Category Archives: Reviews

Movie Review: Andhadhun (2018)

4 Stars (out of 4)

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Neo-noir filmmaker Sriram Raghavan made his best movie yet: the black comedy Andhadhun (“Blindly“).

Ayushmann Khurrana stars as Akash, a talented blind musician living in Pune. He gets a gig as the piano player at trendy restaurant after the owner’s beautiful daughter, Sophie (Radhika Apte), runs into him with her scooter. The job puts Akash in touch with some high rollers, including former film star Pramod Sinha (Anil Dhawan). Pramod hires Akash to serenade him and his young wife Simi (Tabu) on their anniversary, and things don’t go as planned.

Raghavan’s script — co-written with Yogesh Chandekar, Hemanth Rao, and frequent collaborators Arijit Biswas and Pooja Ladha Surti (who also edited Andhadhun) — rewards fans of crime thrillers with familiar genre nods like femmes fatales and characters who aren’t what they seem. Yet the story veers in unexpected ways, forcing the audience into a giddy series of emotional pivots, from shock to uneasy chuckles to horror to hysterical laughter, all in a matter of seconds. It’s astonishing how well Andhadhun pulls this off.

Khurrana’s filmography is full of nice-guy roles, and the sympathy he inspires serves Akash well early on, before we discover that the pianist has his own secrets. His more complicated character contrasts with that of Sophie, who has the movie’s “sunshine role”, according to Ladha Sutri. A love scene between Akash and Sophie is wonderfully steamy despite its brevity.

Then there’s Tabu. She’s glorious in this, so much fun to watch as the ambitious trophy wife (who is shown at one point reading a book titled Anita: A Trophy Wife). She’s charming and chilling, and also hilarious as the movie’s main source of dark humor.

Raghavan and his co-writers ensure that every supporting character has their own clear motivations, which not only elevates the overall quality of the story, but makes it that much easier to get great performances from the whole cast. Ashwini Kalsekar is a laugh riot as the enthusiastic-but-out-of-the-loop wife of a police officer, played by Manav Vij.

Sound design plays a huge role in Andhadhun, as it has in Raghavan’s previous movies. Here, Raghavan expertly deploys tunes to shock the audience or punctuate a joke. Amit Trivedi’s terrific original songs are interspersed with Bollywood hits from the 1970s (ostensibly from the soundtracks of Pramod Sinha’s films).

Khurrana learned to play the piano well enough that cinematographer K. U. Mohanan could shoot Akash playing in full frame, instead of filming him from the chest up and inserting shots of a real pianist’s hands doing the playing. It’s an example of the cast & crew’s dedication that helps make Andhadhun so darned fun to watch.

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Movie Review: Pataakha (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Director Vishal Bhardwaj is a master world-builder, designing rich spaces for his characters to inhabit and filling them with evocative music of his own creation. Pataakha (“Firecracker“) is the latest example of Bhardwaj’s formidable skill.

Based on the short story Do Behnein (“Two Sisters“) by Charan Singh Pathik, Pataakha‘s plot is simple. Badki (Radhika Madan) and her younger sister Chhutki (Sanya Malhotra) are constantly at war, each blaming the other for her sorry lot in life. But when they set out to achieve their dreams independently, they discover they need each other more than they thought.

The tale feels like a familiar parable, something one might expect to find in a storybook for children, were it not for all the swearing and fighting. Badki and Chhutki are their small Rajasthani town’s source of entertainment, their curse-filled brawls drawing enthusiastic crowds. Every fight ends with the girls’ father, Bechara Bapu (Vijay Raaz), dragging his daughters home — but not before getting battered in the melee himself.

Adding to Pataakha‘s folkloric feeling is the presence of a trickster character, an itinerant jack-of-all trades named Dipper (Sunil Grover), whose joy in life is instigating fights between the sisters. He snitches on them to each other, and he invents conflict when things are too peaceful. When Badki and Chhutki get boyfriends — Jagan (Namit Das) and Vishnu (Abhishek Duhan), respectively — it gives Dipper more fuel to stoke the fires of war.

Bhardwaj is clearly fond of both the character of Dipper and the actor who plays him. This may be more perception than reality, but it’s almost like Grover’s face is in sharper focus than the other actors’ — and it certainly seems like he gets more closeups. Whether that’s true or not, my attention always gravitated toward Dipper, just to see what he was going to do or how he would react, no matter what other chaos was happening on screen.

For so much attention to be given to a secondary character — as delightful as he is — hints at Pataakha‘s biggest problem: there isn’t enough material to warrant a full-length feature film. Trimming the runtime by thirty minutes would’ve been a start, but Pataakha‘s story would feel most at home as part of a collection of short stories.

It’s by the strength of Bhardwaj’s world-building and the performances he gets from his actors that Pataakha is as enjoyable as it is. Raaz is charming as the girls’ flawed father, who lectures them on the dangers of smoking by showing them the warnings on a half-empty packet of cigarettes he pulls from his own pocket. Madan and Malhotra give it their all in what must have been a fun but exhausting shoot, spending most of their screentime fighting, screaming, and crying as they do. Das and Duhan are solid in their supporting roles.

The movie’s showstopping item number, “Hello Hello,” is another highlight. Written by Bhardwaj and performed by his wife, Rekha, the sexy song is brought to life by the incomparable Malaika Arora. Unlike many lesser item numbers, cinematographer Ranjan Palit keeps his camera a respectful distance from Arora, without zooming in on particular body parts. This is not just a matter of decency but an acknowledgement that, when Arora dances, you need to see her from head to toe.

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Movie Review: Manmarziyaan (2018)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Emerging adulthood is a particularly annoying stage of human development. Teenage immaturity is no longer a viable excuse for bad behavior, but many emerging adults are still self-centered enough not to fully appreciate the impact of their actions and choices on those around them or even on their own futures. It was a stage I was glad to grow out of and glad for my friends to grow out of.

It’s a tricky balance to write a drama about emerging adults that feels authentic but isn’t as irritating as real life. Maybe director Anurag Kashyap and writer Kanika Dhillon get things too right in Manmarziyaan (“The Heart’s Wish“, international title “Husband Material“). Two-and-a-half hours of watching characters repeat the same mistakes because they lack the self-knowledge not to is tiresome, even with a tremendous cast in the leading roles.

Headstrong hockey player Rumi’s (Taapsee Pannu) romantic relationship with wannabe DJ Vicky (Vicky Kaushal) is the neighborhood’s worst-kept secret. Sick of the local gossip, Rumi’s family tells her to marry Vicky, or they’ll find a groom for her.

For Rumi, the solution is easy. An engagement will pacify her family indefinitely, and she and Vicky have professed their love to each other anyway. But Vicky is happy the way things are, with all the sex he wants and none of the responsibility that comes with a publicly acknowledged relationship.

As immature as Vicky is, Rumi isn’t much better. She spends far too long ignoring the reality Vicky presents to her and wishing for him to be someone he’s not. She accepts a marriage proposal secured by her family as a means of punishing Vicky, not really considering that the groom-to-be, London banker Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan), thinks he’s getting a wife, not some other guy’s spiteful girlfriend.

The first half of Manmarziyaan is so dense with material that the interval break comes as something of a surprise, resetting the story right when it seems to be nearing a conclusion. The film shifts focus from how Vicky’s immaturity ruins his relationship with Rumi to how Rumi’s immaturity ruins her relationship with Robbie. It’s too much of the same thing.

The bigger question is why Robbie thinks Rumi is worth all the trouble, since he really doesn’t know much about her. She gives him the silent treatment when he asks her questions — that is when she’s not sneaking off by herself. Why would someone as ready for marriage as Robbie is put up with her petulance for as long as he does?

Robbie claims that he wants an unconventional bride, and Rumi’s vivacity intrigues him more than other, more demure candidates suggested by the matchmaker. But when Rumi and Robbie are together, she behaves much like a conventional housewife, cooking and waiting up late for him. There’s no discussion of how her other interests — playing hockey and working at her family’s sporting goods store — fit in with married life, or how she’d spend her days if it was just her and Vicky in London, with no family or friends around. The movie makes it seem as though the only obstacle between Rumi and wedded bliss with Robbie is Vicky, but maybe the version of married life Robbie offers her is part of the problem.

It’s not the cast’s fault that Manmarziyaan doesn’t quite work. Pannu’s spiritedness is balanced by Bachchan’s steadfastness. Kaushal goes full-tilt with Vicky, especially during Amit Trivedi’s great song “DhayaanChand” (one of several songs in the film to feature the twin hip-hop dancers Poonam & Priyanka, who steal the whole movie). The soundtrack overall is quite good.

Watching the characters in Manmarziyaan repeat the same mistakes over and over brought back memories of a time when my friends and I made ourselves unhappier than we should have been by trying to force relationships to work that never could. It was a relief to grow out of that phase. I wish the characters in the film had done so sooner.

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TV Review: Breathe (2018)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Amazon’s TV series Breathe is brilliant at times: sharp and thought-provoking, giving skilled actors known mainly for their film work a chance to shine in a different medium. Yet it’s a series of ups and downs, with more downs than ups as the story progresses.

R. Madhavan leads the series as Danny Mascarenhas, father to an ailing son named Josh (Atharva Vishwakarma). The severity of Josh’s illness is mentioned indirectly at first, when Danny pulls a relative aside during a birthday party and asks him to take back an overly generous gift for Josh, lest the boy realize something is up. “Why do we have to tell him what we know?” Danny kindly tells the uncle. When next we see Josh, he’s in the hospital, being treated for a disease that’s given him months to live unless he receives a lung transplant. The whole sequence is beautifully constructed.

In order to receive a new set of lungs, Josh not only has to wait for a donor with the correct rare blood type to pass away — and in a manner that keeps their organs viable for transplant — he has to wait for the three people ahead of him on the recipient list to get their lungs first. Bereft of options, Danny steals a list of registered donors and hatches a morally questionable (at best) plan to extend the lives of Josh and those ahead of him on the transplant list.

Elsewhere in Mumbai, another father tortures himself over his own failure to protect his child. Police detective Kabir Sawant (Amit Sadh) lost his young daughter three years earlier when the curious girl accidentally shot herself with his service revolver. Kabir’s resultant misery and alcoholism have driven his wife, Ria (Sapna Pabbi), to file for divorce. As Kabir finally tries to pull himself out of his depression, he senses something fishy about a series of accidents among a cohort of people with the same blood type, who all happen to be organ donors.

Sadh and Madhavan are perfectly cast as the two fathers: one searching for redemption and the other trying to save his son while he still can. Both actors command attention despite some flaws in the way their characters are written. Kabir spends the first few episodes mired in a drunken funk, but he’s really engaging when his plotline finally meets with Danny’s. Danny is better from the get-go, although his arc becomes scattershot he pivots from cold-hearted to conflicted from scene to scene.

On the whole, the show is strongest during the setup phase, as Danny pursues a course of action prohibited by his Catholic faith (and laws and general human decency, of course). Interesting graphical illustrations of the factors he must consider when incapacitating his victims cleverly forces the audience to put themselves in the mind of a methodical killer. (Note: though the dialogue is primarily in Hindi, the articles and written materials shown onscreen in this sequence are written in English.)

During this phase of the story, we see Danny’s schemes play out in real-time. It’s intense, since there’s always a chance that something will go wrong. However, in later episodes of Breathe, Danny’s crimes are shown only after we know he’s gotten away with them, removing all the tension. This also makes the later crimes seem ridiculous and impossible to execute, rather than meticulously planned operations.

The weakest point in the entire series is Episode 5: “Bad Fish.” With Kabir convinced that he’s on the trail of a serial killer, he first asks his boss for leave to investigate before heading to Ria’s to warn her. Both scenes — which together make up the first ten minutes of the episode– are nothing but people shouting at Kabir as he tries to explain himself. Kabir’s boss wants him to focus on his overdue paperwork, and Ria and her father just want Kabir to leave.

This is bad writing for multiple reasons. First, it’s annoying to endure ten consecutive minutes of characters screaming the same things over and over. Second, one of the points Breathe emphasizes is that, for all his faults, Kabir is an excellent detective. Everyone around him says so. For him to be dismissed by both his boss and his ex-wife and her family makes no sense given what they know about him. Finally, his father-in-law’s refusal to listen to Kabir’s concerns for Ria makes little sense in a show built around the paternal desire to protect one’s offspring.

Despite being a show about a guy who hunts down organ donors, Breathe does a good job challenging stigmas against organ donation particular to India. Danny discusses concerns over the spiritual implications of organ donation with another family in the hospital waiting room in a scene that explains both objections to the practice as well as scriptural evidence that supports the practice. The series repeatedly shows just how critical the need is for donors willing to make one last compassionate act as they exit this life.

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Movie Review: Stree (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A female ghost teaches the men of a small town to respect women in the hilarious horror comedy Stree, from the filmmaking duo Raj & DK.

Legend has it that, every night during a four-day holy festival, a ghost known only as “stree” — which translates as “woman” — steals any man wandering the town of Chanderi alone at night, leaving only his clothes behind. Residents write “Oh stree, come back tomorrow” on the walls of their homes, hoping to deter the ghost until the festival ends and she disappears until the next year.

Some of Chanderi’s young men doubt the story’s truth, none more so than Vicky (Rajkummar Rao), a gifted tailor of ladies’ clothing. He and his cronies Bittu (Aparshakti Khurana) and Janna (Abhishek Banerjee) attend a raucous guys-only house party where one of guests is snatched — right after Vicky pees on the outside wall, washing away the protective writing.

Earlier that day, Vicky met a beautiful woman (Shraddha Kapoor) in need of a new dress, falling in love “at first eyesight,” he brags in English. The woman — who never gives her name — says she’s only in town for the festival, so she needs the dress completed quickly. After the disappearance at the party, Bittu and Janna assume that this mystery woman is “stree”, driving a wedge between the friends right when their survival depends on them sticking together.

My chief complaint about one of Raj & DK’s earlier horror comedies — the 2013 zombie flick Go Goa Gone — is that the jokes dragged on too long, but Stree‘s jokes are crisp and well-timed (as was the humor in the duo’s 2017 action comedy A Gentleman). Perhaps it helped that the duo ceded directorial duties to Amar Kaushik, who does a wonderful job interpreting their screenplay in his feature debut.

The superb cast deserves a ton of credit as well. Rao is charming as a lovestruck dope, and Kapoor gets her character’s befuddlement at Vicky’s naiveté just right. Banerjee primarily works in films as a casting director, but he’s hysterical as Janna. Khurana is great as well, as is the always reliable Pankaj Tripathy as the town’s ghost expert, Rudra. Atul Srivastava — who plays Vicky’s father —  gets a stand-out scene opposite Rao. Dad tries to talk to his son about sexual responsibility, but Dad is so uncomfortable he resorts to euphemisms for everything. Sensing the discomfort, Vicky plays dumb, goading his father to explain exactly what he means by the advice: “Be self-reliant.”

The real surprise of Stree is how deftly it conveys its message of respect for women within such a funny movie. The men of Chanderi — young and old — are all losers in love, too immature to be able to form the kinds of romantic relationships with women that might actually lead to sex (without having to pay for it). It’s a legacy that’s haunted the town for centuries, when “stree” was murdered before her wedding night. Though Stree doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, there’s a narrative justification for it, since this is a story of men learning from one another how to stop objectifying women.

Two of the film’s song numbers help illustrate the men’s progress. “Kamariya” features Nora Fatehi in a more traditional item number, dancing at the house party just before the first man is snatched. The camera focuses on specific features and body parts as she performs in the living room among all the rowdy men. This kind of item number in which a woman dances at the center of a group of male audience members — as opposed to out of reach on a stage — is intimidating, yet the number ends with Fatehi escorted from the party by two bodyguards, letting the movie’s audience know that she was never in any danger. It’s an important cue that most other filmmakers neglect to include in similar numbers.

Contrast “Kamariya” with the closing credits song “Milegi Milegi”. The men in the audience are along the sides of the room while Kapoor dances in the middle of a group of female backup dancers. There are no closeups of specific parts of Kapoor’s body. When Rao joins in, Kapoor first manipulates his body to dance the moves she wants him to before he starts dancing alongside her. It’s a clever way to show the characters’ moral development while also making sure there are enough catchy tunes to fill out the soundtrack.

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Movie Review: Gold (2018)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Director Reema Kagti and screenwriter Rajesh Devraj took some liberties with Gold, their fictionalized account of India’s 1948 Olympic field hockey victory, changing the names of players and minor details while keeping the core of the story intact. Yet the story’s predetermined ending seems to have stumped the filmmakers, as almost every attempt to create tension in Gold feels forced and inorganic.

The events of Gold are told from the perspective of Tapan Das (Akshay Kumar), an assistant manager on the British Indian field hockey team that won gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. As the world’s most formidable hockey team for many years running, frustration builds among the team at being forced to share their glory with their British oppressors. But with the independence movement growing in strength, Tapan and the team’s captain, Shankar (Kunal Kapoor), hope to one day win the gold for India alone.

World War II cancels the Olympics in 1940 and again in 1944. This is addressed in a song montage that shows Tapan spiraling into despair and alcoholism, but it warranted further exploration. What was it like for those athletes who spent their prime competitive years on the sidelines, particularly those in countries far removed from the theater of war? We learn from Tapan that Shankar became a coach and that another player, Imtiaz Ali Shah (Vineet Kumar Singh), became a freedom fighter, but not how they felt about being unable to compete.

Gold’s greatest fault is that it is too focused on Akshay Kumar’s character. His emotional journey is the only one shown in any real depth, and events are shown exclusively from his perspective. It’s a stark contrast to 2007’s Chak De! India — another patriotic field hockey movie — which managed to establish about a dozen other memorable characters, in addition to a manager played by a superstar actor (in that case, Shah Rukh Khan).

When the war ends and a new Olympic games is announced for 1948 in England, Tapan rushes to assemble a team. With independence from Britain right around the corner, it’s the perfect opportunity to beat the Brits on their home soil. The sports commissioner Mr. Wadia gives his consent, with the provision that Tapan share managerial duties with Mr. Mehta (Atul Kale).

With the former superstar Shankar comfortably retired, Tapan enlists Imtiaz to serve as captain, bringing veteran leadership to a squad of young players with no international experience. Two hopeful new stars include a Punjabi policeman named Himmat (Sunny Kaushal) and Raghubhir Pratap Singh (Amit Sadh), a prince from a noble family.

Yet the plans Tapan and Imtiaz make in anticipation of independence are destroyed by the surprise implementation of Partition. Violence forces Imtiaz and several other Muslim players to flee with their families to the newly formed Pakistan, and the team’s British-Indian players head to Australia. Gold‘s best sequence is the heart-wrenching moment when Imtiaz decides to leave the nation whose independence he fought for, saying: “My country is different now.” His character’s particular struggles warrant a standalone movie.

Sadly, Gold heads downhill from here. The newly assembled team’s training is plagued by problems that promise to generate dramatic tension. Only that tension never really manifests — since the problems are all solved as quickly as they start. Mehta undermines Tapan, but Wadia immediately endorses Tapan’s approach. The team won’t work together, but then they learn to do so in a matter of minutes.

It’s a shame that Kagti and Devraj abandon politics at this point, since it could have been a good source of intra-team conflict, especially since the characters aren’t strictly based on any of the real-life team members. How do working class team members feel about playing with a prince, who seems unaffected by the fallout from Partition? Is Himmat worried about the violence in Punjab while he’s in training? How do any of the other dozen or so unnamed players feel about… well, anything? Instead, the climactic tension is created by one character needlessly withholding information from others — a silly shortcut, given all the potential sources of conflict available.

The acting is uniformly decent, with Singh giving the film’s standout performance. Shah and Kaushal are good as well. Kumar is fine, but the film’s uneven mix of drama and comedy keeps this from being one of his more memorable roles. Mouni Roy — who plays Tapan’s wife, Monobina — likewise suffers for having to perform comedy scenes that aren’t especially funny. Roy is seventeen years younger than Kumar, which makes one wonder why her young, attractive character would marry a much older, intermittently-employed drunk — a question that could have been avoided by casting an actress closer in age to Kumar.

Many of Gold‘s shortcomings could be forgiven if its hockey scenes were exciting, but they aren’t (the few that exist anyway). The Olympic scenes are also hampered by distracting CGI crowds in the background. Contrast that with the thrilling, beautifully-shot hockey scenes in Chak De! India, and Gold is strictly average.

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Movie Review: October (2018)

1 Star (out of 4)

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October is a difficult film to watch, but not for the reasons one might expect. The drama of a young woman’s life forever changed by injury is merely the backdrop for a too familiar story of an undeserving male character’s redemption.

Varun Dhawan stars as Dan, a hotel management trainee with no likeable qualities. He’s a snob who’d rather delegate work than do it himself, especially tasks he deems beneath him, like cleaning rooms and doing laundry. He’s a know-it-all who loves telling more experienced people how to do their jobs. He’s lazy, yet competitive enough to resent fellow trainees who are smarter and more capable than he is.

Among the trainees, the chief recipient of Dan’s bad attitude is Shiuli (Banita Sandhu). Whether his being a jerk to her indicates some kind of stunted elementary school-type crush or if it’s just his standard jerkiness is unclear. Shortly into the film, Shiuli slips from a third floor balcony at a New Year’s Eve party, rendering her comatose and permanently paralyzed.

Dan wasn’t at the party, so he only learns days after the accident that Shiuli’s last words before she fell were, “Where is Dan?” This sparks an obsession, leading Dan to spend all of his time at the hospital in the hopes that Shiuli will wake and tell him why she asked about him.

That sounds like the setup for horror movie, yet we know it can’t be, because Dan fits the mold of a common type of Bollywood hero: the boorish man-child who must finally become an adult. The arc for this character type is so familiar — in the course of falling in love with a good woman, he learns to care for someone other than himself — that director Shoojit Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi treat the hero’s emotional growth as the inevitable consequence of his devotion.

But Dan doesn’t change in October. He ends the movie as much of an obnoxious know-it-all as he is at the start, correcting Shiulu’s mother Vidya (Gitanjali Rao) on how to properly care for her daughter and wanting praise for his contributions (which include hovering over a workman building a ramp for a wheelchair).

Dan’s dedication to Shiuli’s recovery stems from his wanting an answer from her. He uses his obsession as a measure of moral superiority, criticizing her friends for not spending every free moment at the hospital. He can’t understand that they have other obligations — to the rest of their friends and families, and even to themselves — that they must tend to as well.

That’s because Dan’s misanthropy and willingness to ignore his own family leave him with no other relationships beside the one he invents with Shiuli, and he’s willing to sacrifice everything to maintain it. He skips work, stops paying rent to his roommate, and borrows money from everyone with no way to pay it back. He’s mean to hospital staff and other visitors.

But because Dan is the protagonist, his single-mindedness is depicted as positive. The little he does for Shiuli mitigates the rest of his awful behavior. On the rare occasions that he is punished, he fails upward. The movie is determined to maintain Dan’s hero status, in spite of his actions.

All of this is driven by a one-sided devotion. From all indications, Shiuli wasn’t interested in Dan romantically before her accident, and they were barely more than acquaintances. Does she like him hanging around her at all times? If not, she’s physically unable to tell him to leave. Would she want him involved in the minutiae of her healthcare, monitoring things as intimate as the amount of urine in her catheter bag?

In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Sircar said that he and Chaturvedi drew on their own experiences caring for seriously ill parents when creating October. Yet the amount of influence Dan has over Shiuli’s care feels unrealistic. Certainly Vidya knows her daughter better than Dan, thus making her a better judge of Shiuli’s wishes — especially since Dan is neither the one being subjected to extraordinary medical interventions nor the one footing the bill for them. Vidya’s ready assent to Dan’s will reinforces how little agency female characters have in October.

Dhawan is a versatile actor, and it’s nice to see him in a film that requires more subtlety than a loud comedy like Judwaa 2 or Dilwale. Yet, whenever he plays a character who is supposed to undergo substantial emotional growth — be it October, Badlapur, or even Badrinath Ki Dulhania — a woman is always subjected to physical harm in order for him to do so. That’s not Dhawan’s fault, but it does highlight a need for screenwriters and filmmakers to move beyond fridging women as an expedient pathway to male character growth.

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Movie Review: Fanney Khan (2018)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

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The corny family drama Fanney Khan lacks the self-awareness to notice its obvious thematic flaws.

Anil Kapoor’s title character is the only one that really matters in the film. Fanney traded in his life as a small-time band leader for a steady factory job following the birth of his daughter, Lata, whom he named after his favorite singer in the hopes that little Lata would one day achieve the stardom he never could himself.

Stardom proves hard to come by for Lata, however. As a teenager (played by Pihu Sand), Lata is repeatedly booed off stage at talent competitions by audiences and judges more interested in teasing her about her weight than listening to her sing. She finds her dad’s musical taste cheesy, but performing racy pop songs isn’t working for her either. Instead of allowing Lata to find her own way, the movie leaves it to Fanney to chart Lata’s course for her.

A chance encounter with the famous pop star Baby Singh (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) inspires Fanney’s boldest plan for Lata’s success. He kidnaps Baby and holds her for ransom — not for the money his family desperately needs, but in exchange for getting Lata in the recording studio with Baby’s manager, Kakkad (Girish Kulkarni). Fanney recruits his jobless friend, Adhir (Rajkummar Rao) to keep watch over Baby, but Adhir’s crush on the star makes him an ineffective guard.

Fanney Khan might have succeeded as a pedestrian-yet-heartwarming family film were it not for a bizarre minor theme that alters the movie’s moral message in a way that debutant writer-director Atul Manjrekar appears not to have noticed.

The theme is first introduced when Lata plans her next live performance with her best friend, Rhea (Barbie Rajput, who is fantastic in her few scenes). When Rhea speculates that many top female stars slept with producers or other benefactors in order to become famous, Lata’s mother, Kavita (Divya Dutta), slowly enters the room, accompanied by music as somber as the expression on her face. She forbids the two girls from discussing the topic, even though were Rhea and Lata were both grossed out by the prospect and not actually considering it.

The same somber musical accompaniment reappears when Fanney asks Baby if she’d ever been pressured into sex for the sake of her career, when Kakkad is alone in a hotel room with Lata, and when Kavita sees Lata dressed in a (modest) one shoulder gown that Kavita nevertheless finds too revealing.

This repeated focus on women’s bodies and sexuality as they relate to fame is meant to convey the moral that women’s bodies are not tradeable commodities.

How, then, does director Manjrekar fail to notice the irony that his protagonist kidnaps a woman in order to trade her body for his own daughter’s success?

Fanney Khan is not a black comedy, and the sex-for-fame cautionary subplot isn’t explicitly juxtaposed against the main plot. Fanney is unquestionably a hero, slow-clapped by the very cops who come to arrest him as a way of praising his fatherly devotion.

Perhaps the point of the subplot is to convey that men may do what they like with women’s bodies, but women themselves may not treat their bodies as commodities. None of the men in the film face any repercussions for mistreating or intending to mistreat women’s bodies. Not Fanney or Adhir for kidnapping Baby, and not the studio head who wants Baby to have an “accidental” wardrobe malfunction in order to garner publicity. The character of a female recording engineer is invented specifically so that Kakkad can leer at her, thus making it appear as though Lata is in moral jeopardy when she’s alone in a room with him later. That Kavita doubts for a second whether Lata actually slept with Kakkad shows how little the film’s writers think of women’s ability to make their own moral judgements.

Fanney Khan lets down its main cast, who are all very good in the movie. Sand acquits herself well in her film debut, and she shares a nice mother-daughter rapport with Dutta. Rai Bachchan is natural in the role of a superstar, of course, and Rao is entertaining as always. Kapoor is flat-out terrific as the ultimate family man, making Fanney all the more endearing through his enthusiasm and cheerfulness. One way Kapoor could turn Fanney Khan into a positive is by taking Fanney’s band and backup dancers on the road, because they are a hoot. Enjoy them performing “Badan Pe Sitaare” in the video below:

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Movie Review: Vodka Diaries (2018)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Vodka Diaries is uneven as a mystery, yet Kay Kay Menon fans will find plenty to like in the talented actor’s lead performance.

Menon plays Officer Ashwini Dixit, a detective in the small mountain resort town of Manali. He and his wife, Shikha (Mandira Bedi), share a playful antagonism, though their relationship often takes a backseat to his career.

A young woman’s murder leads Ashwini to Vodka Diaries, a swanky hotel’s awkwardly named nightclub, populated by half-a-dozen or so additional characters who wind up involved in the investigation. The introductions of the new characters are poorly integrated into the main story, with Ashwini’s storyline progressing on an entirely different track that only meets with the other plotlines after a half-hour has passed.

It’s not just the length of time that makes the parallel story tracks a problem. The other characters — including a bickering young couple and two friends on a first date — are either uninteresting or annoying (specifically the cloying hotel manager, played by Sooraj Thapar). The only character we assume will be important to the plot going forward is a woman played by Raima Sen, whose defining characteristic is her mysteriousness. But without clear reasons for their presence in the story, the attention paid to these other characters feels like an interruption, pulling our attention away from Menon’s performance.

Thankfully, that all changes when multiple supporting characters are killed, putting the spotlight back on Ashwini as he tries to connect their deaths to the initial murder. Around the same time, it becomes apparent that something is seriously wrong with Ashwini–as his sporadic, violent hallucinations increase in frequency and severity (punctuated by effectively jarring sound design courtesy of Jitendra Chaudhary). Ashwini and the audience are equally confused about what is real and what isn’t.

Vodka Diaries is unquestionably Kay Kay Menon’s movie, and he is compelling throughout. The film’s opens with a scene of Menon’s character running through the snowy countryside, and if that was all there was to Vodka Diaries, it would still be riveting stuff.

With her role in Ittefaq last year and now this, Mandira Bedi has become the go-to actor to play a cop’s wife. It would be fun to see Bedi turn her current specialization into a starring role, perhaps as a wife who learns so much by talking to her detective husband about his job that she starts secretly solving crimes on her own. I know I’d pay to watch that.

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Movie Review: Puzzle (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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An innocuous gift makes a homemaker question her life in the insightful drama Puzzle.

We meet Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) as she’s fulfilling all of the duties of a party host: serving drinks, picking up the pieces of a broken plate, even taking the time to glue the pieces back together. It’s when she lights the candles on a birthday cake only to blow them out do we understand that this is her party, and she’s not able to enjoy it.

Agnes’s husband Louie (David Denman) and their young adult sons Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams) take her efforts for granted, in part because she’s so good at running a household. She’s detail oriented and attuned to how long each task takes, starting the laundry before she runs to the grocery store so that it’s ready to go in the dryer as soon as she gets home, leaving just enough time to prepare dinner before the men in the family get home from work or school.

She finally loses track of time when she opens one of her birthday presents: a puzzle depicting a map of the world. Agnes flies through it, assembling the 1000-piece puzzle in hours (minutes, maybe) instead of the days it would take most people. She enjoys herself so much that she breaks up the puzzle and does it again, not realizing she’s forgotten to make dinner until Louie and Ziggy walk through the door.

Louie’s dismissal of puzzles as “childish” forces Agnes to pursue her hobby secretly. At a specialty shop in the city, she meets a man in search of a “puzzle partner”: Robert (Irrfan Khan), a wealthy divorcee who is as worldly and intelligent as Louie is parochial and incurious. Robert’s fascination with Agnes and his encouragement of her independence makes her realize how little attention she’s given to her own wants and needs since she became a wife and mother.

Even as a more equitable division of household chores has become normalized, women are still responsible for the majority of housework (even when they are the primary breadwinner). As such, the depiction of Agnes’s plight will resonate with a lot of women. In the immediate term, it’s easier for Agnes to do everything herself rather than ask Louie and Gabe to help (Ziggy sometimes offers), especially since they’d just feign ignorance rather than try. Clean clothes are made dirty again and dinner needs to be cooked every night — an endless loop of mundane tasks that allows precious little time to question one’s purpose in life.

Louie isn’t abusive or mean, but his vision of how life is supposed to be hinges on a wife who accepts her role in it. When Agnes does start to question her part, her rebellion is staged on a small scale. There’s little in Puzzle that could be described as explosive, but the film’s message is impactful nonetheless.

Driving that is a well-constructed script, written by Oren Moverman and Natalia Smirnoff, who wrote and directed the Argentine film of the same name upon which Puzzle is based. The dialogue is direct and memorable, particularly Robert’s explanation for why Agnes finds solving puzzles so satisfying: “When you complete a puzzle, when you finish it, you know that you have made all the right choices.”

The film’s performances are likewise strong, though Macdonald’s precise dialogue delivery comes off as bit affected and takes some getting used to. Khan at first seems to channel Jeff Goldblum, but quickly makes the role his own. Weiler’s turn as Agnes’s unexpected ally Ziggy is sweet.

Keeping a tight focus on one woman’s evolution helps Puzzle to illuminate a particular aspect of modern gender dynamics. It’s as thought-provoking as it is enjoyable to watch.

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