautifully portrays Sugandha’s self-doubt and frustration throughout the couple’s ordeal.  The film just needed less talking and more action (and get rid of Jimmy Shergill’s awkward cameo, please).

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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.

Movie Review: Ittefaq (2017)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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A detective distills the truth from two conflicting narratives in Ittefaq (“Coincidence“), a fun, stylish thriller with a killer soundtrack.

The detective, Dev (Akshaye Khanna), is summoned from his sleep to an apartment belonging to a lawyer, Shekhar, who lies dead on the floor. Shekhar’s wife, Maya (Sonakshi Sinha), flagged down a police car, claiming a stranger, Vikram (Sidharth Malhotra), killed her husband. It so happens that they police are looking for Vikram as a suspect in the death of his own wife, Katherine (Kimberly Louisa McBeath).

Melancholy Vikram offers a different version of events, denying responsibility for either death. He further implicates Maya for acting suspicious when he knocked on her door asking for help following a car accident. Dev explains to one of his deputies, “I just feel like there are three sides to this story: Vikram’s, Maya’s, and the truth.”

Because Vikram is a famous author and a British resident, Dev’s superior gives him three days to charge the man or let him go. Dev’s digging turns up further secrets that Maya and Vikram would rather stay hidden, but are they really connected to the case or are they distractions? How much of this case really is a matter of coincidence?

Writer-director Abhay Chopra’s story keeps a steady tempo, wasting little time in a movie that clocks in well under two hours long. Much of the film takes place at night or in dingy jail cells, and even daytime scenes are dimmed by the monsoon. Cinematographer Michal Luka uses the darkness to great effect.

The real star of the Ittefaq is the superb score by American composer BT, hooking the audience from the movie’s opening car chase sequence. The music pulses as Maya tells her version of events, the soundtrack keeping viewers as off-balance as Maya feels in the presence of a dangerous stranger.

Both Malhotra and Sinha have good poker faces as they change their characters to the story’s demands, from grieving spouses when stating their own cases to the police to villains in each other’s flashbacks.

Ittefaq doesn’t work unless Khanna’s performance is spot on, and thankfully it is. He sidesteps common movie-detective traps like excessive yelling or quirkiness in a way that avoids drawing too much attention to Dev, despite him being the character with the most screentime. It would be fun to see Dev helm a series of murder mysteries, perhaps with even more input from his astute wife (played by Mandira Bedi).

It’s nice to see a Hindi movie where the cops aren’t depicted as heartless monsters or incompetent fools, for a change. Any mistakes the officers under Dev make are honest ones. Ittefaq is pretty heavy on police procedural elements, for fans of that subgenre. For everyone else, it’s just a well-made movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

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