Category Archives: Reviews

Movie Review: Beyond the Clouds (2017)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the soundtrack at iTunes

A complex blend of heartbreak and hope, Beyond the Clouds examines the role family bonds play in making poverty survivable, while showing us that the concept of family needn’t be limited to blood relations.

Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi’s first Hindi picture takes place in Mumbai. An arresting opening sequence filmed by cinematographer Anil Mehta follows Amir (Ishaan Khattar) as he receives a bag of drugs from a car on a highway overpass. The camera sweeps down as he crosses under the roadway, and then it turns to watch Amir and his friend Anil (Aakash Gopal) speed away on a motorbike.

Amir and Anil are small-time drug runners, young and brash enough to overestimate the amount of power they really have. The don they work for, Rahoul (Shashank Shende), decides to put them in their place after Amir shows up at Rahoul’s brothel unannounced. He sets them up to be nabbed in a police raid.

During the course of a thrilling police chase, Amir happens upon his estranged older sister, Tara (Malavika Mohanan), and then hides out at her house. The encounter gives them a chance to hash out the reasons for their estrangement, perhaps setting the stage for a healthier relationship going forward.

Their reunion is short-lived. Tara is arrested the next day for seriously injuring her employer Akshi (Goutam Ghose) during an attempted rape. It falls on Amir to nurse his sister’s assailant back to health so that Akshi can testify to his part in the assault, the only way to free Tara.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of Beyond the Clouds is its depiction of how tenuous even modest notions of comfort and security can be on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder, especially for women. Amir’s association with illegal drugs can bring his wild lifestyle to a halt at a moment’s notice. And his rising of the ranks of Rahoul’s organization comes at the expense of drug addicts and women forced into prostitution.

Then again, Amir is more morally flexible than the average Hindi-film hero, able to pivot from making silly faces at a child to threatening a paralyzed Akshi with a knife without blinking an eye. It’s less a factor of his youth than his having grown up reliant upon such flexibility to survive. Khattar does a creditable job in his debut film.

Mohanan is less successful in her depiction of Tara, who acts zombified in her conversations with Amir after she’s imprisoned. Yet, when Amir isn’t around, Tara seems well-adjusted to prison life, looking after Chotu (Shivan Pujan), the young son of an ill fellow inmate (played by Tannishtha Chatterjee). Tara’s relationship with Chotu embodies the movie’s theme that our “family” is made up not just of blood relatives, but also those we choose to care for.

Chotu is one of many examples in Beyond the Clouds of kids living in places distinctly not child-friendly because their mothers are poor and have no one who can help them. Dozens of little ones run underfoot in jail, an arrangement permitted in some Indian prisons for children under six years old. One worker at Rahoul’s brothel shoos her daughter out of their room when a client arrives. Amir himself becomes a reluctant babysitter when Akshi’s impoverished elderly mother and two daughters arrive from South India and mistake him for one of Akshi’s friends.

The surprising weak point in Beyond the Clouds is A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack. Though the tone of the film isn’t dour, Rahman’s score is still too upbeat for the circumstances. Nevertheless, Beyond the Clouds is a thought-provoking, heartfelt exploration of our shared humanity.

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Movie Review: Hichki (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the soundtrack at iTunes

Hichki (“Hiccup“) is an enjoyable if somewhat predictable parable about seeing the potential for greatness in everyone. It’s another interesting take on the Indian education system, following on the heels of last year’s terrific Hindi Medium.

Hichki focuses on two different barriers to academic achievement: disability and poverty. The disability aspect is addressed via the lead character, Naina (Rani Mukerji), a teacher with Tourette Syndrome. Tear-jerking flashbacks show her struggles as a small child, when she was the object of ridicule by her peers and scorned by her teachers for vocal tics and outbursts she couldn’t control.

As an adult trying to land her first teaching position, Naina spends more time explaining her neurological condition to the school board members and principals interviewing her than talking about her qualifications. The scenes illustrate just how much work remains to be done in educating the public at large about specific conditions and making the Indian education system more hospitable to students with various challenges, just as Taare Zameen Par did for dyslexia in 2007.

The one thing Naina asks for as both a child and an adult is to be treated as a normal person, and to that end, the movie quickly shifts away from her Tourette Syndrome as the central narrative focus. After the initial shock and some unkind jokes, the students in her class and her coworkers stop noticing her tics, showing just how unwarranted concerns over her being a distraction in the classroom were in the first place.

Naina is hired mid-semester to teach a notoriously rowdy class of poor teenagers who were only admitted to prestigious St. Notker’s — named for a German monk nicknamed “Notker the Stammerer” — when the private academy tore down the kids’ public school in order to expand their playground. The nasty head of the science department, Mr. Wadia (Neeraj Kabi), thinks neither Naina nor the kids belong at St. Notker’s. If the kids can’t pass their final exams in four months’ time, Naina and her students will all be kicked out.

Hichki tries to show what the students are up against — not just in the opposition they face from the school administrators, but also in the difficulties imposed on them by poverty. When Naina visits the slum where the kids live, she finds them caring for younger siblings, helping their parents at work or working solo, and waiting for hours in line to fill buckets of water from a tanker truck, since none of their homes have running water. Studying takes a backseat to the struggle for basic necessities.

Unlike Hindi Medium‘s progressive, leftist point-of-view regarding the inherent justice of public education, Hichki‘s politics are rooted in the neoliberal fantasy that the world is a meritocracy and education is the primary cure for poverty (as opposed to fair wages and access to public goods like clean water and sanitation). “You’re all masters of blaming your situations,” middle-class Naina chides her students.

The movie falsely presents all obstacles to education as equivalent. If Naina can overcome her neurological condition to become a teacher, these poor kids should be able to pass their exams. The film doesn’t acknowledge the many advantages Naina did have in coming from a middle-class family. Her mother had the time to advocate for her daughter’s education. Her younger brother owns a successful high-end restaurant. Even Naina’s father, who abandoned the family because he was embarrassed by Naina’s Tourette’s, uses his connections to land her a job in a bank. Despite her disadvantages, Naina has certain resources at her disposal that her students can only dream of.

Still, Hichki does push the idea that every kid has strengths, even if they’re hard to see at first. Naina uses some unorthodox methods to make the kids realize they understand concepts like parabolas and chemical reactions, even if they didn’t know they academic terms for them. The students flourish under the guidance of an adult who sees their inherent worth, and the story hits many familiar beats one expects from this kind of inspirational fare. (Thankfully, no one slow claps.)

Mukerji’s warmth makes Naina a particularly lovable underdog, one whose own self-doubts are even more important to conquer than the doubts of others. All of the young actors who play her students do a fine job. Neeraj Kabi is too blatantly villainous as Mr. Wadia, but that’s more a function of how the character is written than Kabi’s performance.

Hichki isn’t revolutionary, but movies like it, Hindi Medium, and Taare Zameen Par are important reminders of the Indian education system’s need to better serve all of its students, no matter their challenges.

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Movie Review: Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (2017)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the book Tikli and Laxmi Bomb: To Hell with Patriarchy at Amazon

Tikli and Laxmi Bomb plays at the UK Asian Film Festival on March 21 and 22, 2018.

Two women spark a revolution among sex workers in Mumbai in Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, a wonderful indie film currently doing the festival rounds. The story imparts a tremendous amount of information about the dangers faced by sex workers in an organic and thoughtful way, via endearing lead characters.

The title refers to two types of firecrackers popular in India: one with a short fuse (“Tikli”) and another that burns slower but makes a louder bang (“Laxmi Bomb”). The nicknames are perfect for the main duo. Laxmi (Vibhawari Deshpande) is a long-time sex worker, tasked by her pimp Mhatre (Upendra Limaye) with showing the ropes to the new girl in town, Putul (Chitrangada Chakraborty). Putul earns the nickname “Tikli” after she stabs an aggressive customer.

Laxmi can’t understand why Tikli won’t accept the way things are. Police hassle the women despite Mhatre’s bribes. Their supposed bodyguard A.T. (Mayur More) ignores their phone calls for help. Mhatre takes just enough of the women’s earnings to ensure that they aren’t destitute but can never rise above their current economic situation. World-weary Laxmi has learned to protect herself the best she can within the present constraints.

That acceptance doesn’t suit Tikli. She proposes breaking off from Mhatre and forming their own gang made up of women who will look out for each other instead of suffering abuse at the hands of those claiming to protect them. Laxmi resists until she discovers the extent to which Mhatre and his gang will go to keep the women subjugated. She, Tikli, and a handful of other sex workers set out on their own to change their fates.

As employees in an illegal profession, the women in Tikli and Laxmi Bomb are vulnerable to myriad forms of abuse. The film exposes its audience to many of them in a way that feels narratively consistent, without resorting to the lectures that ruin the flow of many socially conscious mainstream Hindi films. Each new setback the women face on their path to autonomy feels inevitable in retrospect, given the corruption and brutality built into the system.

It is to writer-director Aditya Kripalani’s credit that much of the violence against the female characters occurs off-camera. In the film, rape is used by men as a warning against insubordination and is thus carried out in front of other women. Their horrified reactions show us all we need to see.

Kripalani shares the credit for his enlightened directorial choices with his crew. Tikli and Laxmi Bomb‘s cinematographer, editor, and line producer are all women, as are the heads of costuming, makeup, and other key departments. Co-producer Sweta Chhabria says this deliberately chosen crew “helped the director and the film to lose its male gaze.”

Then there’s the talented cast. The two leads play off one another beautifully, Chakraborty’s impudent Tikli tempered by Deshpande’s pragmatic Laxmi. Divya Unny and Kritika Pande are great as two of the founding members of the gang, and veteran supporting actors like Suchitra Pillai and Saharsh Kumar Shukla help fill out the world.

The film was shot using natural lighting and handheld cameras, giving the film a raw quality appropriate for this view of life on the margins of society. Even with a big Bollywood budget, there’s little one would want to change about Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, so effective is its world-building and so well-organized is its story. Hopefully a successful turn on the festival circuit results in a way for the masses to see Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, because it deserves a wide audience.

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Movie Review: Welcome to New York (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the soundtrack at Amazon

Note: This is a review of the 2D version of the movie.

Welcome to New York has plenty of laughs for the hardest of hardcore Bollywood fans, packaged in an enjoyable fish-out-of-water comedy.

When I say “hardcore,” I mean it. It’s not enough to be familiar with the biggest Bollywood hits of recent years. Welcome to New York requires an appetite for industry gossip, knowledge of awards shows, and a fondness for Karan Johar–particularly his talk show, Koffee with Karan.

The extremely meta setting for Welcome to New York is the 18th International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards, which were held in New York City last year. As in real life, Johar plays the host of the awards show. His actual co-host, Saif Ali Khan, is replaced in the film by Riteish Deshmukh, playing a self-deprecating version of himself who bemoans his underpaid, B-list status.

In order to boost viewership in India, awards show organizers Gary (Boman Irani) and Sophia (Lara Dutta) create a talent contest, giving two winners the chance to perform onstage during the show. Sophia uses the contest to sabotage the show and get back at Gary, choosing the two worst entries among all the submissions as the winners.

Those winners are Teji (Diljit Dosanjh), a small-town repo man and wannabe actor, and Jeenal (Sonakshi Sinha), a feisty fashion designer. Whisked away to New York, the two must overcome their differences to navigate their flashy new surroundings and make their dreams come true.

Meanwhile, an angry Karan Johar doppelgänger named Arjun (also played by Johar) plans to kidnap his lookalike before the awards show. Teji accidentally foils one kidnapping attempt, thinking he’s playing a version of the Rapid Fire Round from Koffee with Karan.

The plotlines aren’t well-integrated, but it hardly matters, given how silly the movie is. Teji’s and Jeenal’s budding friendship is sweet to watch, and Dosanjh and Sinha are both effortlessly likeable. Dosanjh’s Teji gets most of the fish-out-of-water jokes, such as when he calls Jeenal’s terrycloth robe a “coat that looks like a towel.” Their characters have some amusing interactions with Aditya Roy Kapur and Sushant Singh Rajput that play off of people’s mistaken tendency to conflate actors with their roles.

When it comes to playing a role, no one in Welcome to New York does so more enthusiastically than Karan Johar, who plays the most outrageous version of himself imaginable. He’s vain, snarky, and snobbish, and he’s hilarious. He gets to spout lines like, “You are a traitor, Riteish Deshkmukh.” The payoff to subplot in which Karan advises Rana Daggubati on his career after Baahubali is worth the price of admission alone. Lara Dutta and Boman Irani being as great as always is a nice bonus.

The most disappointing element of Welcome to New York is its music. Songs range from forgettable to annoying, and there’s precious little dancing to speak of.

Casual fans may find Welcome to New York too “inside baseball,” but Bollywood junkies will see their obsession pay off in a multitude of self-referential gags. The actors seem like they had fun making the movie, and that quality translates to an enjoyable experience for the audience.

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Movie Review: Aiyaary (2018)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

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In Aiyaary (“Shapeshifting“), things that require little explanation are belabored, while things that would benefit from being shown onscreen aren’t. The resulting movie is a boring spy thriller sans thrills.

Manoj Bajpayee plays Colonel Abhay Singh, leader of a secret group of Indian military intelligence officers — the kind of covert unit the Indian Army top brass promises to disavow should its existence ever be made public. Abhay’s superior officer even says, “No one will ever know what you did for this country.”

Neither will the audience, because writer-director Neeraj Pandey doesn’t show us what they do, apart from one scene of an unspecified assassination that serves two purposes: to establish Abhay’s remorselessness and to beat to death an unfunny joke about a subordinate packing vitamins instead of ammo.

The team consists of seven other officers, only two of whom have specific identities. Maya is the token girl, played by Commando‘s Pooja Chopra, who deserves a role far more substantive than this one. Jai (Sidharth Malhotra) is Abhay’s protegé gone rogue. Abhay intends to find Jai and terminate him if necessary.

Jai uncovers a bribery plot within the Indian Army, facilitated by retired Lt. General Gurinder Singh (Kumud Mishra) on behalf of London-based arms dealer Mukesh Kapoor (Adil Hussain). While Abhay tracks Jai, the protegé gathers evidence with the help of his internet security expert girlfriend, Sonia (Rakul Preet Singh, who also deserves a meatier part).

The details of the uncomplicated bribery scheme are spelled out in scenes bloated with dialogue. Pandey’s fondness for slow-motion shots underscores the film’s snail-like pace.

Of course the bribery scheme is just the tip of the iceberg, but there’s a naiveté to what Pandey considers a scandal big enough to topple the government. Maybe it’s just my American cynicism, but there’s nothing in Aiyaary egregious enough to inspire more than a “they’re all crooks” shrug.

Then again, the problem may be a matter of narrative focus. Pandey spends too much time on crimes that are obvious and easy to understand, before rushing through more complicated schemes that require evidence he neglects to present. Aiyaary‘s biggest scandals are based on hearsay — which wouldn’t stand up to public scrutiny and doesn’t make for good visual storytelling.

Manoj Bajpayee is often the best part of the movies he stars in, and Aiyaary is no exception. The film’s most enjoyable scenes are playful exchanges between Bajpayee and Juhi Babbar, who plays Abhay’s wife. Malhotra is solid, but his character feels flat, as is the case for many of the supporting characters, who only exist to move the story from Point A to Point B. A lot of talent goes to waste in Aiyaary.

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Movie Review: Love Per Square Foot (2018)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Love Per Square Foot on Netflix

Writer-director Anand Tiwari’s debut feature film Love Per Square Foot shows a lot of promise. Drawing from his own acting experience, Tiwari coaxes charming performances from his talented cast.

Two young strangers in Mumbai long for homes of their own. IT guy Sanjay (Vicky Kaushal) is tired of living with his fussy parents, Lata (Supriya Pathak) and Bhaskar (Raghuvir Yadav). Loan officer Karina (Angira Dhar) wants financial independence, a feat her mother Blossom (Ratna Pathak Shah) never quite achieved.

Sanjay is being strung along by his sexy boss, Rashi (Alankrita Sahai), and Karina is dating Sam (Kunaal Roy Kapur), a nice guy she likes but doesn’t love. When Sanjay and Karina hit it off at a mutual friend’s wedding, they realize that they can’t achieve their dreams if they stay with their current partners.

In order to take advantage of a government-sponsored housing program for newlyweds, Sanjay and Karina decide to apply together. They only have to get married if they win an apartment via a lottery draw, and even then, their arrangement is based on business rather than affection. They’ll split everything 50-50, from the costs of owning the apartment right down to household chores. That they start to fall in love with each other during the process is just a bonus.

The story takes its time establishing the relationship between Sanjay and Karina, which is great because Kaushal and Dhar are adorable together. Fresh off of his chilling turn as a crooked cop in Raman Raghav 2.0, Kaushal transitions seamlessly into an ideal romantic leading man. Dhar is effortlessly likeable and cute in her first film role.

Tiwari’s storytelling style is concise, with characters resolving problems that would normally stretch over several scenes with just a sentence or two. It’s refreshing, but it also creates the need to continually manufacture new conflicts in order to keep the story going. Problems aren’t born out of well-integrated subplots but rather spontaneously generate, and the story drags.

The two ex-lovers are one well Tiwari returns to, with Rashi’s demands on Sanjay’s attention becoming increasingly outlandish and less believable. As a character, Rashi is one-note, which is too bad because Sahai shows some charisma in her first film role. Kapur’s Sam has fewer scenes, but the actor makes the most of them.

Tiwari relies even more heavily on the main characters’ parents to complicate matters, chiefly on the grounds of religious objections to the union. Sanjay is Hindu and Karina is Christian, though neither seems especially devout. The sudden parental religious objections feel obligatory — as though one can’t make a Bollywood romantic comedy without them — and they don’t easily fit with the central modern love story. Despite having wonderful actors in the roles, all of the parents are unfunny caricatures.

The rookie writer-director must perfect his story crafting, but overall, Love Per Square Foot is a fine debut — not just for Anand Tiwari but for Angira Dhar as well.

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Movie Review: Basmati Blues (2017)

1 Star (out of 4)

Rent or buy the movie at iTunes
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Basmati Blues is as problematic as its trailer makes it out to be, and it’s also just plain weird.

The weirdness reveals itself early, when Brie Larson — who filmed this before she was a household name — starts singing while watering plants and wearing a lab coat. Basmati Blues is supposedly an homage to Bollywood films, but the on-the-nose lyrics make it more akin to Western musical theater.

Larson’s character, Linda, is the scientist behind a super productive new strain of rice developed on behalf of Mogil, the agribusiness conglomerate she works for. Mogil’s CEO, Mr. Gurgon (Donald Sutherland), sends her to India to convince farmers to ditch their current rice in favor of the new strain she’s developed.

Upon setting foot in the country, Linda ticks off boxes on the checklist of Things That White People in Movies Find Surprising About India: It’s crowded! A stranger is carrying my luggage! There’s a cow in the road! People eat with their hands! That coconut is on fire!

This is a “Bollywood” movie by white people, for white people. Producer Monique Caulfield — who is married to the film’s writer-director Dan Baron — told Vulture: “the film is made for the Western audience.” Yet they don’t credit their Western audience with the ability to conceptualize India outside of a very narrow, stereotypical focus.

The trailer for Basmati Blues was criticized for its white savior narrative. Linda is indeed a white savior, but with a twist — she’s also a villain. The rice she’s created is more productive and pest-resistant, but it’s also sterile, forcing users to buy a fresh supply of seed each year from Mogil. This fact shocks both of local guys who’ve fallen in love with her — funny agriculture student Rajit (Utkarsh Ambudkar) and suave rich guy William (Saahil Sehgal) — but Linda is fully aware of the rice’s reproductive properties. She just never considered what it means economically for the customers who rely upon the rice and the communities they live in.

Linda somehow remains oblivious to the harm caused by her creations until very late in the film, well after the point that she should have had her revelation and change of heart. As such, it makes it hard to root for the happy ending with Rajit that the story is driving toward. Why does he deserve to be saddled with someone who seemingly lacks a conscience?

The music throughout is forgettable, but Larson and Ambudkar are decent enough singers. Their musical performances are overshadowed by the novelty of veteran actors Sutherland, Tyne Daly, and Scott Bakula singing and dancing.

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Movie Review: Padmaavat (2018)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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A note on 3D: My local theater only carried Padmaavat in 3D, but I recommend watching the film in 2D, if possible. The 3D effects don’t enhance the experience, and the glasses dull the colors and details of the costumes and sets. 3D also adds a visual distance between the subtitles and the action, for those reliant upon subtitles.

Spoiler warning: Because Padmaavat is based on a centuries-old poem, I will discuss the end of the movie in this review.

Filmmakers can choose to make whatever movies they want. Why, then, would Sanjay Leela Bhansali choose to make Padmaavat? Why now, and why tell the story in this way? What does he want his audience to take away from this story? Even after watching the movie, I can’t answer those questions.

Bhansali’s story follows the parallel paths of two 13th century Indian rulers until they converge: the ambitious Muslim warrior Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) and the milquetoast Rajput king Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor). While ruthless Alauddin fights the Mongols and steals the sultanate of Delhi from his uncle, Ratan Singh searches for some replacement pearls after he gave away his wife Nagmati’s (Anupriya Goenka) favorite necklace.

Ratan Singh is waylaid in the pearl-producing kingdom of Singala (which resembles the Nopon Braidbridge in Noctilum from Xenoblade Chronicles X, for both of you out there who’ll get that reference), when the princess Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) accidentally shoots him with an arrow while hunting. They fall in love while he convalesces, and she returns with him to his palace in Chittor as his second wife.

Their trouble begins when the palace priest Raghav Chetan gets busted watching Ratan Singh and Padmavati make out. Banished, Chetan vows to destroy Chittor. He meets Alauddin, telling the sultan — who has an infamous Gollum-like obsession with precious things — that not only is Padmavati the most beautiful woman in the world, but Alauddin needs her in order to fulfill a bogus prophecy that sees him conquer the globe. Alauddin and his army head to Chittor to besiege Ratan Singh’s castle.

This is where things really fall apart for Ratan Singh as a character, at least in the way Bhansali depicts him. Whenever Ratan Singh mentions his “honor”, it signals that he’s about to do something incredibly stupid. On multiple occasions, he either underestimates Alauddin’s capacity for deceit or refuses to kill Alauddin and end the war, citing some mitigating rule of decorum that stays his hand. Whenever Padmavati tells him, “You know it’s a trap, right?” Ratan Singh just smiles and walks right into it.

Charlie-BrownAbove: Alauddin swears to Ratan Singh that this time he really will let him kick the football.

There comes a point when rigidly adhering to one’s principles is selfish, especially when it means not just your own death but the deaths of everyone you love, the deaths of all the innocent civilians you’ve vowed to protect, and the loss of your entire kingdom.

Then again, none of the characters in Padmaavat are written like real people, only symbols for concepts like honor (Ratan Singh), lust (Alauddin), beauty (Padmavati), treachery (Chetan), jealousy (Nagmati), and bravery (the Rajput fighters Gora and Badal). All the other soldiers and civilians are just there to take up space. What happens to them doesn’t matter. We know as much because the end notes only mention the place of Padmavati’s sacrifice in Rajput lore, with no mention of the hundreds of other women who killed themselves alongside her.

Ah, yes, the ritual suicide for which Padmavati is famous. The movie opens with a note that the film does not intend to endorse “sati,” the practice of women immolating themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. That’s a little hard to believe given the glamorized way Bhansali depicts the mass suicide of the women of Chittor following Ratan Singh’s defeat on the battlefield. Rather than be captured by Alauddin’s army, Bhansali shows Padmavati and the palace women (and girls) resolutely marching to their death in an inferno, defiant tears filling their eyes but refusing to drop. The camera cuts away before we see them burn or hear their anguished screams, preserving their memories as paragons of virtue rather than showing the  charred corpses of the terrified victims of male egos run amok.

If Bhansali wanted to dress up Deepika Padukone in elaborate costumes, wasn’t there another ancient Rajput tale he could have picked? One that didn’t make a hero out of a woman for killing herself? Padmavati’s actions — though true to the original poem — don’t even match with her character in the film. As interpreted by Bhansali, Padmavati is a skilled archer and military tactician. Why should we believe that she wouldn’t first try to kill Alauddin herself, rather than follow her husband’s foolish lead and let Alauddin live to besiege another kingdom?

There’s so much more that could have been done with this story, especially since Bhansali appears to have taken some liberties with the original poem (based on a cursory Wikipedia search). The theme of jealousy could’ve been brought to the fore, not just in the rivalry for Ratan Singh’s affection between Nagmati and Padmavati but in the jealousy toward Padmavati felt by Alauddin’s slave and consort, Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh). The fact that Alauddin and Malik are lovers and it’s depicted as no big deal is Padmaavat‘s greatest strength.

However, that relationship also plays into the characterization of Alauddin as a dirty, feral creature, one who snarls while tearing meat off the bone with his teeth and who will have sex with anyone. He is also Muslim, as we are constantly reminded by the green flags bearing a crescent moon that flank him at all times. Bhansali goes to such lengths to conflate Alauddin’s base appetites with his religion that it becomes gross.

Singh, for his part, makes the most of his problematic character, overshadowing Kapoor in all of their scenes together. Sarbh likewise seems to enjoy his free rein. Padukone looks regal — as does Aditi Rao Hydari, who plays Alauddin’s wife — but she has little to do once she leaves her forest kingdom.

Virtually all of the scenes between Padmavati and Ratan Singh are shot in slow-motion, the two of them making moon eyes at one another. This reliance on slow-mo — which extends to battle scenes as well — highlights just how little actually happens in the movie, both in terms of plot and character development. Padmaavat looks gorgeous, as Bhansali’s movies always do, but looks aren’t everything.

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Movie Review: Kahaani 2 (2016)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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It’s unrealistic to expect Kahaani 2 to replicate the success of a movie as special as Kahaani, but the sequel lacks many of the elements that made the original so memorable.

Writer-director Sujoy Ghosh again taps Vidya Balan to play a character named Vidya searching for a lost loved one in West Bengal. Kahaani 2‘s Vidya — Sinha this time, not Bagchi — is mother to a 14-year-old girl, Minnie (Tunisha Sharma), who is paralyzed from the waist down. The pair lives in the town of Chandan Nagar, about an hour away from Kolkata. Vidya returns from work to find her daughter missing, the girl’s phone and wheelchair left behind.

While the original Kahaani‘s Vidya spent the film tracking her missing husband with the help of a smitten police officer, the sequel’s Vidya is sidelined early on. It falls on a different cop, Inder (Arjun Rampal), to discover what’s going on when he stumbles upon an accident scene and recognizes the injured woman. However, he knows the victim by the name of Durga Rani Singh, not Vidya Sinha.

Inder’s only clue is Vidya/Durga’s diary, which chronicles events from eight years ago, when Minnie was six years old (played by cute Naisha Khanna) and the duo lived north in Kalimpong. Most of Balan’s scenes in the film are from these flashbacks. It’s frustrating that her character is inactive for much of the present-day storyline.

Inder takes the lead on the case as he adjusts to a new environment. A “gut feeling” gone wrong got him demoted from Kolkata to normally uneventful Chandan Nagar. Precisely how he earned his demotion isn’t explained, but all signs point to Inder being a decent guy. He’s got a sweet daughter and a wife, Rashmi (Manini Chadha), with whom he shares a playful antagonism. Even though Rashmi knows her husband is keeping something from her, she resists the urge to snoop in Vidya’s diary, waiting until Inder is ready to tell her the truth.

While Inder is a fine character, his problems aren’t are dire as Vidya’s, thus Ghosh’s choice to present the two character arcs in parallel doesn’t work. Vidya and Minnie find themselves in a life-or-death struggle, only for the action to cut to Inder fretting about whether his work on the case will earn him a promotion back to Kolkata. The stakes are so unequal that juxtaposing them makes Inder look more frivolous than he really is.

Balan is compelling in everything that she does, and Kahaani 2 is no different. It falls on her to deliver Ghosh’s message about the enduring trauma of sexual abuse, and she does so powerfully. Both girls who play Minnie do a lovely job and show tremendous promise. Also noteworthy is a sweet turn by Tota Roychoudhury as Arun, Vidya’s mild-mannered suitor in Kalimpong.

There are some beautifully vivid shots of Chandan Nagar at night, but the town doesn’t have a strongly defined identity the way that Kolkata did in the original Kahaani. That’s most obvious difference between the films, and — more than anything else — it is what marks Kahaani 2 as the inferior of the two movies.

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Movie Review: Tiger Zinda Hai (2017)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Tiger Zinda Hai (“Tiger Lives“) has its share of highlights, but the relentless plot requires a degree of stamina that would challenge any action movie enthusiast. Quick transitions from one set piece to the next allow little space for story or character development.

Set eight years after the events of Ek Tha Tiger, Salman Khan’s titular hero and his then-girlfriend-now-wife Zoya (Katrina Kaif) live in Austria with their son, Junior. The novelty of seeing Khan play a father onscreen is noteworthy, owing to its rarity.

Though Tiger and Zoya are retired from active duty, they haven’t left the spy life behind entirely. Zoya keeps her combat skills sharp by subduing armed robbers in the local grocery store, and Tiger confidently fights a pack of wolves while snowboarding. He has a room dedicated to tracking the activities of Indian intelligence agency RAW across the globe.

Thus, he’s not surprised when his former boss Shenoy (Girish Karnad) comes to him with an urgent mission: Islamic militants captured twenty-five Indian nursing students working in Iraq, and America has given India seven days to rescue their people before they bomb the hospital where the students are being held.

Zoya knows that Tiger’s love of country surpasses even his love for her and Junior, so she sends him on his mission without complaint. What they don’t know is that the Indian authorities neglected to tell them that fifteen Pakistani nurses are also being held in the same hospital. Tiger’s not the only one to get called out of retirement.

Tiger Zinda Hai‘s cynicism about politics is its most interesting attribute. As in the original film, the main couple personify the idea that Indians and Pakistanis have more in common than not, and that it’s the fault of the governments of both countries for pursuing agendas that make peace impossible. The members of Zoya’s and Tiger’s support teams also come to see the wisdom of working together toward shared goals, a tactic they wish could be applied across borders to improve things like education and healthcare on the subcontinent.

The sequel’s story expands that cynicism globally to indict America for what is deemed to be imperialism in the Middle East, chiefly the greedy pursuits of oil and lucrative weapons contracts cloaked under the guise of the eradication of terrorism. Abu Usman (Sajjad Delafrooz) — the leader of the terrorist group in Tiger Zinda Hai — cites his years in detention at Guantanamo Bay as the very reason for his radicalization.

Unfortunately, these political ideas aren’t woven into the plot, instead existing as meta-commentary directing the audience on how they can find their own kind of woke nationalism. Zoya’s and Tiger’s teams shed their instinctive mistrust of one another within minutes. Most of the criticism of America arises from conversations between Abu Usman and Poorna (Anupriya Goenka), the head nurse, but as supporting characters, the plot doesn’t devote much time to their character growth.

Then again, none of the characters in the movie really grow. Tiger is what he is: a patriotic humanitarian killing machine. Not that there’s anything wrong with such a character; it’s just a question of how much time can an audience be asked to spend with a character that reacts but doesn’t evolve.

The answer to that question is: something less than Tiger Zinda Hai‘s lengthy 161-minute runtime. Apart from one romantic song early in the movie — before Tiger leaves his family and we bid adieu to Junior for most of the film — the plot races through each action sequence, followed by a brief break to set up the next action sequence. After a while, all the explosions and fisticuffs become too much of a good thing.

Yet, when it is good, Tiger Zinda Hai is pretty fun. All of the movie’s best moments belong to Katrina Kaif, and she proves herself to be a compelling action hero in her own right. From her stunt-driving through narrow alleyways to her own one-woman-wrecking-crew takedown of a bunch of bad guys, Kaif commands the screen.

Khan is no slouch when it comes to fight sequences, of course, and his obligatory shirtless scene is a hoot. His sidekicks have little to do, raising questions as to how that can be the case given how long the movie is. Delafrooz’s relaxed demeanor makes him an effective villain.

One personal complaint is that Tiger Zinda Hai cuts corners by casting non-Americans in American roles, leading to some head-scratching accents. Also unintentionally hilarious is the fact that one of the American military officers in Iraq has his first name — Gary — written on his name tag on his uniform. Gary zinda hai!

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