Category Archives: Reviews

Movie Review: Shimla Mirchi (2020)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Shimla Mirchi on Netflix

Sholay director Ramesh Sippy’s Shimla Mirchi spent five years on the shelf before it found a buyer, but the content feels even more dated than that.

The romantic comedy stars Rajkummar Rao as Avi, a grumpy single guy who’s been dragged along on his family’s annual vacation to Shimla. His mood changes when Naina (Rakul Preet Singh) sprints by him, fresh from a photo shoot at her friend’s bridal boutique. One look at Naina’s heaving bosom and toned abs, and Avi is in love.

It is important to note that, in Shimla Mirchi, “love” happens the instant a man sees a beautiful woman. It is also important to note that a woman’s most lovable attribute is her torso, hence why Naina wears crop tops almost exclusively throughout the film. Avi is frequently shown ogling her bare waist, because he’s in love.

Avi’s problem is that he gets tongue-tied whenever he tries to tell a woman that he loves her. (Could the problem be that his instinct is to introduce himself to women he’s never met with “I love you” before “Hi, I’m Avi”?) He takes job at Naina’s cafe in the hopes of getting to know her better. When he still can’t muster the courage to speak up, he writes her an anonymous love letter.

Naina’s not interested in her own beau, but she sees the letter as an opportunity to cheer up her mom, Rukmini (Hema Malini), who’s lonely after her husband Tilak (Kanwaljit Singh) left her for a younger woman. Naina readdresses the love letter to her mom and has Avi deliver it — leading Rukmini to believe that Avi is her secret admirer.

The high-concept story by writers Kausar Munir, Vipul Binjola, and Rishi Virmani yields a number of cute moments, as when Rukmini stops her dance practice to sneak after Avi, bells around her ankles jingling whenever she moves. When Naina realizes that Avi is way overqualified to work as her handyman, she jumps to the wild and funny conclusion that he’s involved in a nefarious international plot that inexplicably begins with the takeover of a small cafe in Shimla.

There’s a nice relationship between Naina, Rukmini, and Tilak’s mother (Kamlesh Gill), who lives with them. Naina has cut off contact with her father, and even his own mother thinks he’s a jerk. They want Rukmini to rediscover her sense of self-worth, and the film doesn’t even hint at trying to reunite the family.

Yet even the best elements of the film are good, but not great. The acting is fine, if uninspired. The story is cute but forgettable. Shakti Kapoor plays the quirkily-named Captain Uncle, who exists to move the plot along when the writers couldn’t think of a better way to do so.

Then there are the elements that make Shimla Mirchi seem like it came out of a time capsule. The mistaking of lust for love and the objectification of Naina’s body are the worst examples. Captain Uncle makes some racist jokes about East Asian languages. Avi has a friend, Jude (Tarun Wadhwa), who rotates through a series of indistinguishable white girlfriends who don’t speak but are always wrapping themselves around him. He ditches the last one when he spots a pretty Indian girl in Desi attire and immediately falls in love with her (naturally).

Shimla Mirchi feels like the product of a filmmaker who started his career back when times were different. When objectifying women was the norm. When you could crack racist jokes because there was no internet and few people outside your intended audience would watch your movies. There’s nothing outrageously offensive in Shimla Mirchi. It just doesn’t feel current.

Links

Movie Review: Street Dancer 3D (2020)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

While trying to piece together my thoughts for this review of Street Dancer 3D, I looked back at my reviews of the two films that precede it in director Remo D’Souza’s dance battle series: ABCD and ABCD 2. (Disney produced the first two films in the series and held onto the rights to the title ABCD 3 even after they stopped making movies in India.) Most of the things I want to write about Street Dancer 3D I’ve already said about the previous two movies. Great dancing? Check. Sexy performers? Check. Only Street Dancer 3D is more of a mess than either of the films preceding it.

D’Souza’s series features many of the same actors in all three films, and some in just two. None of them play the same characters, even if the actors play characters with the same name. The cast stays intact while D’Souza hits the reset button on the story.

This time around, two rival dance crews face off on the streets of London. The Indian-British crew “Street Dancer” is led by Sahej (Varun Dhawan), and the Pakistani-British crew “Rule Breakers” is led by Inayat (Shraddha Kapoor).

The endless bickering between the crews culminates in a food fight between the groups while they watch an India vs. Pakistan cricket match in a sports bar run by Ram Prasad (Prabhu Deva). The single stupidest thing in this whole movie may be that the main food used in the fight is that famous staple served as a main entrée at all sports bars… The one dish no Buffalo Wild Wings or Irish football pub should be without… Doughnuts? I’m talking regular yeast-raised, frosted, mass-produced, buy-’em-at-Dunkin’-by-the-dozen doughnuts like the one pictured to the right. I’m guessing the only reason the characters throw doughnuts is because they are cheap to buy, simple to procure in large quantities, and easier to clean up than burgers, pasta, or biryani — all of which Ram Prasad’s sports bar also serves.

Both crews want to compete in an underground dance competition with a £100,000 cash prize, but their odds aren’t good against the formidable, mostly-white London dance crew The Royals. Ram Prasad thinks the Desi crews would stand a chance if they worked together, but there are complicating factors beyond the groups’ nationalistic antipathy. Inayat wants to use the prize money to help homeless illegal immigrants from the Subcontinent living in London — which is a problem because Sahej is a human trafficker.

The film doesn’t fully acknowledge how awful Varun Dhawan’s character is. This was a problem with his character in ABCD 2 as well. Sahej is entitled and compassionless. He brings a quartet of Indian drummers to England, but refuses to help them in even a small way when he learns that they are now destitute. It takes him forever to admit that he played a part in their current condition, let alone that he is obligated to set things right.

This is but one example of Sahej’s disloyalty. As soon as he gets the chance to join The Royals, he jumps at it — abandoning Street Dancer and the members that aren’t invited into the colonizers’ crew. The whole reason Sahej participated in human trafficking was to earn the money to buy a studio for Street Dancer, the crew founded by his older brother Inder (Punit Pathak, who gives the film’s best dramatic performance) who is injured and can no longer dance. The film doesn’t acknowledge what a betrayal this is because Sahej’s vindication and victory are predetermined.

Films are often sold based on the popularity of their star cast, but I wish we could go back to the days of the original ABCD, which starred professional dancers who can act, not professional actors who can dance. To be fair, Kapoor holds her own on the dance floor and makes Inayat as sympathetic as the script allows. But casting Dhawan required compromises that hurt the movie. Because of Dhawan’s likeable persona, his character pays a very small price for causing a lot of harm.

Worse still is that Dhawan is the weakest dancer in the film. He’s one of the better dancers among Bollywood’s current leading men, but he’s a step slower and less crisp in his movements than the professionals around him. I found myself ignoring him and focusing instead on series veterans like Dharmesh Yelande, Sushant Pujari, Raghav Juyal, and Salman Yusuff Khan. Nora Fatehi — who plays The Royals’ ace, Mia — is riveting when she dances.

As expected, the dance numbers are the stars of the show. All of the performances during the underground competition are technically impressive and large in scale. I don’t blame anyone watching the film for tuning out during the plot bits and just watching the choreography. Yet it’s kind of a shame, since Street Dancer 3D really wants to be about something meaningful. It’s just not willing to put in the work to do so.

Links

Movie Review: Panga (2020)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the soundtrack at Amazon or iTunes

Even with only a few feature films under her belt, writer-director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari has proven herself one of the most skilled makers of feel-good films out there. Her latest, Panga, follows the everyday struggles of a sweet family whose matriarch returns to the athletic career she left to raise her child.

Retiring from India’s national kabbadi team at age twenty-five wasn’t Jaya’s (Kangana Ranaut) plan when she found out she was pregnant. She had the full support of her husband Prashant (Jassi Gill) to resume her captaincy as soon as she was fit to do so. But when their son Adi was born premature and with a number of ailments, Jaya put all of her focus on raising her little boy.

Seven years later, Adi (Yagya Bhasin) is mostly fit and increasingly independent. Prashant tells his son about the life Jaya had before she became a mom — a history that Jaya has evidently never shared with the boy. Understanding what Jaya sacrificed for the family and excited by the prospect of having a professional athlete for a mother, Adi convinces Jaya to try and make a comeback.

Rather than manufacture a bunch of obstacles to put in Jaya’s way, Tiwari and her co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra keep Jaya’s journey realistic while mining the scenario for as much drama as possible. Doing so allows for an insightful examination of gendered divisions of labor within a household. Jaya threw herself fully into being a mom and a homemaker when Adi was born, but she still has a job outside of the house. Kabbadi teams in India are often sponsored by companies like railways, and Jaya kept her job selling train tickets even after her playing career ended.

As capable and helpful as both Prashant and Adi are, the house is still Jaya’s domain. How is she supposed to transfer seven years of accumulated knowledge to Prashant in the days before she heads to training camp? While their lives obviously won’t fall apart if the beds go unmade, it goes to show how we undervalue the effort it takes to make homemaking seem automatic.

Prashant’s promotion to household manager also highlights how removed many fathers are from the social networks that make child-rearing easier. He learns to rely on his neighbor and his cranky mother-in-law (played by Neena Gupta). He asks to be invited into the WhatsApp group for moms at Adi’s school.

A theme Tiwari introduced in her first feature, Nil Battey Sannata, and revisits in Panga is that of children coming to view their parents as individuals, not just their caretakers. Adi is mature enough to understand that playing kabbadi makes his mother happy, and that her happiness will require some inconvenience on his part. Yet he’s not so mature that he’s above throwing a tantrum when his dad screws up his makeup for the talent show or sulking when his mom has to sit on the bench during a game. It’s solid character writing.

What the story wants us to appreciate more than anything is that this family is nice. They are helpful, quick with a joke, and willing to make sacrifices for each other. They have supportive friends, especially Jaya’s former teammate Meenu (Richa Chadda) and her new teammate Nisha (Megha Burman). These strong bonds reinforce the feeling that this is a family that deserves happiness. The acting across the board is very good, with little Yagya Bhasin providing some great laughs.

Panga‘s kabbadi scenes are quite fun, emphasizing the teamwork required for success without feeling preachy. Selfishly, I would have appreciated a scene where Jaya explains the sport’s rules to Adi, but there’s more than enough context provided for kabbadi newbies like myself to understand the tension during the matches. This is a decent starter movie for Bollywood newcomers — and anyone in need of a cinematic pick-me-up.

Links

Movie Review: Ghost Stories (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Ghost Stories on Netflix

Ghost Stories is the third installment in the Hindi anthology series from directors Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, and Karan Johar, following Bombay Talkies and the Netflix Original Lust Stories. The latest is a strong collection, but some of the short films are more enjoyable than others.

Akhtar’s opening short is a fitting introduction to the overall theme, with a beautiful young woman in a creepy house. Janhvi Kapoor plays Sameera, a home health nurse sent to care temporarily for bedridden dementia patient Mrs. Malik (Surekha Sikri). Sameera was told Mrs. Malik’s adult son was taking care of her over the weekend, but there’s no sign of him when Sameera arrives at the cluttered, dimly lit apartment. Mrs. Malik says he’s hiding. Suspicious sounds in the hallway tip Sameera off that something is very wrong.

Akhtar bucks horror conventions by making Sameera a woman of questionable ethics, rather than some imperiled virgin. She invites her married boyfriend over for a romantic rendezvous and riffles through Mrs. Malik’s jewelry box. Instead of being about virtue under threat, Akhtar’s story explores which morals really matter when times get tough, and what obligations we have to other people and ourselves.

Anurag Kashyap’s story is next. It’s the most ambitious but least successful of the four films. After her first child died minutes after its birth, Neha (Sobhita Dhulipala) has eventually become pregnant again. She’s still struggling with the psychological damages from her previous loss. On top of that, the little boy she babysits, Ansh (Zachary Braz), isn’t keen on sharing her affections with anyone else. And she may have been cursed by a bird.

There’s so much going on that it’s hard to keep track of why things happen, let alone differentiate between what’s real and what’s not. Is Neha simply paranoid or out of touch with reality? Is she cursed, or does Ansh really have some kind of evil powers to harm her unborn child? Everything ends in gory, bizarre chaos. Women with a history of fertility problems or miscarriages may find this film disturbing.

The gore-fest continues in the third film, director Dibakar Banerjee’s parable of a small village literally cannibalized by its big-city neighbors. A bureaucrat (played by Sukant Goel) arrives in Smalltown to find it destroyed, with a boy (Aditya Shetty) and a girl (Eva Ameet Pardeshi) the only survivors. They explain that her father — a councilman from Bigtown — ate most of the residents and turned everyone else into zombies. Only when the man is nearly eaten himself does he accept that they kids are telling the truth.

Despite some truly disgusting moments, this is an intriguing story of greed and the sacrifices people will to make to save themselves. Banerjee does an excellent job building a world and giving his audience a lot to chew on (cannibal pun intended).

The anthology’s closing tale is much what you’d expect from a Karan Johar ghost story. Two rich and very attractive people, Ira (Mrunal Thakur) and Dhruv (Avinash Tiwary), agree to marry. When Dhruv interrupts their honeymoon lovemaking to say “good night” to his grandmother — who’s been dead for twenty years — Ira wonders what kind of mental illness afflicts her new husband. But maybe she’s the one who can’t see the ghost right in front of her.

Johar’s story is a light, fun respite after the two heavy shorts that came before it. Dhruv’s family mansion is gorgeous. There’s also a minor theme about faith that gives the story some dimension.

Other than Kashyap’s dense narrative, the stories all suit the short film format. They say what they need to say and end before they run out of steam. There are so many ideas in Kashyap’s story that he might have been able to better organize them in a feature-length film. Overall, Ghost Stories is an interesting collection that creates chilling scenarios without relying on jump scares. Just be ready for some blood and guts.

Links

Movie Review: Chhapaak (2020)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Filmmaker Meghna Gulzar has handled tricky real-life topics before, choosing a true crime story as the subject of her terrific thriller Talvar. For her latest film Chhapaak (“Splash“), Gulzar tackles another challenging topic, that of acid attacks on women. While informative, Chhapaak‘s plot lacks emotional punch.

Like Talvar, Chhapaak‘s narrative is non-linear. It begins in 2012, as a brutal gang rape in Delhi turns public attention toward violence against women. Twenty-something Malti (Deepika Padukone) struggles to find work, years after her face was severely scarred with acid. A reporter eager to revive interest in Malti’s story connects her with Amol (Vikrant Massey), who gives Malti a job at the non-governmental organization he runs aiding acid attack victims.

The job triggers a flashback to Malti’s own attack when she was nineteen. A much older family friend, Babbu (Vishal Dahiya), burned her when she rebuffed his marriage proposal. The acid scarred most of Malti’s face, requiring months of recovery and multiple surgeries over several years. The court battle to convict Babbu takes even longer. Malti’s dogged lawyer Archana (Madhurjeet Sarghi) is determined to see Babbu sentenced not just for the physical injury he caused but for attempted murder, in a move to force the courts to treat acid attacks more seriously than the law currently does.

A surprising amount of Chhapaak‘s story is devoted to the details of the court proceedings in Malti’s case and her subsequent petition for a federal ban on the sale of acid. Archana and her legal team debate strategies and counterarguments in long scenes where Malti isn’t even present. During trial scenes, Malti often sits quietly behind her lawyers without participating.

It’s an odd choice to sideline the film’s marquee star for such scenes, which are more educational than they are emotional. They also take time away from aspects of Malti’s story that are underdeveloped, chiefly relationships within her family. There’s a simmering resentment between Malti’s mother and wealthy aunt Shiraz (Payal Nair), who pays for Malti’s surgeries, but we don’t know their history. We also don’t know anything about the relationship between Malti and her younger brother. In the aftermath of her attack, he’s ignored so completely that no one in the house realizes he’s developed tuberculosis. The siblings never have a conversation about how their lives changed because of what was done to Malti.

The problem with the way Gulzar and co-writer Atika Chohan use the non-linear format in Chhapaak is that flashbacks to who Malti was before the attack are saved until very late in the film. Only then do we get a glimpse of her friendships and her dreams for the future. The acid attack changed Malti externally but internally as well, but holding back information about who Malti was means we only see her reckoning with her external changes, not her internal ones.

I suspect some of this stems from the fact that Malti is based on a real woman who is still very much alive. 29-year-old Laxmi Agarwal survived an acid attack as a teen and later became a prominent activist and television personality. Perhaps in deference to Agarwal, Chhapaak‘s focus steers away from its heroine’s internal struggles and family drama to her courtroom victories and romantic relationship with Amol. (With regard to that, Padukone and Massey do share a charming chemistry.)

That aspect of the story feeds into the thing that Chhapaak does best, which is encourage its audience to see past the damage done by the acid to the person within. The prosthetics used on Padukone are well-crafted, changing with each of Malti’s surgeries. Gulzar also cast real acid attack survivors to play the other workers at the NGO.

Yet, even at the very end, Gulzar can’t resist centering Chhapaak on the issue rather than the characters. The film’s brief final scene (not a spoiler) introduces some new women who are splashed with acid, followed by a note that one of them died as a result, followed by a still of written statistics about acid attacks in India. No one would have assumed that, just because the film shows progress being made that the problem of acid attacks was magically solved, rendering this scene unnecessary.

While Chhapaak deserves credit for shining light on a worthy subject, it could have been done in a way that was more narratively satisfying.

Links

Movie Review: Kabir Singh (2019)

0 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the soundtrack on iTunes

It may not be possible to create a more loathsome protagonist than the title character in Kabir Singh.

Within the first ten minutes of the film, Kabir (Shahid Kapoor) pulls a knife on a woman who refuses to have sex with him and threatens to hit his maid. In fact, he threatens almost every major female character in the film with violence and actually slaps and shoves the woman he professes to love. He beats up several men as well. He’s never sorry, and he never faces any consequences for his violence.

Instead, violence and intimidation are the means by which Kabir exerts his will over the people around him. Why friends, family members, and romantic interests stay in Kabir’s orbit is not explained. They just need to be there because, without them, Kabir would have no one to abuse.

The film’s clunky narrative jumps between the two key periods in Kabir’s life: the “Preeti Era” and the “Post-Preeti Era.” In the former, Preeti (Kiara Advani) is a new student at the medical college where Kabir is training to become a surgeon. She has no personality and rarely speaks, but Kabir decides he must possess her because he would like to have sex with her. They bone, and thus is born an epic love story for all time.

Not really. The relationship is abusive and predicated on Kabir exploiting his seniority at the school. After all, Kabir never met a power dynamic he couldn’t manipulate to his own ends.

Kabir and Preeti have more sex, he’s mean to a bunch of people, and blah blah blah, Preeti’s dad won’t let them marry. Kabir can’t handle the thought that he might not get his way and overdoses on morphine and booze. Ah, if only he’d died and the movie ended there.

When Kabir wakes up a few days later, Preeti is married to someone else. Thus begins the “Post-Preeti era,” characterized by Kabir’s drug, alcohol, and sex addictions, and a surgical career that flourishes despite them.

Writer-director Sandeep Vanga — who also wrote and directed Arjun Reddy, the Telugu film of which Kabir Singh is a direct remake — treats Kabir’s post-Preeti drug addiction and alcoholism as the tipping point when Kabir becomes a lost soul in need of saving. But Kabir was an awful, entitled bully before that. Losing Preeti just made him perpetually drunk and high, it didn’t give him any more dimensions.

That gets to another of Kabir Singh‘s many flaws: it’s mind-numbingly boring. Because the characters are so thinly drawn, they repeat the same conflicts and conversations. Minor characters like Kabir’s grandmother (Kamini Kaushal) and a college dean played by Adil Hussain (who I hope got paid a lot to appear in this mess) seem like they must exist to play a critical role in Kabir’s character growth, until you realize that Kabir not growing is the point of the film.

Kabir is a manifestation of the desires of frustrated young men who believe that the problems in their lives would be solved if they had Shahid Kapoor’s good looks and a high-status job. Yet, despite having those qualities, Kabir behaves as though he doesn’t. He’s petty and thin-skinned, and he feels compelled to lord his elevated status over those beneath him. He’s the antithesis of the Vince Lombardi quote that ends: “act like you’ve been there before.” Kabir seems like a loser who had a wish granted and woke up the next morning as a handsome surgeon, yet with the same personality as before.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Kabir’s dealings with women. Instead of letting his looks and future earnings potential (his only charms) draw women toward him, he relies on coercion to prey on the vulnerable. He threatens the male students at his school to stay away from Preeti and singles her out publicly in front of her female peers. Even when he dates a famous actress (played by Nikita Dutta), she’s lonely and socially isolated — and his patient. Thanks to the protections afforded by his status, he’s comfortable propositioning her for sex in their first meeting outside of his medical office. He has no interesting in women who are of equal social standing as him, perhaps because none exist in the world of Kabir Singh.

Links

Movie Review: Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota on Netflix
Buy/rent Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota at Amazon or iTunes

By the time most of us reach adulthood, we’ve figured out that society is unfair and you only get as much justice as you can pay for. But what if you grew up without that knowledge? What if you truly believed that you could fight the bad guys and win?

Such is the case for Surya, the hero of Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (“The Man Who Feels No Pain“, MKDNH, henceforth). Born with a congenital insensitivity to pain, young Surya (Sartaaj Kakkar) spends most of his childhood indoors. His father Jatin (Jimit Trivedi) wants to protect his son not just because of his unique condition, but because he’s all that remains of Jatin’s wife (played by Shweta Basu Prasad), who died in a mugging days after Surya’s birth.

Jatin’s father-in-law lives with them, and he too wants to keep his daughter’s memory alive through Surya. Rather than keep the boy wrapped in cotton wool, Grandpa (Mahesh Manjrekar) encourages the boy to emulate his mother’s feisty streak (which we see through flashbacks as Surya imagines the mother he never got to know). Grandpa and grandson binge watch martial arts movies on VHS, with Surya acting out the moves and Grandpa teaching him how other people experience pain, so the boy can disguise his condition to the outside world.

An energetic boy with heroic instincts and an inability to accurately judge risk is a force to be reckoned with. [My nephew is basically Surya with pain sensitivity, so I speak from experience.] When the neighbors deem the 9-year-old wannabe vigilante a menace to society, the family moves away — separating the boy from his tenacious best friend Supriya (Riva Arora) and leaving her at the mercy of her abusive, drunken father.

Fast forward twelve years, and 21-year-old Surya (Abhimanyu Dasani) is ready to head out into the world. His mission is to reunite with “Supri” (Pataakha‘s Radhika Madan) and meet his hero: one-legged martial artist Karate Mani (Gulshan Devaiah). When Karate Mani’s evil twin brother, Jimmy (also Devaiah), steals Mani’s locket, Surya is finally able to put his training to the test — against the pragmatic advice of Supri and Karate Mani himself.

MKDNH is a nostalgic action comedy. It is to martial arts movies of the mid-20th century what Super 8 was to old monster movies. MKDNH‘s stunts are all the funnier for the ways reality intrudes upon them. Surya envisions the way fights will go, only for them to play out in sloppy and un-cinematic ways.

Underneath all the flying fists and high kicks is a touching story about families. Jatin wants to protect Surya physically but emotionally, too, long after Surya has become an adult. There’s a compelling subplot about Supri’s dysfunctional family and whether she will follow her in her mother’s (Lovleen Mishra) footsteps and tolerate abuse for the sake of protecting someone she loves. Mani’s conflict with Jimmy is the continuation of a lifelong battle for their father’s approval.

Yet MKDNH is never maudlin. Writer-director Vasan Bala trusts the audience to feel the story’s emotional weight and connect with the characters while always being an out-and-out comedy. It’s a difficult feat that is executed to perfection.

I don’t think there’s any way to improve upon MKDHN. It feels like the fullest possible realization of Bala’s vision, from the music and costumes to Jay I. Patel’s cinematography and Prerna Saigal’s editing. Every one of the actors is tremendous, with Devaiah and Manjrekar making the most of their delightful supporting characters without overshadowing Madan or Dasani, in his very first film role.

I absolutely loved Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota.

Links

Manikarnika vs. The Warrior Queen of Jhansi

2019 has seen two theatrical releases about legendary revolutionary Rani Lakshmibai hit North American theaters: Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi and the international production The Warrior Queen of Jhansi. Warrior Queen completed its principal photography almost a year before Manikarnika, yet even with extensive re-shoots, Manikarnika debuted nearly nine months ahead of Warrior Queen. How do these two different versions of the same story compare?

Manikarnika is truly an epic. Its battles are large in scale, with lots of extras and horses and smoky battlefields. Ranaut gets a number of slow-motion shots as Manikarnika rallies her troops and dodges her enemies’ swords. Warrior Queen‘s battles are by contrast drab and sparsely populated, opting for realism over awe-inspiring visuals. The film highlights just how beaten down the British troops and Indian revolutionaries are from years of fighting, so nothing moves especially quickly. It’s an effective choice given what the story wants to emphasize.

The looks of the films are governed by their differing agendas and target audiences. Manikarnika‘s protagonist is depicted as an Indian national hero and martyr. Her glorious battles and fiery rhetoric are meant to stoke the fires of patriotism. With an A-list actress like Ranaut in the lead role and notable supporting actors from various industries, Manikarnika aims to appeal to a wide swath of Indian film fans.

Warrior Queen takes a more global approach. The biggest names in the film are British screen veterans Derek Jacobi, Rupert Everett, and Nathanial Parker, with comparatively unknown Indian-American actress Devika Bhise (who co-wrote the screenplay with her producer-director mother, Swati) in the title role. The story paints Lakshmibai as a progressive feminist pioneer who refused to accept the social limitations of caste and gender while fighting capitalist aggression.

Despite aiming for a wider, less diaspora-dependent audience, Warrior Queen fared much worse than Manikarnika in its opening weekend in North American theaters. Warrior Queen opened in 276 theaters on November 15 and earned $112,208, for an average of $406 per theater. Manikarnika released into just 152 theaters on January 25 but earned $571,130, or $3,757 per theater.

It’s safe to say that The Warrior Queen of Jhansi had quite a bit working against it, coming out less than a year after a big budget Bollywood version of the same story which is currently available for at-home viewing on Amazon Prime. On top of that, the title may not have drawn in the Victoria & Abdul crowd (i.e. white seniors who enjoy British costume dramas) as easily as if it had been called something more generic — maybe “India’s Warrior Queen” or something like that. Would Warrior Queen have fared better with an earlier release date or slightly different title? Maybe. I found both films to be similarly enjoyable given their differing styles and objectives.

Movie Review: The Warrior Queen of Jhansi (2019)

2 Stars (out of 4)

The Warrior Queen of Jhansi takes an in-depth look at a pivotal battle between Indian resistance fighters and British soldiers, but filters it though a morally questionable lens.

The film is an international production, with dialogue in both English and Hindi. Filmmaker Swati Bhise directs her daughter Devika — who co-wrote the screenplay — in the role of Rani Lakshmibai, the titular warrior queen.

Lakshmibai spends only a few minutes narrating the story of her marriage to Gangadhar Rao (Milind Gunaji), King of Jhansi, and the loss of their infant son. The action shifts to Lakshmibai’s preparations for a siege by forces from the British East India Company. In the years since her husband’s death and her assumption of sole rule, her army has been decimated by attempted takeovers by neighboring kingdoms and skirmishes with the Brits. Herself a skilled fighter, Lakshmibai trains the women of Jhansi in the arts of war.

The Brits too are in bad shape. More than a year into a rebellion against the cruelty of the East India Company, their forces are strained, suffering from cholera and heatstroke. It’s up to veteran soldier Sir Hugh Rose (Rupert Everett) to take Jhansi, whether by force or persuasion. Local governor Robert Hamilton (Nathaniel Parker) wants blood, but Major Ellis (Ben Lamb) — a former confidant of Lakshmibai — hopes he can convince her to surrender.

When Ellis fails, the war begins. The exhausted Brits fire cannons into the castle walls while Lakshmibai tries to keep up morale inside. Both sides hope for reinforcements. It’s not exciting, but the agony of waiting adds realism. The story provides enough context to understand the stakes for both sides as well as all the key players, whether in India or England.

Bhise plays Lakshmibai as appropriately dignified, but it’s a one-note performance. She’s always in royalty mode, even when she’s alone with her adopted son Damodar Rao (Arush Nand) or her closest servants. The only time we see the woman behind the title is when she’s in mourning.

However, the real problem in The Warrior Queen of Jhansi is a moral perspective that places all of the blame for atrocities committed by the British solely on capitalism, and not also imperialism — as if they can be disentangled. In England, Queen Victoria (Jodhi May) frets to her prime minister Lord Palmerston (Derek Jacobi) that the East India Company’s brutal tactics reflect badly on England (and thus her). When her instructions to quell the rebellion with minimal bloodshed are disregarded, she is sincerely shocked. Yet she never suggests calling off the assault, even though her favorite councilor Saleem (Omar Malik) has family in Jhansi. All she offers are thoughts and prayers, as if she’s powerless and not the single person who could stop it with a word.

Ellis is another example of the “not all Brits” approach the film takes. Despite his obvious infatuation with Lakshmibai, all he offers in her defense are forceful objections. He never risks anything for her sake until it’s too late to matter. Closing scenes explain that he returned to England and started a family — but I’m sure he thought about Lakshmibai from time to time.

England ruled India for another ninety years after the rebellion. The movie notes that the East India Company’s shareholders were compensated for the corporation’s dissolution. While the context is appreciated, I wish The Warrior Queen of Jhansi had kept its focus on Lakshmibai instead of trying to absolve Britain for some of its crimes.

Links

Movie Review: Manikarnika — The Queen of Jhansi (2019)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Manikarnika on Amazon Prime
Buy the soundtrack at iTunes

As pure spectacle, the historical epic Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi is top notch, with thrilling battles, dazzling sets, and gorgeous cinematography. However, its narrative fails to make meaningful connections between the protagonist and her supporting characters.

The film is based on the life of Rani Lakshmi Bai, nee Manikarnika, who ruled the Indian state of Jhansi in the 1850s. (A note at the start of the movie admits to taking some cinematic liberties with the story.) From her youth, Manikarnika (Kangana Ranaut) was raised on patriotic ballads that sang of spilling one’s blood for the sake of the motherland. She was taught to fight with swords and to tame horses.

That feistiness is just what the bachelor King of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao (Jisshu Sengupta), needs in a potential bride, according to his advisor Dixit Ji (Kulkhushan Kharbanda). Jhansi is one of the last independent kingdoms that hasn’t ceded to rule by the British East India Company or been taken over outright. Gangadhar is a pragmatist, but he’s not happy kowtowing to the Brits. He marries Manikarnika, renaming her Lakshmi Bai in the process. When British officers come to the palace to pay their respects, Manikarnika refuses to bow to them. Gangadhar is delighted.

Manikarnika is unwavering in her judgement of right and wrong. Her character grows as her elevated position allows her to witness a greater spectrum of British cruelty, and she takes responsibility for counteracting it. Ranaut plays Manikarnika as clear-eyed and determined. Her posture is taut, as though she’s always ready for a fight. She’s only at ease when she’s with Gangadhar, who loves her and admires her spiritedness.

Trouble comes not just from the British lurking outside the gates, but from a traitor within: Gangadhar’s brother, Sadashiv (Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub). The Brits have promised to name Sadashiv king if he helps depose Gangadhar. Granted, it would be a title in name only, without the limited independence Jhansi currently enjoys.

When the tension between Manikarnika and the Brits turns to all-out war, the movie is at its best. Co-director Krish (more on him to come) previously directed Telugu historical epics, and it shows in the scale of the world he creates. The battles are impressive in scope and require a lot of skilled horsemen and other extras. CGI effects — from injured animals to explosions — are well-integrated, and the fight choreography is exciting.

The plot isn’t complicated, since the Brits are obvious bad guys and the good guys just have to fight them. However, it’s not always clear exactly who the good guys are or how they fit into courtly life in Jhansi or the larger Indian political landscape. When Dixit Ji first proposes a marriage contract with Manikarnika, she’s sword-fighting with three characters who I thought were her brothers–but perhaps weren’t (one of them is played by Atul Kulkarni in a microscopic role). Also present are her biological father and the man who raised her, who is some kind of politician, maybe? She eventually helps one of her probably-not-brothers take the throne of another kingdom, and it would’ve been nice to know why.

There are several female supporting characters who are either from her original home (like Kashi Bai, played by Mishti), from a nearby village, or appointed to take care of her in Jhansi. All are so underdeveloped and shown so fleetingly that they blur together.

This shoddy organization is largely a result of a behind-the-scenes battle for the director’s chair. Krish left the film when it was nearly finished — purportedly pushed out by Ranuat — who re-shot portions of the film herself and recast Ayyub in a role originally played by Sonu Sood. Ranuat is the first co-director listed in the end credits, ahead of Krish, who is credited by his birth name, Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi. According to Krish, many of the scenes filmed with Mishti and Atul Kulkarni were left out of the final film. Perhaps those scenes would have helped to flesh out the characters and their relationships with Manikarnia.

One other complaint is the direction of the characters playing the British officers. The dialogue delivery throughout the film is quite slow, but the British officers speak with an especially unnatural cadence. It’s so strange that I was surprised to discover that Richard Keep, who plays the villain General Hugh Rose, is actually English. I’m not sure which of the co-directors deserves the blame for that, but it’s an unfortunate distraction in a movie that really has a lot going for it.

Links

* The Amazon and iTunes links at the top of the page are affiliate links. I may earn a commission on purchases made through those links.