Category Archives: Reviews

Movie Review: Simran (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Simran is unfairly stacked against its main character, putting her in a no-win situation while expecting her to sustain the film’s humorous tone.

Kangana Ranaut plays Praful Patel, a housekeeper at an Atlanta hotel. She lives with shop-owner parents, and she’s been saving money for seven years in order to buy her own condominium. Few Bollywood films feature working-class Indian-Americans, so it’s gratifying to see such characters onscreen for a change.

On a bachelorette weekend in Las Vegas with her cousin Amber (Aneesha Joshi), Praful gets lucky playing Baccarat, winning enough to indulge in some high-end shopping and dining. Her second round doesn’t go as well, forcing Praful to keep gambling in order to try to win her money back. She mistakes a cash infusion from loan shark Mr. Bugs (Jason Louder) for a gift, endangering not just her future plans but her very life.

The tone of Simran is generally comical, especially as Praful explores Vegas before and after her big win. As in Queen, Ranaut is delightful to watch as a fish-out-of-water, goofy and awestruck. The difference between her character in Queen and Praful is that Praful has greater self-confidence (though it’s not always warranted). When it comes to romance, she says: “Having boyfriends isn’t a character flaw. Having boyfriends is a talent.”

In the grand tradition of Bollywood movie parents, Praful’s folks’ only desire is for her to get married — again. Her first marriage didn’t work out, and she’s now happily independent. While her parents’ latest target — MBA student Sameer (Talvar‘s Sohum Shah) — is a nice guy, Praful isn’t keen to settle down.

The rift between Praful and her parents goes beyond her unwillingness to wed. It’s so deep that it undermines the whole tone of the film. There isn’t a single moment of affection between Praful and her domineering father. He says that he wishes he never brought her to America from Gujarat, castigating Praful for being worthless in the same breath that he asks her for money to pay the electric bill. Praful’s mother is of no help.

When Praful’s efforts to pay off Mr. Bugs get her into further trouble, there’s no one she can turn to. Her parents don’t like her. Sameer doesn’t believe her. Praful’s housekeeping co-workers help in what limited ways they can, but they’re just as broke as she is. Cousin Amber is rich, but for some reason she disappears in the second half of the film. Praful is utterly alone.

From a narrative standpoint, it’s unfair to ask Praful — the film’s only multi-dimensional character — to supply all the laughs when the audience can see how hopeless her situation is. Ranaut’s compelling performance fosters so much empathy for Praful that it becomes impossible to laugh at her plight. As Simran progresses, it becomes depressing and surprisingly violent. It’s as though director Hansal Mehta failed to consider how the audience would feel while watching the movie. I’m not sure if Simran is the story he thought he was telling.

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Movie Review: Baadshaho (2017)

1 Star (out of 4)

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Baadshaho (“Kings“) — the latest collaboration between director Milan Luthria and writer Rajat Arora — is a disaster. It’s like they forgot what story they were telling as the movie went on.

In Rajasthan in 1975, a slimy politician named Sanjeev (Priyanshu Chatterjee) uses the federally declared “state of emergency” as a pretext to loot the ancestral wealth of Rani Gitanjali (Ileana D’Cruz) in retaliation for her rebuffing his sexual advances years earlier. Sanjeev sends the army — led by an officer played by Denzil Smith — to retrieve a treasure trove of gold from Gitanjali’s estate, arresting her on pretext of hiding it from the government.

It’s worth noting for the sake of international viewers that the role and duties of royal families like Gitanjali’s isn’t explained, nor is the government’s claim over ancestral wealth. The details of the “state of emergency” aren’t explained either, so it’s not totally clear why the story had to be set in the 1970s. Then again, the costumes and sets are so generic that the only clue that the story isn’t set in modern times is that no one has cell phones.

From inside prison, Gitanjali reconnects with her former security guard and lover, Bhawani (Ajay Devgn), who takes seriously his vow to always protect her. She tasks him not with rescuing her from jail but with making sure that her fortune never makes it to Sanjeev in Delhi. Bhawani assembles a team that includes a safecracker named Tikla (Sanjay Mishra), a woman with an unknown debt to Gitanjali, Sanjana (Esha Gupta), and Dalia (Emraan Hashmi), whose contribution to the group is tacky temporary tattoos and repetitive stories. Bhawani and Dalia trade unfunny quips that perhaps didn’t survive the translation from Hindi to English.

The army’s plan is to drive the gold eight hours to Delhi in an armored truck that looks like a bank vault on wheels, with multiple combination locks right on the back door — a design that renders the plan’s covert nature moot. The supposedly high-tech truck — which can be “tracked by radio” — includes a bright red button that can be pushed in the event of an emergency, turning the truck into an impenetrable bunker for the span of six hours. Obviously, this button plays a huge part in the story, right? One of the thieves gets trapped inside and needs to be rescued or something? Nope. No one ever pushes the button.

Driving the truck is Officer Seher, played by buff Vidyut Jammwal. Jammwal’s character in Commando 2 was introduced with a closeup of the actor’s bicep. Upping the ante, Baadshaho introduces Seher in a train cabin wearing nothing but his underwear.

Because the plan is so straightforward — there’s literally one paved road in the region that can handle the weight of such a heavy truck — obstacles and subplots are manufactured in order to make the movie run longer than an hour. Seher waits four days before setting off for Delhi, conveniently giving the thieves time to plan. Sanjana is grossed out by Dalia one scene, only to fall in love with him in the next scene for no reason.

One of the main reasons to cast Jammwal is to take advantage of his athleticism and martial arts skills. All we get in Baadshaho is a chase scene in which Jammwal runs at about sixty-percent speed so as to not immediately overtake Hashmi. Fight scenes are poorly executed, with actors falling from punches thrown nowhere near them. Bad editing obscures the action, which is often just shots of the actors’ bodies blocking views of the fight. Jammwal’s performance is still the best thing about Baadshaho, but we don’t get to see enough of him doing his signature stunts.

Worst of all is the film’s ending. Without spoiling any specifics, the movie’s climactic fight suddenly stops. The survivors — now in an entirely different location — express relief that the fight is over. Credits roll. What happened to everyone else?! Who lives? Who dies? Is justice done, and for whom?

It’s not even just that things end suddenly. Luthria and Arora don’t bother to resolve the film’s inciting incidents. It’s as though they lost track of the plot threads and forgot who the bad guys are. Beyond being unsatisfying, it’s simply bizarre. Without any kind of meaningful conclusion, Baadshaho is a total waste.

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Movie Review: Viceroy’s House (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Viceroy’s House isn’t wholly successful, but maybe trying to depict the fraught months leading up to India’s Partition in a movie less than two hours long was never a venture that could succeed.

The biggest hurdle director Gurinder Chadha and her screenwriter husband Paul Mayeda Berges set for themselves is in trying to portray events in a way that is, if not objective, then at least fair. Most of the key players — fictional and historical — are shown as having good intentions and understandable motivations (except for the Muslims who work for the viceroy, who all agitate for an independent Pakistan). Yet knowing now of the refugee crisis that immediately followed Partition and the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, is the focus on good intentions even desirable?

Viceroy’s House begins with the installation of Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) as the last viceroy, tasked with turning over the subcontinent to Indian rule. Even with independence on the horizon, Mountbatten maintains his aristocratic lifestyle, timing his servants to make sure they can dress him quickly enough for his satisfaction.

Mountbatten’s wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson), and their teenage daughter Pamela (Lily Travers), are more aware of the value of softening the image of the British as rulers in favor of something more democratic. Edwina invites Indian guests to parties at the estate, asking the all-Indian kitchen staff to adjust the menu to cater to local tastes. When the sous chef complains in Hindi that all of his training is in English-style cooking, the Lady’s assistant Aalia (Huma Qureshi) translates his comments as polite assent to the request. It’s as though the movie itself doesn’t want its British characters to have to deal with the mess that their predecessors left, and as if the present viceroy’s family’s good intentions have wiped the slate clean.

In an effort to put the larger events in a more personal context, Viceroy’s House features a love story between Aalia and Jeet (Manish Dayal), one of Lord Mountbatten’s grooms. They love each other, but he is Hindu and she is Muslim, in addition to being betrothed to a nice man, Asif (Arunoday Singh), as fulfillment of her mother’s dying wish. Jeet wants Aalia to follow her heart, but she has not only Asif’s feelings to consider but the well-being of her blind father (played by Om Puri). Would they really be safe in a Hindu-majority India? Jeet’s naive faith in both a united India and in the power of love to conquer all lead him to dismiss Aalia’s concerns as a lack of courage.

Casting Hugh Bonneville as an aristocrat invites comparisons to his role as the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey. Where the two stories differ is in their ability to entwine the lives of characters of different classes, thus providing a more complete picture of society at the time. Downton Abbey did so successfully through subplots like Lady Sybil helping Gwen the maid find a job as a secretary.

In Viceroy’s House, the Mountbatten’s lack such intimate connections to their staff. The wealthy Brits have ideas as to what might be troubling their servants, but they don’t know details. The whole feel of the film would have changed with better integration between the class-specific plots, such as Pamela learning of Aalia’s romantic problems and using her position to find a way for Aalia and Jeet to be together.

Where Viceroy’s House does succeed is showing the scope of the problems complicating the British departure from India. There are no easy solutions, and blood was already being shed when Mountbatten arrived. However, asking the audience to feel bad for Mountbatten — a representative of a white, foreign power that had been exploiting India for centuries — just because he personally didn’t create the problems he was asked to solve is a bit much.

The accomplished cast — which also includes Michael Gambon, Darshan Jariwala, Denzil Smith, and Neeraj Kabi — give laudable performances all around. Huma Qureshi is charming, and Arunoday Singh stands out in his few scenes. If the two of them can’t find quality parts in Bollywood, come to Hollywood, please!

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Movie Review: A Gentleman (2017)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A Gentleman delivers on its promise to be a funny, sexy action entertainer.

Strait-laced Gaurav (Sidharth Malhotra) wants nothing more from life than a nice house, a wife, kids, and a reliable car. While the wife and kids are still a work in progress, Gaurav is the proud new owner of the safest minivan on the market and a McMansion in the Miami suburbs. The dining room furnishings are from Pottery Barn and the kitchen Crate & Barrel, he proudly tells his guests.

Gaurav’s top candidate to fill the “wife” part of his dream is his peppy colleague, Kavya (Jacqueline Fernandez). She genuinely likes Gaurav, but he’s too boring for her taste. She wants a husband who suits her free-spending, fast-driving lifestyle.

While Gaurav gets advice from his married co-worker, Dikshit (Hussain Dalal), on how to appeal to Kavya’s wild side, the action shifts to Bangkok. A group of secret agents infiltrate the Chinese embassy, led by Rishi (also Malhotra), a dashing James Bond-type who’s a dead-ringer for Gaurav. This is the dynamic man Kavya has been dreaming of.

Following a botched safe-cracking attempt and subsequent motorcycle chase, Rishi and his crew — which includes his trigger-happy accomplice Yakub (Darshan Kumar) — return to headquarters to meet with their leader: The Colonel (Suniel Shetty). Rishi is tired of life as a extrajudicial assassin for Unit X, desiring instead a quiet family life in a home he can call his own — exactly the life that Gaurav has.

When his appeals to patriotism and personal loyalty don’t work, The Colonel offers to let Rishi go after one last job. Rishi and crew just need to intercept a package in Mumbai. Meanwhile, in Miami, Gaurav is chosen to deliver sensitive information in person to a client located — where else? — Mumbai!

Unlike previous films by the directing duo Raj & D.K. and their co-writer Sita Menon, A Gentleman is well-paced, allowing enough time to linger on details without ever feeling slow. The movie also establishes a sense of place, familiarizing the audience with the layout of Gaurav’s neighborhood and paying off that familiarity later on.

There are some great jokes in A Gentleman aimed at the US. Asked if she knows how to shoot, an exasperated Kavya says, “It’s America,” before cocking her gun like a pro. A laundromat owner named Jignesh (Amit Mistry) is tasked with finding someone, so he activates his spy network: the Desi Store Mafia Group, made up of the owners of Indian grocery stores and restaurants across Miami. My high school friend Ramya once lamented that there were no secrets within the local desi community, and attributing that to an organized business syndicate is pretty funny.

Malhotra and Fernandez suit this material, and not just because they are both gorgeous and fit for skimpy Miami attire. They bring energy to action scenes, heat to romantic sequences, and they share a nice rapport during lighter, humorous moments as well. It’s always a treat to watch Fernandez dance, and thankfully she gets a good soundtrack to dance to, including the Sachin-Jigar bop “Bandook Meri Laila.”

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Movie Review: Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017)

4 Stars (out of 4)

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Based on the book The Ingredients of Love by Nicholas Barreau — which itself draws inspiration from Cyrano de BergeracBareilly Ki Barfi (“The Sweet from Bareilly“) feels familiar but fresh. Delightful characters, wonderful performances, and a touching and funny love story make Bareilly Ki Barfi an example of the romantic comedy genre at its best.

Bitti (Kriti Sanon) is the black sheep of Bareilly, a tomboy with a fondness for booze and breakdancing. Her mother Sushila (Seema Bhargava Pahwa) frets that Bitti’s unladylike tendencies are driving away potential suitors. Her supportive father Narottam (Pankaj Tripathy) is happy to have a daughter off whom he can bum smokes.

Father and daughter are aware of the societal norms that Bitti is up against. “Being a girl is a complete disaster,” Bitti says. Narottam doesn’t have any wisdom for her, but he stays by her side as they stand on their balcony looking glum.

Bitti runs away from home, but a book she buys on the train platform entitled “Bareilly Ki Barfi” prompts her to return. The protagonist of the book, Babli, is the spitting image of Bitti. Assuming the book to be the work of a secret admirer, Bitti asks the bookseller, Munna (Rohit Choudhary), for help finding the author, a man named Pritam Vidrohi. Munna instead sends her to his best friend, Chirag Dubey (Ayushmann Khurrana).

Five years earlier, Chirag wrote “Bareilly Ki Barfi” about his ex-girlfriend, Babli. In order to protect his identity, Chirag bullies timid Pritam (Rajkummar Rao) into claiming authorship. Chirag hopes that Bitti can replace Babli, but he doesn’t own up to being the book’s true author, vetting Bitti first. He instead acts as go-between for Bitti and “Pritam,” writing letters on his behalf, spending time with Bitti, and gradually falling in love.

Unable to put off Bitti’s requests to meet Pritam in person, Chirag and Munna track Pritam to Lucknow, where he fled to avoid the mobs of zealous book readers that never materialized (Bitti is the first person to ever buy the book). Pritam is as meek as ever, and it’s easy for Chirag and Munna to pressure him into returning to Bareilly. They force Pritam to adopt a brash, chauvinistic avatar designed to repulse Bitti, thus clearing the way for Chirag. Of course, things don’t work out the way Chirag plans.

One of the themes of Bareilly Ki Barfi is that we are who we are. Bitti won’t change herself to suit the demands of a conservative potential groom. Pritam’s tough-guy act has the unexpected effect of imbuing his natural helpfulness with a cool air, instead of his usual subservient aura. By refusing to acknowledge his true identity, Chirag deprives himself and Bitti of the love they both want.

Munna says something interesting to Chirag as his buddy’s manipulation of Pritam intensifies: “You’re not the villain.” It’s meant to absolve Chirag of wrongdoing, but it highlights the way Chirag’s deceit is changing him for the worse. The longer he continues the charade, the further he strays from the man he and Bitti want him to be.

While the plot of Bareilly Ki Barfi echoes stories that have come before, the setting and characters provide a refreshing update. Bitti and her family are so likeable, and Pritam’s Amitabh Bachchan-inspired boss act is a hoot.

There’s also a lot to like about the story’s construction. Barielly Ki Barfi is directed by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari (who debuted with 2016’s impressive Nil Battey Sannata) and written by her husband, filmmaker Nitesh Tiwari. An economy of characters ensures that everyone matters, even minor players like Pritam’s mom and Bitti’s best friend, Rama (Swati Semwal). A runtime of around two hours keeps the action moving, allowing the Tiwaris to wrap the movie up before it becomes tiresome.

Best of all is the cast. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Khurrana and Rao as Chirag and Pritam. Khurrana is a master of facial expressions, from his brilliant smiles for Bitti to his stony glares for Munna. Rao has the challenging job of essentially playing two parts and switching between them often, and he does so with ease. The whole supporting cast is terrific as well.

This is the Kriti Sanon performance I’ve been waiting for. She’s been little more than a helpless damsel in distress in her first two Hindi films, and it’s gratifying to see that she’s capable of so much more. Hopefully filmmakers follow Tiwari’s lead and look beyond Sanon’s beauty,  capitalizing on her humor and ease in front of the camera.

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Movie Review: Toilet — Ek Prem Katha (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (“Toilet: A Love Story“) has its heart in the right place, using humor and romance to address a social problem often deemed too private for public discussion. It falls short in a number of ways, with some issues that are particularly problematic for non-Hindi speakers.

Akshay Kumar plays Keshav, a small-town guy whose love life is held hostage by his extremely religious father, Panditji (Sudhir Pandey), who sees all kinds of problems in his son’s astrological chart. Keshav’s desire to marry takes on a new urgency when he meets Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar), a feisty and principled college student.

(I was prepared to give major kudos to the movie for acknowledging that the character played by 49-year-old Kumar is not only old for a bachelor but significantly older than his lady-love. Then it’s revealed that Keshav is 36, making the age difference between him and college gal Jaya less than the twenty-one years separating Kumar and Pednekar in real life.)

The lovebirds trick Panditji into allowing them to marry, only to discover an even bigger problem: Keshav’s house doesn’t have a bathroom. Jaya discovers this when a group of ladies rap on her window in the pre-dawn hours following her wedding night, urging her to follow them into the fields, lest she miss her only opportunity to relieve herself all day.

Toilet‘s most laudable quality is that it forces viewers who are used to readily accessible bathroom facilities to confront the practicalities of how life works without such access. For those of us who don’t leave the house without knowing the location of the nearest public loo, Toilet depicts a nightmare scenario that is a daily reality for hundreds of millions of people in India.

Jaya’s demand that Keshav install a toilet in their home is met with resistance on multiple fronts, from Keshav’s “what’s the big deal?” indifference to anger from neighbors who see her demand as an attack upon their culture. This is where Toilet‘s ability to connect with an international audience falters.

For everyone like Jaya who grew up with a full bathroom in the home — whether in India or abroad — the benefits are obvious. Not only do bathrooms improve cleanliness and provide privacy, they are safer for women. Jaya’s father (played by Atul Srivastava) mentions instances of women being raped and killed while relieving themselves in fields, and having a toilet in the home is a simple way to protect his daughter.

The case against having an in-home toilet is harder to explain to Western viewers, and Toilet doesn’t do a particularly good job in doing so. Some of the resistance — particularly from the village women — is a matter of pride, Jaya’s demand taken as evidence of snobbishness born from too much education. There are also religious considerations cited by the village elders that may be well-known within India but aren’t explained sufficiently for those unfamiliar with the precedent.

In fact, when one of the village elders quotes scripture as evidence, his words are subtitled as “[Sanskrit chant].” The same subtitle is applied when Keshav counters with his own verse. This problem occurs again during a song whose lyrics are translated as just “[folk song],” and written Hindi isn’t transcribed at all. These omissions put up barriers for non-Hindi speakers.

It’s hard to get a sense of who the intended audience for Toilet is. If it’s middle-class city dwellers, Toilet does little to foster empathy for rural folk resistant to the idea of public or private toilets. If it’s those same rural folk, Toilet feels like more of a protracted scolding than a persuasive case for modernization. Even in the film, the villagers violently reject Keshav’s efforts to build a loo for Jaya — until they suddenly don’t.

Keshav is an interesting character when considered in terms of the present political climate in India and in democracies in the West. He doesn’t initially have strong convictions; he just wants everyone to stop fighting so things can return to the way they were. It takes Jaya moving back in with her parents for Keshav to realize that this issue is non-negotiable for her, regardless of her affection for him. Only through suffering consequences of his own is he able to understand the injustice that the status quo forces upon women.

Kumar and Pednekar are both terrific in Toilet, adorable during the story’s romantic phase and heartbreaking as their situation grows more desperate. Divyendu Sharma is also very good as Keshav’s brother, Naru. Too bad the movie overall can’t match the strength of its cast.

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Movie Review: Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Jab Harry Met Sejal (“When Harry Met Sejal“) feels like a movie constructed in reverse, only concerned with where the characters wind up, but not how or why they reach their destination. A lack of motivating factors makes it hard to invest in the characters, regardless of our affection for the actors playing them.

Harry (Shah Rukh Khan) finances his itinerant womanizing as a tour guide in Europe, bouncing from city to city on the run from memories that ultimately aren’t traumatic enough to warrant their blue-filtered flashbacks.

Before Harry can leave the airport after waving farewell to his latest batch of tourists, one member of the group flags him down, in need of help. Sejal (Anushka Sharma) lost her engagement ring, and she won’t return to India until she finds it. She’s sure she lost it in Amsterdam. Or was it Prague?

The first red flag in Jab Harry Met Sejal is that, despite having spent the last month leading Sejal, her fiance, and their families across Europe, Harry has to ask her name. Did he not learn it during the previous thirty days they spent in each other’s proximity? Not even by accident?

It’s suspicious that Sejal appears to have made no impression whatsoever on Harry, in spite of her undeniable beauty and his reputation as a guy who notices beautiful women. There is an uncomfortable subplot about Sejal’s insecurity about her sex appeal and her specific desire for Harry to find her sexy — a desire that manifests early in their ring-hunting adventure, well before Sejal develops any attraction to Harry (who evidently made as little an impression on her during her family vacation as she did on him).

If the point of Sejal’s engagement-ring-wild-goose-chase isn’t for her to create an opportunity to act upon a preexisting attraction to Harry, then what the hell is she doing? She blackmails Harry into working for her, threatening to falsely report him for sexual misconduct if he doesn’t. Sejal is sort of trying to live it up before her marriage to a guy named Rupen, but we don’t know enough about Sejal, Rupen, or their relationship to understand what’s really driving her actions.

During the course of her journey with Harry, Sejal declares herself his temporary girlfriend, complete with spooning benefits — but only until she finds her ring, she warns, cautioning him not to fall for her. The fake molestation threat plus her (kind of) leading him on gives the whole story an icky Men’s Rights vibe, made worse by Sejal’s classist assumption that she can buy an infinite amount of Harry’s time for the right price.

The temporary girlfriend idea is too stupid a conceit for people of the characters’ ages and intelligence levels — Sejal is a lawyer, for Pete’s sake — to concoct on their own. Writer-director Imtiaz Ali doesn’t seem to care why the characters get together, just that they do. He trusts that the audience’s desire to see characters played by Khan and Sharma get together — as they did in the delightful Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi — will trump their desire for narrative authenticity.

Khan looks amazing, smouldering and magnetic as ever. Sharma is goofy and adorable, especially during an awkward dance scene in a night club. Their performances are darned good, even while playing characters who don’t feel like real people. Ali is a much more talented filmmaker than this. Relying on his actors to shoulder the weight of an entire movie without a solid story to support them isn’t fair.

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