Category Archives: Reviews

Movie Review: AK vs AK (2020)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch AK vs AK on Netflix

AK vs AK is the most novel Hindi film to release in 2020, but novelty is just part of its appeal. Director Vikramaditya Motwane’s meta take on the Indian film industry — and two members of it in particular — is smart, insightful, and a lot of fun.

The AKs of the title are Anil Kapoor and Anurag Kashyap, who play outlandish versions of themselves, as do other members of the Kapoor family. The story is fictional but trades on the participants’ real-life reputations and circumstances. AK vs AK‘s Anurag is a temperamental and self-important arthouse director who feels he deserves more acclaim, while Anil is an aging star who’s slow to accept that his biggest films are behind him.

Anil’s character seems further removed from the real person (no offense to Anurag), but he serves to highlight both the importance of the Bollywood star system and the refusal of many of the men within it to acknowledge the passage of time, insisting on playing college students into their fifties. The fact that Kapoor chose to play the character as he does in AK vs AK shows why he’s the model for aging gracefully in Bollywood.

The story opens with Anurag and Anil onstage for a question and answer session with film students. They trade barbs, bringing to the surface a simmering resentment from when Anurag was a young filmmaker and Anil turned down a role in one of his movies. Anil accidentally spills water on Anurag’s expensive shoes, and Anurag retaliates by throwing water in Anil’s face.

All of this is captured by a video camera operated by Yogita (Yogita Bihani), a filmmaker shadowing Anurag for a documentary project. Yogita helps Anurag concoct an audacious revenge plan to kidnap Anil’s daughter Sonam (playing herself) and film Anil’s search for her. Anurag believes this will cement his directorial genius by capturing Anil’s most realistic performance ever.

What follows is a nighttime chase, as Anil tries to find Sonam before sunrise, at which time the kidnappers who’ve nabbed Sonam have promised to kill her. A video of a tearful Sonam bound and gagged convinces Anil that Anurag is not joking. The two cruise around in Anil’s SUV along with Yogita, who documents the search.

The chase involves a stop at Anil’s house to put in a cursory appearance at his own birthday party to placate his suspicious family, who don’t know about the kidnapping. Anil and Anurag get in a fistfight and destroy a Christmas tree, but it’s somehow not even the funniest part of the sequence at the house. That honor goes to Anil’s son Harsh (playing himself), who is desperate to work with a director of Anurag’s caliber. Harsh acts out his pitch to play an action figure while Anil tries to get him to leave, ending with Harsh screaming about AK vs AK director Vikramaditya Motwane ruining his career when their movie Bhavesh Joshi Superhero flopped. It’s insidery, but hilarious.

Those familiar with the Hindi film industry will get more out of AK vs AK than those who aren’t. I’m sure I missed some references to films from earlier in Kapoor’s career. That said, the overall story is totally comprehensible for those who aren’t Bollywood fans. The way it’s shot — with long takes and clever camera angles that keep Yogita out of frame except for when she’s part of the story — is reason enough to watch it.

There’s also a great examination of the price of stardom. In his most vulnerable moments, Anil can’t get anyone to help him without first taking a selfie with them. Years of entertaining people onscreen isn’t enough for a cop or taxi driver to give Anil information without demanding an additional toll. Not only does he not get special treatment in his hour of need, he doesn’t even get the same courtesy one would afford a complete stranger.

Motwane walks a fine line, making sure the audience always knows how to react to a given scene. AK vs AK is funny when it’s supposed to funny and sad when it’s supposed to be sad. Even the uncomfortable moments where the audience is forced to consider whether something is funny or not clearly feel intentional. Motwane always makes great movies, and AK vs AK is no exception.

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Movie Review: Durgamati (2020)

1 Star (out of 4)

Watch Durgamati: The Myth on Amazon Prime

Durgamati: The Myth‘s intriguing first half is undone by its messy, twist-happy conclusion.

Writer-director G. Ashok stuck closely to the premise of his 2018 bilingual film Bhaagamathie for this Hindi remake. Bhumi Pednekar takes over the role of an imperiled bureaucrat from Anuskha Shetty.

Pednekar plays civil servant Chanchal Chauhan. Her long association with the squeaky-clean politician Ishwar Prasad (Arshad Warsi) brings her to the attention of the Central Bureau of Investigations. The CBI has been tasked with finding dirt on Prasad because his righteousness is making his fellow politicians look bad. Prasad has promised to leave the country in fifteen days if he can’t find the culprits who’ve been stealing ancient idols from remote village temples — a high standard other politicians don’t want to be held to.

Chanchal is an easy target because she’s in prison awaiting trial for killing her fiance Shakti (Karan Kapadia) — a crime that seems out of character from what little we know about her. Shakti’s vengeful brother Abhay (Jisshu Sengupta) is the police chief responsible for Chanchal’s safety after the CBI moves her to an abandoned palace in the jungle. Locals believe the mansion is haunted, so there’s no chance of anyone interrupting the CBI’s illegal interrogation.

Before Partition, the palace was the home of Queen Durgamati, known for merciless treatment of her enemies. Chanchal is locked in the mansion alone, only brought out during the day for fruitless questioning by CBI Director Satakshi Ganguly (Mahie Gill). Night after night, unseen forces torment Chanchal, psychologically and physically. A psychiatrist and a holy man disagree on the cause of the problem, but one thing is clear: Chanchal is not safe in Durgamati’s palace.

It’s hard to talk about any of the events after this point in the story without getting into spoiler territory. But we can examine what’s happened so far for indications of the kinds of problems that turn the ending into a total circus.

Take the plan to move Chanchal to the palace. The isolation is a selling point, but the mansion is huge and would be difficult to secure. It likely has numerous servants’ exits and other means of egress, but Abhay’s police team padlocks the front gate and calls it a day. Chanchal stays in the mansion alone, while the two cops assigned to guard her sleep in a shack beyond the gate. (The officers periodically get comic side bits that don’t fit the tone of the film at all.) Abhay has cameras installed in the mansion — hard to see how since the layers of dust inside are undisturbed and all the police are too scared to enter — but he doesn’t put one in Chanchal’s bedroom. No one from Satakshi’s CBI team sticks around to monitor the camera feeds overnight anyway. Chanchal could sneak out, and no one would be the wiser until morning.

The point of all this is that director Ashok wanted to use the palace setting no matter what, without thinking through all of the problems the setting presented. This inattention to detail gets worse as the story progresses, diffusing the sense of mystery built in the first half. Events happen for the sake of dramatic twists, and not because they would logically happen that way. Many of the solutions provided aren’t hinted at beforehand, but rather conjured as if by magic.

Gill and Sengupta are careful not to overplay their characters, both of whom undergo some welcome growth. Pednekar and Warsi are good in the parts of the script that allow them to be, less so in the moments that would have been hard for anyone to make convincing.

Throughout the film, elaborate plans like the palace interrogation scheme hinge on characters behaving in very specific ways. When a whole plan could come unraveled if one person makes an unexpected choice, says the wrong thing, or steps in the wrong direction, it strains credulity. Durgamati isn’t detail-oriented enough to be believable.

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Movie Review: Chhalaang (2020)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Chhalaang on Amazon Prime

A character archetype Bollywood screenwriters return to time and again is the “loafer with a heart of gold”: a leading man with limited career prospects and few likeable qualities (other than being handsome) who is nevertheless beloved in his small town and allowed to boss around whomever he wants. His only acknowledged flaw is that he doesn’t have a girlfriend — though he will by the end of the movie.

As someone who didn’t grow up watching films with this archetype, it’s a character I’ve never warmed to. The presumed inherent perfection of the main character — whom the audience is supposed to like because of their affinity for the actor playing him — precludes meaningful character growth.

Chhalaang turns the trope on its head, introducing a typical “loafer with a heart of gold,” exposing his shortcomings, and forcing him to fix them — especially if he wants to get the girl.

Montu (Rajkummar Rao) works as a gym teacher at his old high school in Haryana, even though he’s not interested in teaching. Principal Gehlot (Ila Arun) doesn’t care about the subject either, which is why she hired Montu to fill the job.

The school’s beautiful new computer teacher Neelu (Nushrat Bharucha) piques Montu’s interest. They get off on the wrong foot when Montu publicly embarrasses her parents while he and his boys are out harassing couples celebrating Valentine’s Day. More importantly, Neelu recognizes Montu as a guy who only does things that are easy, avoiding challenges.

Things change with the sudden arrival of a new gym teacher, I. M. Singh (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub). A new state law makes physical education compulsory, forcing Principal Gehlot to hire someone with actual teaching credentials. She tells Montu he can stay on as Singh’s assistant, but Montu’s pride won’t allow it. He throws down the gauntlet: he and Singh will train two teams of students for a sports tournament, and the winner gets to keep the job.

It’s a silly premise, but this is a comedy after all — and a pretty good one at that. There are lots of well-written jokes that are carefully translated in English subtitles by Laxminarayan Singh. Rao is always good, and he plays Montu with sincerity. Rao and Bharucha have a nice chemistry as well. Even better is the relationship between Rao and Saurab Shukla, who plays Montu’s former teacher and best friend, Mr. Shukla.

Coaching the kids in preparation for the tournament — which features funny play-by-play announcing by Mr. Shukla and Principal Gehlot — helps Montu learn the importance of seeing a task through to its completion, regardless of the outcome. However, it’s a little morally questionable that the kids are forced to partake in the competition over their parents’ objections and at the expense of their academics. And Montu’s training methods — which include siccing dogs on them to make them run faster — aren’t exactly orthodox.

A preponderance of moral inconsistencies keep Chhalaang from  being the family-friendly classic it could have been. Neelu — who is established as a dedicated and compassionate educator — suffers for the sake of Montu’s character growth. When parents pull their children from the competition, Neelu threatens to fail the students in retaliation. Montu’s lawyer father Kamlesh (Satish Kaushik) joins her, threatening legal action against the parents unless the kids participate. It’s not funny and seems out of character for both Neelu and Kamlesh.

Neelu is part of another insensitive scene that errs while trying to make a valid point. She brings Montu to a school for students with special needs where she volunteers in her off-hours. The purpose is to show Montu — whose team for the competition is made up of kids who’d rather be studying math, while Singh’s is all jocks — that every student can flourish with the help of a dedicated teacher. Neelu tells Montu, “Any teacher can take a student from 90 to 100, but only a good teacher can take a student from 10 to 40.” It’s a clever line, but there had to be a better way to make this point than calling specials needs students a bunch of 10s out of 100.

Chhalaang‘s writing is its best and worst feature. The dialogue is top notch. Director Hansal Mehta does what he can to make the film enjoyable and to make Montu’s evolution feel earned. But the screenplay, by writers Luv Ranjan, Aseem Arrora, and Zeishan Quadriis, needed more  moral consistency.

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Movie Review: Bulbbul (2020)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Bulbbul on Netflix

With her first go as a feature film director, screenwriter and lyricist Anvita Dutt proves herself a master of atmosphere in the gorgeous gothic horror movie Bulbbul.

The story begins in 1881 somewhere in the Bengal Presidency at the wedding of Bulbbul (Ruchi Mahajan), a precocious 5-year-old who doesn’t really understand what’s happening. She is reassured in the carriage ride to her new home by Satya (Varun Buddhadev), a boy a few years older than her that she assumes is the person she’s been married to. Only upon arriving at the lavish estate of Lord Indranil (Rahul Bose) does she learn that her husband is not Satya but Indranil himself, Satya’s much older brother.

While Indranil waits for his child-bride to grow up, Bulbbul and Satya become inseparable companions. He regales her with legends of the “demon woman,” a witch who prowls the trees at night on feet turned backwards, hoping to find the little princess and gobble her up. They share the palace with Indranil’s identical twin brother Mahendra (also Bose) — who has an intellectual disability and an unsettling fascination with Bulbbul — and Mahendra’s beautiful but jealous wife, Binodini (Paoli Dam).

Two decades later, Satya (now Avinash Tiwary) returns home after several years abroad to find his home radically changed. Mahendra was murdered, Binodini lives in a colony with other widows, Indranil left the palace, and Bulbbul (now Tripti Dimri) rules in his place. The bookish, demure girl Satya remembers has become confident and aloof. She lounges, fanning herself with an ostentatious fan made of peacock feathers. Satya asks Bulbbul, “Where did the sweet little lady I knew disappear? What did you do with her?” “I gobbled her up,” she teases.

Something is clearly wrong in the jurisdiction, but what is a matter of opinion. Satya wants to solve a series unexplained murders, including Mahendra’s. There’s also the matter of the blood-red night sky and sense of foreboding that pervades the woods around the palace. But Bulbbul and her close confidant, Dr. Sudip (Parambrata Chattopadhyay), are more concerned about domestic issues, like the suspicious injuries sustained by Master Dinkar’s wife.

Violence against women is a theme throughout the film, and a couple of scenes are quite brutal. Not the scenes of violence themselves, but shots of the grisly aftermath. Dutt is careful not to make the violent acts in any way titillating. The scenes are simply sad, accompanied by a heartbreaking musical theme from composer Amit Trivedi.

Rather than focusing on the violent acts themselves, the story highlights a key mechanism that allows such violence against women to go unchecked: the otherwise good men who refuse to see it, as personified by Satya. He’s not violent, but he won’t believe that the men around him are. When Bulbbul and Sudip bring up Master Dinkar (Subhasis Chakraborty), Satya’s first reaction is to call him “a fine man.” Satya is so ensconced within the ruling patriarchy that he assumes that the way other men treat him is the way they treat everyone, and he’s willing to accept their version of events without question. Satya is more suspicious of those who challenge his perception of reality — especially an outsider, like Sudip.

Tiwary is successful at portraying Satya as a nice enough guy who just doesn’t get it, but whose ignorance has devastating consequences. Dimri’s ability to convey how much Bulbbul adores Satya amplifies the significance of those consequences.

Dimri has to play essentially two characters: Bulbbul before Satya leaves, and Bulbbul after he returns. She’s so good at both, but she’s particularly fun to watch as Bulbbul the ruler. The film’s best scenes are between Bulbbul and Sudip, Satya’s foil. Chattopadhyay is terrific when he plays the sidekick to a powerful woman, as he did in Kahaani.

Bulbbul‘s most memorable element is its color palette. Dutt uses filters liberally to set the mood of scenes, deploying super saturated tones for specific effect. The red night sky is discomforting, but it’s surprisingly bright. By contrast, the interior of the palace after dark is a heavy blue that allows shadows to proliferate. It doesn’t have the same unnatural quality of the sky outside, but it feels more dangerous. Dutt’s bold and effective use of color in Bulbbul sets a high bar for her next project — one that she seems more than capable of reaching.

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Movie Review: Laxmii (2020)

0.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Laxmii on Hotstar

Is it possible for a film to be longer than its actual runtime? Laxmii sure feels like it is. Every time I paused the movie — which released directly on the streaming service Hotstar — I swear, there was always more time remaining than there was before.

Laxmii isn’t just boring, although it is painfully that. The more you watch, the more you realize how vapid it is. Plot elements and characters are plucked from a generic pool of comedy tropes and carelessly thrown together, with no attempt at continuity or resolution. Any social issues raised are examined with so little depth that the film offers no meaningful insight into them. One might forgive these flaws if Laxmii was funny, but it isn’t.

Akshay Kumar plays Asif, a debunker of superstitions. He stops a public demonstration against a suspected witch, exposing the fraudulent holy man conducting it. The woman on trial — who has a swollen lip and visible hand-prints on her face from a beating doled out by her husband — tells Asif, “You saved my marriage.” Ack. Laxmii is way, way too comfortable with violence against women, with this sequence being but one example of many.

Frequent violence against women also makes the film feel dated, as though it’s cobbled together from elements from movies from decades ago. Take Asif’s marriage to Rashmi (Kiara Advani). She’s introduced in one of the most tired ways: fretting that Asif forgot their wedding anniversary. Advani isn’t given much to work with in Laxmii, but her performance is not good. Neither is Kumar’s.

Asif and Rashmi are estranged from her family because her father Sachin (Rajesh Sharma) disapproves of Asif’s Muslim faith. Religious differences are irrelevant to the plot, but rather than write real conflict, writer-director Raghava Lawrence went with the default reason Bollywood movie parents disapprove of their child’s choice of spouse.

Let’s talk about Rashmi’s family. The logic that went into casting the actors makes no sense. The real age of the actor is in parentheses in the list below, followed by each actor’s role in Laxmii:

  • Akshay Kumar (53 years) — Rashmi’s husband, Asif
  • Ashwini Kalsekar (50 years) — Rashmi’s sister-in-law, Ashwini
  • Manu Rishi Chadha (49 years, 10 months) — Rashmi’s brother, Deepak
  • Rajesh Sharma (49 years, 1 month) — Rashmi’s father, Sachin
  • Ayesha Raza Mishra (43 years) — Rashmi’s mother, Ratna
  • Kiara Advani (28 years) — Rashmi

Somehow, Rashmi’s brother is played by an actor older than the actors playing his parents. Rashmi’s mother is younger than everyone except for Rashmi. And here’s the thing: everyone looks pretty much their real age (save for some “old lady” makeup for Rashmi’s mom). Besides the ick factor of Kumar romancing someone 25 years his junior, trying to pass Rishi Chadha off as young enough to be Sharma’s or Raza Mishra’s son is preposterous.

Asif and Rashmi head to her family’s house for her parents 25th wedding anniversary (*record scratch sound effect*) — hold on, Manu Rishi Chadha is supposed to be younger than 24 years old or younger?!? Rarely does a review warrant calling out the casting director, but what the heck is going on here, Parag Mehta?

Strange things start happening when Asif ignores advice and gets some kids to play cricket on a vacant lot that everyone insists is haunted — because it is. [Side note: one of those kids is Asif’s orphaned nephew Shaan, who disappears in the second half of the movie and is never mentioned again.] When Asif brings his cricket stumps into the house covered in blood and human tissue that no one acknowledges as such, he brings the spirit of the dead person with him. The ghost terrorizes Ratna and Ashwini, who do lots and lots and lots of screaming that is supposed to be funny but isn’t. They aren’t able to exorcise the spirit before it takes possession of Asif.

The spirit is that of a transgender woman named Laxmii (Sharad Kelkar), who loves fashion and beauty treatments. Watching Akshay Kumar sashay and wear bangles is not the height of comedy that director Lawrence thinks it is. Nor does the fact that Asif is supposed to be possessed by a woman at the time make the image of Akshay Kumar striking Ashwini Kalsekar any less troubling.

Flashbacks show how Laxmii met her untimely fate and explain why her spirit has been unable to move on. We also see her give a touching speech about how transgender people deserve the same love and opportunities as everyone else. That could have made the story feel progressive, had Lawrence not promptly followed it by reinforcing harmful superstitions about the supernatural abilities of transgender people.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect more from a movie that thought these cringeworthy lines from Asif were a fitting way to sum up its moral message: “Frankly there wasn’t much difference between Laxmii and me. I would eradicate the fear of ghosts in people. And Laxmii wanted to eradicate the ghost of inequality from society.” It’s so, so terrible.

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Movie Review: Khuda Haafiz (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Khuda Haafiz (“May God Be Your Protector“) is the next step in action star Vidyut Jammwal’s shift away from characters who are ready-made killing machines and toward roles that require him to give a more complicated emotional performance. Sure, he still breaks arms and lands plenty of punches, but carnage isn’t the main goal.

Instead of playing a commando, a cop, or a villain, this time Jammwal plays Sameer Chaudhary — the world’s buffest software engineer. The film opens in March, 2008, with a battered Sameer begging the Indian ambassador to the fictitious Middle Eastern country of Noman (which I constantly misread as “Boman,” as in “Boman Irani”) for help finding his missing wife. The ambassador says, “I need every detail. Start from the beginning.” Boy, does Sameer comply.

Flashback to the beginnings of Sameer’s romance with his wife Nargis (Shivaleeka Oberoi), which started a year earlier in India. The two were set up by their parents and fell deeply in love. After a few blissful months, the global recession hit, shuttering Sameer’s small business and putting Nargis out of a job at her call center.

With no work on the horizon, the two apply for jobs in Noman through a broker named Nadeem (Vipin Sharma). The film establishes the grim local economic situation and why moving to a foreign country for temporary employment seems worth the risk. Nargis’s work permit and travel documents arrive first. Nadeem assures Sameer that his documents will arrive in a few days and encourages Nargis to fly to Noman with a group of other women.

The following day, Sameer gets a panicked call from Nargis that she’s been kidnapped. The job she’d applied for had been a ruse, with Nadeem serving as the front for an international sex trafficking ring. Armed with only Nadeem’s dubious information, Sameer flies to Noman to rescue his wife.

It’s refreshing to see Jammwal mix things up and play a character who does not have a set of skills suited to this exact situation. His programming background gives him insight into how to get some information from a cell phone carrier, but that’s really the only advantage he has. He doesn’t even speak the local language — which winds up not being an issue because all the important people in Noman conveniently speak Hindi.

Most important of the people Sameer meets is a cab driver named Usman (Annu Kapoor). He sees Sameer’s distress and feels obligated to help as a matter of faith. Usman helps Sameer connect enough of the dots that the two actually find Nargis. A subsequent sequence in which Sameer has to let go of Nargis’ hand in order to save her is beautifully filmed to make it look as though she’s swallowed up by a sea of goons. Kudos to cinematographer Jitan Harmeet Singh for that wonderful shot.

During Sameer’s attempted rescue attempt, Jammwal does an excellent job performing Sameer as a guy who is not a professional stuntman. Sameer hesitates before jumping from dangerous heights, only doing so when he has no choice. He fights like it’s a matter of self-preservation, not like a guy who knows from the start that he’ll win. Nevertheless, the action scenes are entertaining as always.

Jammwal’s acting isn’t exactly subtle. Though, to be fair, Sameer is frequently panicked or angry. And when Khuda Haafiz is sad, it’s really sad. Jammwal’s performance is appropriately restrained in the film’s love song montages. Oberoi is competent in the few scenes she’s in. Kapoor is quite good, as are Shiv Panditt and Aahana Kumra, who play a pair of Nomani security agents who help Sameer find Nargis.

Overall, Khuda Haafiz is well-executed and accessible to a wide audience. It appeals to Jammwal’s core action fanbase while expanding its reach to include viewers who may want more plot than butt-kicking.

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Movie Review: Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare (2020)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare on Netflix

Anemic character development undercuts Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare‘s (“Dolly, Kitty, and Those Twinkling Stars“) ambitions to be a movie about something important. Many important things, really.

The film opens so abruptly that I thought I’d accidentally fast-forwarded through the film’s real opening scene. Within the first three minutes, Kaajal (Bhumi Pednekar) confesses to her cousin Dolly (Konkona Sen Sharma) that Dolly’s husband Amit (Aamir Bashir) hit on her. Dolly dismisses Kaajal’s claim, saying maybe it’s Kaajal who’s hot for Amit. Roll opening credits.

This major family conflict is set up before we’ve learned anything about the characters involved. We don’t know who they are, what their relationships were like before this, or what this means for them going forward.

Without giving us any reason to care about these characters, the story launches them into an escalating series of circumstances to which they must react. Kaajal moves out, but she can only find a bed in a charity boarding house for unwed mothers. There she befriends a Muslim party girl named Shazia (Kubbra Sait from Sacred Games) whose boyfriend’s brother leads a far right Hindu-nationalist gang. Kaajal gets a job as a phone sex operator for an online app — a job that grosses her out since she has zero romantic experience — where she’s given the nickname “Kitty.”

Meanwhile, Dolly is enduring workplace gender bias in order to earn a down payment for a newly built luxury apartment (even though it should be obvious to her that the builders are running some kind of racket). Her marriage with Amit is sexually unfulfilling, and she develops a crush on a cute delivery driver names Osman (Amol Parashar). Also, Dolly’s youngest son Pappu (Kalp Shah) is starting to assert a gender identity that is more feminine than masculine.

The movie presents Dolly and Kaajal with plenty of challenges, but it doesn’t establish a real narrative or explain how the characters need to grow before the story ends. Including as many social justice issues as possible — Kaajal is also threatened with sexual assault by strangers and acquaintances multiple times — takes precedence over plot and character development.

Kaajal is written as so naive and devoid of personality that she seems like she sprung into being just before the movie begins. We can see how Dolly has been shaped by her circumstances, but they seem to have mostly made her mean. She hits Kaajal more than once, and she beats Pappu so seriously after he tries to use the girls’ bathroom at school that it’s difficult to watch.

Sen Sharma and Pednekar give intriguing performances as always, as does Vikrant Massey as a client who uses Kitty’s app. The subplot between Dolly and Osman is compelling and enjoyable. There just wasn’t enough to the characters in Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare to truly connect with them

Links

  • Dolly Kity Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare at Wikipedia
  • Dolly Kity Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare at IMDb

Movie Review: Cargo (2019)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Cargo on Netflix

Some movies win you over on charm alone. That’s not the only thing that Cargo has going for it, but it’s more than enough to make this an endearing film.

Cargo is set in the year 2027, in an alternate timeline where a truce between demons and humans governs the world. As part of the truce, for the last seventy-five years, demons have handled humans’ transitions after death from a number of large spaceships orbiting Earth.

One of those ships is Pushpak 634-A, piloted by the demon Prahastha (Vikrant Massey). As one of the six original astronauts sent to space to handle Post Death Transition Services, Prahastha has been happily alone for seventy-five years. (Although they look like humans, demons age more slowly, apparently.) He’s not pleased when Ground Control sends him an assistant: an eager young astronaut named Yuvishka (Shweta Tripathi).

All demons have a magical ability, and Yuvishka’s is the ability to heal injuries. This is a particularly useful skill, since one of the steps in prepping dead humans for reincarnation is repairing injuries and ailments, and all of the equipment Prahastha has on-hand is outdated and falling apart. His main control center is a desk with a bunch of knobs, a printing calculator, and a CRT TV monitor.

The low-tech equipment that went into its design makes sense within the context of the story — the ship is almost eight decades old, after all — but it’s also a reminder that Cargo was made on a minimal budget. Props are used so thoughtfully that the film has a distinct, pleasing visual style. One may notice the absence of high-tech effects and CGI, but Cargo is so well designed that it never feels like it’s missing anything.

The staging and props evoke nostalgia for science fiction films and shows of the 20th century, which is appropriate since Cargo hews more closely to the tone of the original Star Trek series than to contemporary sci-fi. There’s nothing grim or dark about Cargo. It’s about the exploration of the human condition, not a battle against an existential threat. The focused story muses on life, death, and what comes after through the experiences of its two leads. Prahastha writes letters to a woman he used to love, but he never sends them. Yuvishka thought that becoming an astronaut would finally make her feel like she mattered.

Greeting and processing dead people as they arrive on the ship just reminds Prahastha and Yuvishka of what’s at stake, both for mortals with short lifespans but for themselves as well. Many of the dead ask if they can speak with a loved one for a final time. Others wonder what the point of their life really was. Prahstha and Yuvishka collect the belongings from each person, waiting until after they’ve moved on to launch those belongings into space. As the saying goes, “You can’t take it with you.”

Cargo‘s plot is tertiary to its atmosphere and characters, moving at an unhurried pace that allows the audience to get to know the crew of Pushpak 634-A and enjoy spending time with them. Massey and Tripathi work beautifully together and are so comfortable to be around. Writer-director Arati Kadav achieved something really special with her debut feature. Cargo didn’t overstay its welcome, but it also left me wanting more.

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Movie Review: Shakuntala Devi (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Shakuntala Devi on Amazon Prime

Director Anu Menon’s Shakuntala Devi — based on the life of the woman nicknamed “The Human Computer” — opens with a note: “Based on a true story as seen through the eyes of a daughter, Anupama Banerji.” Rather than organizing the narrative as a sequential depiction of the highlights of Shakuntala’s career, the most pertinent episodes of her life are woven into a story about the challenging relationships between mothers and daughters. Events in Shakuntala Devi jump between time periods and settings, the earliest being Shakuntala’s childhood in Bangalore in 1934 and the latest being London in 2001, when her daughter Anu threatened to file criminal charges against her over unfair business practices.

When Shakuntala was around five years old (played by Araina Nand), her family realized that she had a unique affinity for numbers, solving complicated equations entirely in her head despite having no education of any kind. (Scientists and Shakuntala herself were never able to fully explain how her arithmetic abilities worked.) Her father Bishaw (Prakash Belawadi) made little Shakuntala the poor family’s breadwinner, putting his pig-tailed daughter onstage to solve math problems submitted by audience members. Local shows around Bangalore turned into performances elsewhere in India, before Shakuntala finally moved to London on her own.

Though her anger at her father for depriving her of a normal childhood and education was always apparent, Shakuntala — played as an adult by Vidya Balan — harbored a simmering contempt for her mother (played by Ipshita Chakraborty Singh) for not standing up to Bishaw on her daughter’s behalf. That resentment drove Shakuntala to become rich and famous and informed her own style of parenting — and not necessarily for the better.

Anu was born from the marriage of Shakuntala and Paritosh Banerji (Jisshu Sengupta), a government employee in Calcutta. Their relationship developed after Shakuntala was already internationally acclaimed, having added a magician’s showmanship to her performances. She tried being a stay-at-home mom for a while, but soon the road beckoned. She took young Anu with her, assuming that a life of travel would make the girl into an independent explorer like her mother. That’s not how it worked out.

Being disappointed by men is a recurring theme in Shakuntala’s life. Whether it’s their frustration at not being “needed” by her or, as in the case of Paritosh, a refusal to give up his job and follow her on the road, her paramours’ commitment to traditional gender roles only hardened her resolve to break them. Yet the film is clear that Shakuntala shared equally in the blame for her failed romantic relationships. She never found a way to integrate her career and home life. She also hated to lose, which led to young Anu being used as a pawn in the war between her parents.

As Anu grows up, we see how Shakuntala’s stubbornness and inability to compromise impacted their relationship. Anu (Sanya Malhotra) turns out to be just as stubborn as her mother and is determined to be nothing like her, just as Shakuntala was determined not to be like her own mother. Through conflict — including the above mentioned criminal charges — Shakuntala and Anu come to some important realizations about accepting our loved ones for who they are and learning to see our parents as more than just our parents.

Malhotra has the challenge of playing Anu when she is a married woman, but also when she’s a young teenager living in London. As a teen, Malhotra’s performance risks being overshadowed by her unflattering (but authentic) early 1990s attire. She’s more effective as Anu grows up and is forced to truly reckon with her mother as an adult.

If the goal was to portray Shakuntala Devi’s best and worst qualities, they couldn’t have found a better performer than Balan to do so. Balan makes Shakuntala feel like someone you’d love to know but hate to live with. She’s also effectively portrays Shakuntala across multiple decades.

From the vantage point of 2020, the idea of going to watch someone solve equations on stage sounds quaint, but Balan imbues with her character with such charisma and flair that she successfully translates Shakuntala’s appeal for a contemporary audience.

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Movie Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

The Personal History of David Copperfield is tiring to watch. It’s mentally draining to spend two hours trying to determine what emotional reaction the filmmaker intends to inspire in the audience. It’s physically exhausting as well, following the frantic movements of handheld cameras while other shots tilt up at such a sharp angle it’s as though you feel your own neck straining. One needs to be well-rested before attempting to watch this film.

Writer-director Armando Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell update the Charles Dickens novel with Dev Patel in the title role, narrating David’s life story to an audience in a theater. His tale follows the ups and downs of his life, starting with his happy childhood (young David is played by Jairaj Varsani), his fall into poverty, rise back to prosperity, and so on.

Much attention is paid to the colorful characters in David’s life, but with so much emphasis on their eccentricities that they never quite manage to feel like real people. David’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood, is played by Tilda Swinton. She’s introduced in one of the film’s earliest scenes smashing her nose up against a pane of glass. The message to the audience is: “You love when Tilda Swinton plays wacky characters, so here she is again!” Same for Peter Capaldi as chronically indebted Mr. Micawber and Hugh Laurie as befuddled Mr. Dick, who is obsessed with Charles I.

Besides Patel, Iannucci deliberately included other non-white actors in key roles, differentiating his film from the multitude of movies about Victorian England with all-white casts. But Inannucci doesn’t take this step toward inclusivity far enough to make his cinematic world feel truly multicultural. Of the twenty or so characters besides David with a significant number of speaking lines, only five are played by people of color. Except for David’s friend Agnes Whitfield (Rosalind Eleazar), the characters with the closest personal connections to David are all white.

The pace of the narrative forces David to speed through many of the significant events of his life before they’re able to make much emotional impact. Highs give way to lows and back to highs, all covered in a layer of wackiness that keeps the audience at an emotional distance.

Such briskness keeps David from evolving as a character as well. Things happen to him, he reacts, and then the story moves on to something else. Patel is fine in the role as it’s written, but David’s quirks — he frequently mimics the speech of the people around him — seem to substitute for character growth.

Working in the film’s favor are some nice performances, including a small but impactful appearance by Gwendoline Christie as David’s stepfather’s stern sister. Laurie as Mr. Dick and Eleazar as Agnes are charming. A delightful scene in which both of them have a picnic with David and Aunt Betsey provides a welcome respite in an otherwise exhausting film.

Links

  • The Personal History of David Copperfield at Wikipedia
  • The Personal History of David Copperfield at IMDb