Category Archives: Reviews

Movie Review: Khandaani Shafakhana (2019)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Khandaani Shafakhana is like a half-finished topiary. The general shape is there, but it needs a lot more trimming.

Sonakshi Sinha stars as pharmaceutical sales representative Baby Bedi. Her job supports her mother (Nadira Babbar) and her loafer younger brother — the unfortunately named Bhooshit (Varun Sharma) — following her father’s death. Dad took out a loan from his greedy brother (Rajiv Gupta), and now Uncle wants to take possession of the family’s home and kick them out.

An opportunity arises in the wake of another death, that of Baby’s estranged maternal uncle Mamaji (Kulbushan Kharbanda). Mamaji was notorious for running a fertility clinic in a town where just saying the word “sex” is considered obscene. He bequeathed his clinic to Baby, on the condition that she hire a doctor and operate the clinic for six months in order to conclude his patients’ treatments. After that, she’s free sell the property, paying off her father’s debt and leaving her with enough money to start her own herbal medicine franchise. If she fails, the clinic goes to the medical school that kicked out her uncle decades earlier.

Returning to Mamaji’s clinic — inexplicably covered in cobwebs even though he’s only been dead a few days — brings back childhood memories of learning about traditional Unani medicine at her uncle’s knee. Her first meetings with patients to talk about their erectile dysfunction issues are profoundly awkward, but Baby realizes the positive impact of her uncle’s treatment on their lives. This reawakens her own dormant dreams of becoming a doctor and inspires her to destigmatize the topic of sexual health in her prudish Punjabi town.

Sinha’s warmth in the film’s thoughtful moments feels so natural, and her character builds endearing relationships. Sinha deftly guides Baby through a complicated journey as she considers what she really wants from life. Comedy might not be Sinha’s strongest suit, but the jokes in Khandaani Shafakhana are pretty subdued anyway. Nor are they especially bawdy.

The moderate tone does a world of good for Sharma, whose comic performances tend to be over-the-top. Annu Kapoor is funny as Mamaji’s lawyer, and Priyanshu Jora is adorable as a lemonade vendor hired by the lawyer to spy on Baby to ensure she fulfills her part of the deal.

Khandaani Shafakhana looks fantastic. Director Shilpi Dasgupta and cinematographer Rishi Punjabi tell their story through carefully framed shots, the best of which make a pensive Sinha look positively ethereal.

But Khandaani Shafakhana falls short of success for a few reasons. It’s overly long, first of all. By the time Baby hits her lowest point, I was ready for the whole thing to be done. The resolution to Baby’s crisis feels convenient and unrealistic.

Some aspects of the movie felt like they didn’t quite translate, not so much as a matter of language but culture. (The English subtitles are actually quite good, including a funny joke about one of Baby’s suitors being handsome “like Al Pacino.”) The film’s primary audience in India will likely be more familiar with the particulars of Mamaji’s Unani medicine than a Western audience, so much about it is left unexplained. But the characters periodically give each other meaningful looks, and I wasn’t sure what the meaning was supposed to be. This is not a good starter film for Bollywood newcomers.

Then there’s Khandaani Shafakhana‘s biggest problem — one that can hopefully be edited out of the version that makes it to Amazon Prime. Bhooshit is discussing one of Baby’s patients with her: a famous rapper named Gabru Ghataak (Badshah). Bhooshit speculates that, because Gabru is always surrounded by beautiful women, the reason for the rapper’s erectile dysfunction must be that he’s a “homo.” Bhooshit says the slur in English, so it’s not a translation error. He also repeats it several times, indicating that director Dasgupta and writer Gautam Mehra intended the scene to be humorous. It’s an unfortunate scene that can easily be excised from the movie without ruining the story flow. In fact, in a movie that’s already too long, axing it could help in more ways than one.

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Movie Review: Article 15 (2019)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A big city bureaucrat appointed to oversee a small town police department gets tangled in a web of politics, caste, and greed in the dynamite thriller Article 15.

Ayan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is the ideal audience avatar. He rolls into the town of Laalgaon, telling his girlfriend Aditi (Isha Talwar) over the phone that the place looks like something out of an ’80s movie. He notes the freshness of the country air. It’s a world apart from the large cities — domestic and international — that Ayan is used to.

Besides the predictable culture shock, there’s something strange about the town. Despite what Ayan said about the fresh air, there’s a pall over the town that bathes it and its inhabitants in sickly yellow or gray tones (per cinematographer Ewan Mulligan). Ayan meets a former classmate, Satyendra (Aakash Dabhade), who is evasive and twitchy instead of the cheerful friend Ayan remembers. The rest of the cops — led by Ayan’s second-in-command, Bhramadatt (Manoj Pahwa) — are eager to close the case of two Dalit (lower caste) girls who were reported missing days earlier and found murdered. Only Ayan seems interested in the whereabouts of a third girl reported missing with them.

At first, Ayan is too smug to see what’s really going on, buoyed his sense of worldliness and the power accorded his position. He accepts Bhramadatt’s assessment of the murders as “honor killings” committed by the girls’ fathers, and he’s dismissive of Gaura (Sayani Gupta), the sister of the third missing girl. Only when he discovers that Bhramadatt is stalling him on the results of the postmortem and when his own men are attacked by Dalit activists does Ayan realize that he’s missing crucial pieces of the puzzle.

Laalgaon is governed by a rigid, complicated interpretation of the caste system. There are layers within layers, so that everyone ranks slightly above or below someone else. It reinforces social systems governing occupations, food handling, even whose shadow is allowed to fall on whom.

Money perpetuates the caste system in town, even though using it to discriminate against certain groups is officially prohibited by Article 15 of the Indian Constitution. By marginalizing the lowest castes, the people at the top ensure a steady supply of what is essentially slave labor. American audiences will notice similarities to how the white power structure here replaced lost laborers following the abolition of slavery, as explained in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th. The activist group in the Article 15 is in part a sort of militant labor union, and when they strike, the film shows in disgusting detail how dependent the town is on the workers who do the “dirty” jobs no one else wants.

Some people in Laalgaon have transcended certain aspects of their caste, such as Jatav (Kumud Mishra), who became a police officer with Bhramadatt’s help, even though his father was a school janitor. The status elevation turned Jatav into one of the most vocal critics of those below him, and his fear of falling back down the ladder keeps him subservient to those above. His eventual realization that turning his back on his people only made things worse is hard-earned and painful.

The scene that best captures the all-encompassing nature of Laalgaon’s power dynamics involves Bhramadatt and Jatav. As both men sob, Bhramadatt shakes Jatav, accusing him of ingratitude and endangering their very lives by aiding Ayan’s investigation. (More than one character states that the worst that will happen to Ayan is he’ll be transferred, while the locals who help him will be killed.) Though Bhramdatt ranks higher socially than Jatav, both serve the rich and politically connected at the top. Seeing these gray-haired men so terrified drives home how precarious their lives have always been in a place governed by something other than the rule of law.

Pahwa and Mishra are the standouts in a film full of amazing performances. Gupta is resolute in the face of a system designed not to help people like her. Same for Ronjini Chakraborty as the junior Medical Examiner who knows the truth of what happened to the murdered girls. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub’s portrayal of the Dalit revolutionary leader is terrific.

Aditi tells Ayan at one point that she doesn’t want him to be a hero, she wants him to be the man who doesn’t wait for the hero to arrive. That sentiment governs the way Khurrana plays Ayan. There’s a problem to solve, and Ayan does it without a lot of flash, using the skills he has at his disposal. Khurrana’s understated performance suits the movie perfectly.

Article 15 has a few moments that feel a little preachy, but they’re born of director Anubhav Sinha’s and writer Gaurav Solanki’s passion for the film’s message of justice. Their movie is thoughtful and relevant, with jaw-dropping surprises. Article 15 is a must-see.

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Movie Review: Luka Chuppi (2019)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

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“I go to the gym. I am lean.
You speak to me like a machine.
You say that you watch Scooby-Dooby Doo.
Let it be, Don’t have to say I love you.”
— “Coca Cola Tu”, lyrics by Tony Kakkar and Mellow D or a random word generator

The romantic comedy Luka Chuppi (“Hide and Seek“) tries to appeal to a youthful demographic, but its story is stale.

Small town reporter Guddu (Kartik Aaryan) falls in love at first sight with Rashmi (Kriti Sanon), a new intern at Guddu’s cable station. Rashmi wants to wait on marriage until she’s established her own journalism career in Delhi, but she’s willing to try out a live-in relationship with Guddu first. Traditional Guddu balks at the idea, not least of all because a local conservative Hindu political party — led by Rashmi’s father, Vishnu (Vinay Pathak) — is waging a crusade against couples dating or living together before marriage.

A reporting assignment in another town gives Rashmi and Guddu the chance to cohabitate in secret, at the encouragement of the station’s cameraman, Abbas (Aparshakti Khurana, who was great in Stree). When their new neighbors get suspicious, the couple pretends that they are already married — a lie that spirals out of control once their families get wind of it.

Luka Chuppi is written in the chauvinistic tradition that insists on having a male “main” character, rather than true co-leads (hence why Aaryan gets first billing in the credits even though Sanon is a bigger star). The story is set in Guddu’s world, populated by his friends, enemies, and extended family. Though Rashmi is from the same town, she’s treated as an outsider, returned from Delhi to a hometown in which she mysteriously knows no one except her father, his toady, and her mother, whose face is covered in every shot save one.

Even on his home turf, Guddu is the least-active participant in the story. Abbas offers almost all the answers to every ridiculous new problem the couple faces while Guddu stares silently. Guddu undergoes very little character growth, written as he is in the mold of Bollywood male protagonists who are inherently flawless to begin. As such, the obstacles on the couple’s path don’t force them to evolve, making the march to their inevitable happy ending feel increasingly ponderous.

Guddu’s position as the story’s fulcrum would be hard to embrace even with a more talented actor in the role, but Aaryan isn’t up to the challenge. He seems unsure what to do with his face, maintaining the same bland expression no matter what reaction is required, and his voice has a strange, hollow affect as well. Aaryan’s whole performance seems like a lackadaisical Akshay Kumar impression.

Aaryan and Sanon have zero chemistry, although she has a delightful rapport with Khurana. When the three are in scenes together, Aaryan is an obvious weak link. It’s a shame that a romance between Rashmi and Abbas is precluded outright by his being Muslim, but Luka Chuppi is clearly a one-issue movie, and interfaith romance isn’t it.

As is his wont, Pankaj Tripathi steals every scene he’s in as Guddu’s tacky, lascivious brother-in-law, Babulal, who wants to mess up Guddu’s relationship with Rashmi. If the movie were nothing but shots of Babulal snooping about in his absurd attire, it would be an improvement.

That still wouldn’t solve the film’s biggest problem, which is that there is zero chance that Guddu and Rashmi will break up once they decide to get together (which Rashmi does out of the blue after a song montage). Luka Chuppi‘s message is that young people would like their parents to stop freaking out about live-in relationships, but the film’s presentation of the live-in relationship as a trial run for marriage is moot if the subsequent marriage is mandatory — which is why the movie has no narrative tension. Luka Chuppi is a polite request for open-mindedness, not a demand.

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Movie Review: Music Teacher (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Music Teacher is a melancholy exploration of the consequences of blowing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Beni (Manav Kaul) is a middle-aged vocal instructor and part-time lounge singer in Shimla, where he lives with his mother Madhavi (Neena Gupta) and younger sister Urmi (Niharika Lyra Dutt). He dreamed of being a playback singer for the movies, but his father’s death called him back from Mumbai years ago, before he could land any film gigs.

Adding salt to Beni’s still-open wound is the success of one of his former students, Jyotsna (Amrita Bagchi), who herself is now a popular playback singer. Beni must confront his jealousy and anger toward her when Jyotsna returns to Shimla for a concert after eight years in Bollywood.

But is the story Beni’s been telling himself about Jyotsna’s fame and their falling out true, or does he view the past through a lens that paints her as the villain (corroborated by his mother’s hostility toward her)? He reexamines the narrative as he tells it to his new neighbor, Geeta (Divya Dutta), a lonely wife who’s been ditched by her husband and banished to Shimla to care for her ailing father-in-law.

The present and past timelines in Music Teacher are differentiated by the color of Beni’s sideburns: black in the past, grey in the present. It’s subtle and easy to miss at first. Beni himself was more upbeat when he first meet Jyotsna, as opposed to the terse curmudgeon he’s become since she left. Their relationship was about more than music, but both had different dreams for the future.

Beni’s challenge is to realize how his own actions led him to his present unhappy state, and then either chart a new course or find a way to accept things the way they are. He’s spent his whole life waiting for his big break, thinking it could only come in the form of a show business career. He never considered that loving Jyotsna could be a life-changing opportunity in its own right.

Kaul plays Beni as more sad than angry, although the sense of having been wronged is what keeps him in stasis. Kaul convincingly portrays Beni as a decent guy who blew his big chance and never learned how to cope with it.

Bagchi is touching as Jyotsna, both in flashbacks as a young woman desperate for love and in an impactful present-day sequence in which she hints that the lessons she’s learned have been hard won.

While Jyotsna embodies all of Beni’s opportunities lost, Dutta’s Geeta represents the idea of accepting life’s hardships and finding pleasure where one can. Were Beni further along in his emotional journey, maybe he and Geeta could be happy together, damaged but at least not alone.

Though Music Teacher‘s story focuses on Beni’s growth, there’s an interesting theme about the lack of control women have over their own lives. Geeta is the most obvious example, fulfilling the edicts of a husband who lives in a distant city and no longer loves her. But Beni himself has undue influence over the lives of the women in his family. He selects a groom for his sister Urmi, and while we can assume that he wouldn’t make her marry against her will, he clearly has veto power when it comes to groom choice. Beni’s insistence forces Jyotsna to make a choice she doesn’t want to, and the repercussions destroy their relationship.

The men in Music Teacher don’t deserve the power they have. Geeta’s husband — who doesn’t even appear onscreen — is a bad guy for ditching her and offloading the care of his sick father onto her. Beni is guilty of myopic self-interest and a tragic lack of foresight, and loneliness is the consequence. Music Teacher is a big improvement over writer-director Sarthak Dasgupta’s first film, 2007’s The Great Indian Butterfly. There’s a lot to relate to and appreciate about this cautionary tale.

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Movie Review: Student of the Year 2 (2019)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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With an opening scene that features hundreds of students celebrating the start of an intercollegiate competition by chanting, “Student! Student!”, it’s clear that Student of the Year 2 (“SOTY2” henceforth) is not meant to be intellectually challenging. Nevertheless, the romantic comedy-drama sequel is plenty of fun, with some surprisingly rich character development.

Though not a direct sequel to 2012’s Student of the Year, SOTY2 is made in the same narrative mold as the first: a low-income university student competes against his well-heeled contemporaries for respect and the love of a pretty girl. While the original SOTY launched the careers of three newcomers who would become big stars — Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan, and Sidharth Malhotra — SOTY2 is star Tiger Shroff’s sixth leading role.

This time Shroff plays Rohan, a working class student at the underfunded Pishorilal Chamandas College where he excels at the sport kabaddi. His wealthy childhood sweetheart Mridula (Tara Sutaria) attends hoity-toity St. Teresa’s College. Without telling Mridula about his plan, Rohan gets an athletic scholarship and transfers to St. Teresa’s to be closer to her.

Rohan is a fish out of water at his new school, where everyone wears designer clothes and drives sports cars. He’s no longer the best athlete, with that distinction belonging to Manav (Aditya Seal), the reigning intercollegiate Student of the Year titleholder. Rohan makes an enemy of Manav’s snobby, vindictive sister Shreya (Ananya Panday, daughter of actor Chunky Pandey). Even Mridula — who goes by “Mia” on campus — acts less than thrilled to see poor Rohan on her fancy turf.

While Rohan could find a place at St. Teresa’s as one of Manav’s toadies, that won’t impress Mridula. What starts out as a good-natured rivalry between the two campus studs changes when Manav realizes Rohan’s ambitions, and Manav reminds Rohan of the hierarchy in the harshest way possible. But Rohan finds an unexpected ally in Shreya, who’s tired of living in her brother’s shadow. Maybe Rohan’s been trying to impress the wrong woman.

Though Shroff is typically drawn to action movies, he’s more charming in a lighter role like this that requires some self-awareness. Shroff nicely depicts Rohan’s struggle to fit in, as well as his realization that he should’ve been kinder to his peers back when he was Big Man on Campus at his old college.

Shreya’s character development is even more impressive than Rohan’s. She evolves from spoiled and aloof to generous and kind, as Rohan learns more about her troubled home life, while still keeping the core of her character intact. Her instinct to respond to slights with cattiness never changes, but she begins to curb her impulsiveness. One would never guess that this is Panday’s first feature role, she’s that good.

This is also Sutaria’s first feature role, having started her career in television. She doesn’t quite match the charisma of Shroff or Panday, but her character isn’t as deep as either of theirs. Mridula is written as shallow and fickle, which doesn’t leave Sutaria much room to maneuver.

Manav is also one-note — a rich bully from start to finish. Seal has to deliver dopey lines with a straight face, such as the multiple times Manav calls Rohan “loser of the year.” On the positive side, Seal and Sutaria are the best dancers of the lead quartet.

The film’s dance numbers are fun and impressive in scale, although they do have some weird elements. Will Smith strolls across the stage during one song for absolutely no reason. A couple of numbers feature a bunch of white women in cheerleader outfits, which stands out because there aren’t any non-Indian male students at St. Teresa. Also, one of my friends was crushed to discover that “Mumbai Dilli Di Kudiyaan” was just released for promotional purposes and wasn’t actually in the movie.

SOTY2 also has a lot of kabaddi scenes, which are sort of exciting, but I didn’t come out of the film understanding anything more about the rules than I did going in. (Although I was delighted to learn that you’re allowed to kick people in kabaddi.) There are also some unrealistic track and field sequences that have slow-motion shots of Manav turning to stare at Rohan in the middle of a race and looking aghast. As the leadoff runner for Westmont High School’s state-qualifying 800-meter medley relay team in 1994, I can assure you that there isn’t time for such theatrics during a sprint.

Then again, the whole premise of the Student of the Year competition is ridiculous to begin with. It’s only available to male students, there’s no academic component, and it only features two events — one of which is a team sport. Points are accrued by school, not by individual, yet the final award is given to a single participant. It’s pretty dumb if you think about it, so better to just enjoy Student of the Year 2 for its lavish dance numbers and Ananya Panday’s promising debut.

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Movie Review: Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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With Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (“How I Felt When I Saw That Girl“, ELKDTAL henceforth), debutant filmmaker Shelly Chopra Dhar set out to change how India thinks about LGBTQ people, both in terms of social acceptance and as an untapped well of cinematic storytelling possibilities. Her film is caring, thoughtful exploration of how a conservative family deals with a gay family member.

Sonam Kapoor Ahuja uses her star-power for good to play Sweety Chaudhary, a closeted lesbian from the Punjabi town of Moga. While on a trip to New Delhi, she ducks into a theater during play rehearsals to hide from a man we later learn is her brother, Babloo (Abhishek Duhan). Intrigued by Sweety’s good looks and her insightful critique of the awful play, its floundering writer, Sahil (Rajkummar Rao), helps her escape to a train station.

Sahil finds out where Sweety lives and heads to Moga under the pretext of running an acting workshop. There, a series of misunderstandings convince Sweety’s father Balbir (Anil Kapoor), her grandmother Gifty (Madhumalti Kapoor), and Sahil himself that Sweety is secretly in love with him.

Sweety explains to Sahil that she’s in love with a woman named Kuhu (Regina Cassandra). Babloo knows this and disapproves of his sister’s feelings, which is why he followed her to New Delhi and why she’d hidden from him in Sahil’s theater. Bereft of ideas for how to live a life true to herself, Sweety lets Sahil use his storytelling skills in a daring plan to win over her family and the town of Moga.

Director Shelly Chopra Dhar set herself the daunting task of making a movie that anyone could enjoy, but that would also open the minds of a particular segment of the audience. In an interview with The Telegraph, Chopra Dhar explains that her target audience was not progressive urbanites already accepting of LGBTQ people, but “people who’re genuinely not there”: those in smaller cities and towns in India who may have little personal exposure to gay people. So as not to risk scaring those people away, there is no same-sex kissing in ELKDTAL, only some affectionate hugging and hand-holding between Sweety and Kuhu — a choice consistent with the chaste way many mainstream Hindi films still depict straight romance.

Chopra Dhar also says in the interview that she had to consider ELKDTAL‘s setting when trying to reach her intended audience. Small-town folks might feel disconnected from an urban story, and a village setting could make the film seem too artsy and not commercial enough (which is why she made Balbir a rich factory owner). Although she wanted the serious message of acceptance to come through, she needed to relate to her audience in an uplifting way: “It’s not a dark and dingy film either. Why can’t it be a nice, bright film and be natural?”

ELKDTAL feels breezy and familiar, and its dramatic elements are balanced by two comic subplots. One involves the Chaudhary family staff — played by Seema Bhargava and Brijendra Kala, who is adorable in the film — betting on who Sweety will finally marry. Another features Juhi Chawla as Chatro, a goofy caterer with acting ambitions who catches Balbir’s eye. The tonal shifts between the comedy and drama elements aren’t seamless, but they never take the film off track.

In many ways, ELKDTAL‘s story is less about Sweety’s journey than how people react when she opens up to them. As the audience’s onscreen avatar, Sahil meets Sweety and decides she’s someone who deserves friendship and help, reinforcing the story’s message of judging someone by the content of their character. Sweety’s father, Balbir, already loves her, but he doesn’t see her for who she really is — in part because Sweety felt compelled to hide the truth from him. Balbir’s challenge is to accept what is, to him, a new facet of his daughter’s life, but also to see the way his own expectations for her made her life harder and less happy. It forces the audience to question whether we’ve let our own loved ones down by expecting them to be someone they’re not.

The downside to this narrative focus is that Sweety is acted upon more than she drives the action, but Kapoor Ahuja is fully engaged in every scene, her reactions always showing us how Sweety feels even when her character isn’t the center of attention. Same goes for Rao and Kapoor, whose love for his real-life daughter (Kapoor Ahuja) spills over into Balbir’s affection for Sweety. While ELKDTAL‘s laudable social goals are the perfect reason to start the movie, the film’s delightful performances make you want to see it through to the end.

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Movie Review: Junglee (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Junglee is exactly the movie it’s supposed to be: a fun action flick with a clear environmental message, great practical effects, and elephants. Lots of elephants.

Bollywood’s premier martial artist Vidyut Jammwal stars as Raj, a veterinarian who grew up on an elephant sanctuary run by his parents. As a young man, Raj ran away to the city, blaming his father for his mother’s death from cancer. Only on the tenth anniversary of his mother’s death does Raj finally return to the sanctuary.

Things have changed since Raj left. The remote jungle region is struggling economically, according to Raj’s friend Dev (Akshay Oberoi), who now works as a forest ranger. Raj’s childhood pal Shankara (Pooja Sawant) is one of the sanctuary’s few remaining mahouts, or elephant caretakers. She’s also grown up to be stunningly beautiful. The only thing that hasn’t changed is Raj’s frosty relationship with his father, Baba (Thalaivasal Vijay).

Too many Bollywood male leads are written as incapable of making mistakes, but Raj is different. He accepts Dev’s admonishment when his friend says that Raj is in no position to criticize the state of the sanctuary after abandoning it. Raj also comes to realize that he was too young to understand his parents’ choices during his mother’s cancer battle, and that realization starts to heal the rift with his father. Raj is willing to admit that he’s wrong and learn from his mistakes.

Economic troubles aren’t the sanctuary’s only problem. Ivory poachers use camera drones to spot Bhola, a bull with impressive tusks. Led by the hunter Keshav (Atul Kulkarni, who has a touch of Quint from Jaws in his performance), the poachers launch a nighttime raid, with elephants and humans among the casualties.

Raj sets out to find the culprits, aided by Shankara, Dev, and Meera (Asha Bhat) — a plucky reporter from the city visiting the sanctuary to interview Baba. This chase sets the stage for some of Jammwal’s signature stunt-work, which is as thrilling to watch as always. Raj fights with whatever items he has on hand, turning a ladder or a table and chairs into weapons with high novelty value. Shankara and Meera add comic relief, in the form of a love triangle which Raj doesn’t seem keen to participate in.

The highlight of Junglee is unquestionably its elephants, real-life residents at a conservation center in Thailand where much of the film was shot. Director Chuck Russell spoke with Scroll.in (interview linked below) about the numerous precautions the crew took to ensure the safety and comfort of the elephants while still shooting as many scenes with them as possible. The resulting footage is impressive — a refreshing throwback to the days before computer-generated imagery became the default cost-cutting option for film producers. It’s very cool to watch the cast interact with the elephants, and it makes the whole film a treat for the kid in all of us.

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Movie Review: Kalank (2019)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Kalank (“Stigma“) is a middling extravaganza, neither as good nor as bad as it could have been. Lavish sets, impressive dance numbers, and a gorgeous cast make it an enjoyable enough one-time watch, so long as you keep your attention at surface level.

Set just before Partition, the story follows Roop (Alia Bhatt), a young woman forced to integrate into a wealthy Hindu family living near Muslim-majority Lahore under unusual circumstances. Her acquaintance Satya (Sonakshi Sinha) proposes a business arrangement: in exchange for funding dowries for Roop’s younger sisters, Roop will move in to Satya’s home and grow closer to Satya’s husband, Dev (Aditya Roy Kapur). Satya is dying from cancer, and she hopes Dev will marry Roop after Satya’s death. Roop insists that she’ll only enter the home as Dev’s co-wife — a prudent move since Satya otherwise wouldn’t be around to make sure her wishes are carried out after death.

The second marriage proceeds and Roop moves into the Chaudhry family mansion with Satya, Dev, and Dev’s stiff father, Balraj (Sanjay Dutt). It would have been interesting to watch Roop and Satya negotiate their evolving roles in the household (as Bhatt’s character Sehmat did in Raazi) and learn more about nature of their tense preexisting relationship, but filmmaker Abhishek Varman sidelines Satya. Her illness progresses off-screen, and she and Roop have few interactions after their initial one. It’s unfortunate how small Sinha’s role in Kalank is given her prominence in the film’s marketing and the quality of her performance in her few scenes.

Dev tells Roop that he agreed to the marriage to make Satya happy, and that while he will never be mean to Roop, neither he will ever love her. Perhaps it’s because of the limitations of Dev’s nature, but Kapur’s one-note performance in the role is not one of his best.

In order to escape her stifling home life, Roop undertakes vocal music tuition from the famed courtesan Bahaar Begum (Madhuri Dixit) in a working-class Muslim neighborhood. There Roop meets Gendry, er, Zafar (Varun Dhawan): a hunky blacksmith who’s the unacknowledged bastard son of — you guessed it — Roop’s father-in-law, Balraj. Zafar neglects to mention that to Roop so that he can use her to take revenge against the family that abandoned him.

Varman lays the melodrama on thick, with lots of longing looks, near-kisses, and simmering tensions between family members. It’s fun, if that’s the kind of story you’re in the mood for. The melodrama is enhanced by song numbers that are grand in scale and a delight to watch, especially when Madhuri Dixit takes the floor. The sets have a depth of field, and every rooftop and alleyway is populated with extras. Some settings do feel over-the-top for their location. Bahaar Begum’s brothel is apparently so successful that she can afford to stack chandeliers atop one another, and Blacksmith Alley’s festival budget tops the production costs of most Bollywood films.

Then again, I don’t think authenticity was Varman’s goal with Kalank — especially not with Karan Johar financing the film. Everything is big and glamorous, regardless of whether it makes sense. I’m not sure if the costumes are true to the time period, but they look fabulous. The cast members — particularly Dixit, Sinha, and Bhatt — look stunning under Devdas cinematographer Binod Pradhan’s lens.

Kalank gets its worst bang for its buck on an awful CGI bull-riding sequence involving Zafar that includes maybe one shot of an actual bull. I’m not sure why this made the final cut of the film, except that they must have spent a lot of money on it.

Kalank‘s larger-than-life relationship drama is set within a complicated political environment. While Roop is falling in love with Zafar behind her husband’s back, neoliberal Dev uses his newspaper to promote the economic benefits of bringing a steel mill to Lahore — a move that would decimate the local, Muslim-run blacksmith industry. Dev — who is also anti-Partition — thinks he’s just seeing the big picture, envisioning an India made prosperous by innovation. Never mind that only his family’s prosperity is assured by such advances, at the expense of a struggling lower class.

Dev’s main antagonist is Zafar’s friend Abdul Khan (Kunal Khemu, who’s excellent in Kalank), a politician responding to his base’s growing discontent. His own politics become more religiously divisive over time in part because of the mood of the neighborhood but also due to Zafar’s aggrieved goading. There’s an inevitability to the violent climax, and Khan admits he couldn’t stop it if he wanted to (not that he wants to, by that point).

Kalank‘s epilogue — featuring Bhatt in a weird direct-to-camera speech — suggests that all this trouble could’ve been avoided if we just set aside our differences and chose to get along. But could it? The plot makes a compelling case for the Muslims in the film to favor Partition by whatever means necessary. Things were already tough — huge festival budgets and extravagant brothel chandeliers notwithstanding — and likely to get worse, all so that the (Hindu) rich can get richer and the (Muslim) poor poorer. I’m not saying this applies to actual history, but in the terms the movie sets for itself, the angry mob’s response makes sense.

That said, it stinks to see another mainstream film depict Muslims as violent, except for those noble enough to sacrifice themselves to save innocent Hindus. And it stinks that this is another movie that wants us to sympathize most with characters who are wealthy enough to escape difficult situations without regard for the mess they leave behind.

In order to enjoy Kalank, one must ignore the politics undergirding it and allow oneself to revel in the superficial beauty of it all. I was able to do that while I was in the theater. Only afterward did the film’s unfortunate aspects start to weigh on me.

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Movie Review: Badla (2019)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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There’s a lot to like in Badla, but I’m not sure how much any of it matters, since the film’s central mystery is so obvious. I’m no mystery buff, but I sussed things out in the first fifteen minutes.

Wealthy London CEO Naina Sethi (Taapsee Pannu) stands accused of murdering her lover Arjun (Tony Luke) after she wakes up in a hotel room next to his dead body and a pile of cash. She insists that an unknown blackmailer lured them to the hotel, and that the blackmailer knocked her out before killing Arjun.

With Naina stuck in her apartment under house arrest, renowned lawyer Badal Gupta (Amitabh Bachchan) arrives to prepare her for trial. Naina’s main attorney, Jimmy (Manav Kaul) — who’s off tracking down a potential witness — says that Badal is the best in the business, and Badal himself assures Naina that he wants her case to be his final victory before retirement.

Naina agrees to tell Badal the whole truth, but she’s surprised when he brings up the case of a missing young man. Though she obfuscates at first, Badal’s hunch is right — there is a connection between the missing man and her dead boyfriend.

Though the entire present-day portion of the story takes place in Naina’s apartment, we see relevant events of the past through flashbacks. Badal and Naina suggest differing interpretations of what happened, and Pannu and Luke alter their characters depending on the version of the story being told. Bachchan’s performance is more limited because his character only interacts with Naina and only within her apartment. And his character’s approach to his client seems overly adversarial.

Badla is based on the 2016 Spanish thriller The Invisible Guest, and it makes sense that Kahaani director Sujoy Ghosh would be drawn to its story. Pannu’s role was originally written for a man, and the character’s gender was changed at her insistence. That allowed Ghosh to make a second film about a woman from London whose guile and tenacity are underestimated by the men around her, involved in a crime that’s more complicated than it first seems.

Where Badla falls short of Kahaani‘s success is in the film’s the central mystery and the way information is parceled out. Even as Kahaani‘s heroine Vidya — a pregnant woman played by Vidya Balan — finds new details about her husband’s disappearance, the audience can never be completely sure what’s going on. She’s an unconventional lead for this type of movie, so we don’t have enough information or points of reference to figure things out far in advance.

Badla is more conventional, despite its someone novel technique of keeping Naina and Badal in her apartment and reenacting flashbacks of dubious veracity. Arjun’s murder is a locked-room mystery, so the audience knows to look for clues and discrepancies in the story as presented. The film also shows early on the incident that stars the chain of events ending in Arjun’s murder, so we know to be suspicious of the story we’re being told from that point on.

As I said above, I’m not even a mystery aficionado, but I wrote in my notes early into the film what I suspected was the answer to Badla’s riddle. From that point on, it was just a matter of the film finally proving my guess correct. The story never really give me a reason to doubt my assumption.

Badla’s short runtime of 118 minutes meant my vindication came quickly, but it was an unsuspenseful two hours. Thankfully, the performances are pretty entertaining, both by Pannu and Luke as well as Amrita Singh, who plays the missing man’s mother. Also, Amaal Mallik’s songs “Kyun Rabba” and “Tum Na Aaye” are fantastic. Badla isn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours, it’s just a little disappointing as a mystery.

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Movie Review: Gully Boy (2019)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Watch Gully Boy: Live in Concert on Amazon Prime

Aspiring filmmakers should study Gully Boy as a masterclass in character creation. Every character has a place in the story’s social fabric, and we see how they fit into the wider world — not just how they relate to the protagonist.

Murad (Ranveer Singh) is the spoke around which the rest of the characters in Gully Boy turn, but there’s always a sense that they have lives that continue when he’s not around. Murad suspects his criminal friend Moeen (Vijay Varma) is up to something dangerous, but he isn’t sure, since they’re not together all the time. The parents of their buddy Salman (Nakul Roshan Sahdev) are looking for a bride for him — something Murad’s fiery girlfriend Safeena (Alia Bhatt) uses to her advantage when the couple are on the outs.

Too often, Hindi movies with a male protagonist played by a big star consider the hero’s love interest only in terms of how she relates to him. Director Zoya Akhtar and writer Reema Kagti make sure that Safeena’s character is fully developed, showing her relationships with her parents and Murad’s friends. This doesn’t take away from Murad’s importance to the story, but instead emphasizes how he fits into his world. Giving all the characters agency adds to the movie’s realism and reinforces the notion that Murad’s actions have consequences for other people.

He and Safeena have kept their relationship secret from their parents for years, assuming that they’ll announce their intention to married when she finishes medical school and he earns a business degree. When Murad begins participating in the local rap scene, it changes the trajectory of his life and Safeena’s. Even though she supports his new endeavor, it means adjusting the plans for their future, since rapper isn’t an occupation that any of their conservative parents would approve of. A powerful scene in which Safeena asks her parents for the freedom to go places other than school highlights what she and Murad are up against, if he strays from the safe path to follow his dream.

Murad’s lyrics are born out of anger at the injustice that defines his world and limits his opportunities. His father, Aftab (Vijay Raaz in a chilling performance), accepts the limits imposed on poor Muslims and views educating Murad as a waste of money, since he’ll likely just end up a driver like his father anyway. Quashing Murad’s aspirations is a way of protecting himself from the truth that his own life might be better had he allowed himself to dream, instead of accepting what was forced upon him.

Gully Boy doesn’t pretend that Murad can succeed on desire alone, given the enormous societal forces he has to contend with at both the top and bottom of India’s economic ladder. He hones his craft under the tutelage of MC Sher (star-in-the-making Siddhant Chaturvedi), an established local rapper who understands Murad’s frustration and sees him as a voice for the underdogs in their neighborhood.

Ranveer Singh did his own rapping in the film, and the music overall is really good. (It would have been nice if the lyrics of the incidental music had been subtitled, and not just the lyrics from Murad’s scenes.) The lone weak points in Gully Boy are rap battle scenes — insult contests that have little in common with Murad’s introspective lyric-writing. I don’t know if one must be adept at rap battles to be considered a good rapper — or how one even wins a rap battle — but the sequences are dull.

Although Gully Boy isn’t an ensemble picture like Akhtar’s two most recent feature films — 2015’s Dil Dhadakne Do and 2011’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara — it almost feels as though it is, given how much care went into fleshing out the characters in orbit around the protagonist. Akhtar’s fascination with the connections between people sets her apart from her contemporaries and makes her one of India’s most compelling filmmakers.

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