Category Archives: Reviews

Movie Review: Badla (2019)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: Gully Boy (2019)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: Period. End of Sentence. (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Period. End of Sentence. on Netflix

Netflix’s Oscar-winning short documentary Period. End of Sentence. (PEoS hereafter) is a feel-good story about a group of Indian women empowering themselves and their community through better access to menstrual hygiene products.

Feminine hygiene has been a popular film subject in India for several years, starting with Menstrual Man, the 2013 documentary about Arunchalam Muruganatham, inventor of a low-cost machine for making sanitary pads. Muruganatham then inspired two fictional Hindi films: 2017’s Phullu and 2018’s Pad Man, starring Akshay Kumar. (Kumar’s 2017 movie Toilet: Ek Prem Katha also addressed the related need for clean, safe bathroom facilities for women in rural India.)

American-produced PEoS is a succinct primer on the subject of feminine hygiene in India — an ideal entry point for those new to the topic, particularly in the West. Director Rayka Zehtabchi and editor Sam Davis had to be choosy about what elements to include, given the film’s 25-minute runtime, so the film focuses less on the dangers faced by rural women and more on the positive outcomes for one village when they receive one of Muruganatham’s pad-making machines.

Thankfully, the village where PEoS filmed is populated by a bunch of funny, smart, and eager women who make great documentary subjects. Kathikhera in Hapur district is only 60 kilometers from Delhi, but local women find their opportunities limited without ready access to feminine hygiene products. Rekha dropped out of school because there was nowhere to change the old cloths she uses during her cycle. Shabana is tired of the taboos surrounding menstruation. Sneha wants to be able to work during her period so she can become a police officer.

When they receive one of Muruganatham’s machines — and instructions from the man himself on how to use it — the women of Kathikhera get more than just a reliable supply of sanitary pads for themselves. The machine spawns a new business, with the women selling their products under the name “Fly” — the name chosen to inspire women to soar on their newfound freedom.

Money generated by the business is the most obvious benefit, but the soft skills it teaches the women may be of more importance in the long run. One elderly woman says that making pads is her first paying job. Sneha’s novice saleswoman duties will make her a better communicator as a police officer. Shabana is in her element leading the feminine hygiene version of a Tupperware party, demonstrating the quality of their products while humorously comparing sanitary pads to husbands.

The reason this works best as a starter film is that it simply isn’t long enough to cover the topic in depth, though it does allude to many of the challenges. Overcoming embarrassment about discussing the topic is the first step, which enables the correction of misinformation (some young men in Kathikhera think menstruation is an illness). Safe toilet facilities for women and reliable electricity infrastructure are critical elements, too.

Another reason for PEoS‘s positive tone is its affiliation with the charitable endeavor The Pad Project, which aims to provide more rural women with pad-making machines. Donors — such as the Los Angeles private school students who financed both the film and Kathikhera’s machine — are more incentivized to contribute to immediately successful endeavors, as the one in the movie is shown to be.

When faced with a large problem with multiple, entrenched causes, one must ultimately choose a starting point and go from there. In the case of access to feminine hygiene products in rural India, Period. End of Sentence. shows that women’s human capital is there to be utilized if given the means to do so, and pad-making machines are as good a place to start as any. Click here to support The Pad Project.

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Movie Review: Tumbbad (2018)

4 Stars (out of 4)

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Hindi-film fans in the United States had to wait until Tumbbad made its streaming video debut to finally catch the horror movie that captivated audiences in India and at film festivals around the world. But boy was it worth the wait! Filmmaker Rahi Anil Barve’s fable eschews metaphor in favor of shockingly literal depictions of its underlying mythology. It is a cautionary tale of the dangers of greed — with consequences presented in brutal detail. That the film’s protagonist forges ahead, knowing full well what doom awaits him, highlights how all-consuming the desire for more can be.

Broken into three chapters, Tumbbad begins in 1918, in a fading village bearing the same name as the title. Tumbbad’s governing family gained its wealth by worshiping Hastar, the disgraced son of the Goddess of Prosperity, imprisoned in his mother’s womb for stealing her gold. Legend has it that there is a treasure hidden in Tumbbad’s mansion, but the aged lord of the manor (played by Madhav Hari Josh) won’t divulge its secrets — not even to his mistress (Jyoti Malshe), with whom he fathered two sons: Vinayak (Dhundiraj Prabhakar Joglekar) and Sadashiv (Rudra Soni).

The lord’s mistress is tasked not only with meeting his carnal needs, but also keeping alive his ancient grandmother (played by Piyush Kaushik), while making sure she never wakes up. The mistress’s family lives in the same house as the scary old lady, and though the kids don’t know the details of her curse, preteen Vinayak is pretty sure his grandmother knows something about the treasure. A series of tragedies give the boy his chance to ask Granny directly — a mistake that nearly costs him his life. Saved by Mom, they flee to Pune.

Chapter Two picks up fifteen years later, in 1933. With Mom dead, now-adult Vinayak (Sohum Shah) is freed from his promise to her never to return to Tumbbad. Their old house still stands, and Granny is, to put it politely, in bad shape. Her appearance reminded me of something out of Lars Von Trier’s Danish TV series The Kingdom, which gave me nightmares for weeks. Granny gives Vinayak the information he needs to find the treasure, calling him a “greedy bastard.” “It’s my only quality,” he replies.

Tumbbad‘s straightforward dialogue makes it highly memorable, like Granny’s ominous warning: “Not all that is inherited should be claimed.” In Chapter Three, Vinayak’s 14-year-old son Pandurang (Mohammad Samad) tells his mother, Vaidehi (Anita Date), that his father doesn’t actually like anything, despite having accumulated a massive fortune. Vaidehi asks, “Then what’s the point?”

That’s Tumbbad‘s ultimate lesson: succumbing to greed means surrendering one’s will to a desire that can never be sated, leaving you miserable and mean as a result. The lure of unlimited treasure makes Vinayak willing to take risks that seem insane, given that he knows how horrible and immediate the consequences are, with Granny as his example. Chapter Three is set in 1947, and with age catching up to him, Vinayak is compelled to train Pandurang in the family business. It’s an act of unthinkable cruelty that takes advantage of the boy’s desire to win his father’s love. Poor Pandurang doesn’t understand that his father has no love to give.

Setting the film in the first half of the 20th Century allows for interesting parallels to India’s national independence, and the limited reach of electronic technology creates a chilling atmosphere. Atmosphere is where Tumbbad really excels, after all. Eerie locations and sets are awash in supersaturated colors, the dark mood enhanced a fantastic, menacing score by video game composer Jesper Kyd. All the acting performances fit so perfectly into the world of Tumbbad, as well. The longer I ruminate on the movie, the more impressed I am by it.

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Movie Review: Zero (2018)

0.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Zero is a disaster for many reasons, but its biggest problem is that director Aanand L. Rai and writer Himanshu Sharma failed to realize that their film’s hero is a horrible person.

So why didn’t they notice that their creation, Bauua (Shah Rukh Khan), is an irredeemable prick? The filmmaking duo has a history of writing male leads who don’t respect the women they claim to love, like Kundan in Raanjhanaa and Manu in Tanu Weds Manu Returns. There’s also the assumption that Khan’s massive fanbase will automatically project their love for him onto his character, no matter who the character is or what he does.

Mostly they were blinded by the Zero‘s central conceit: using computer generated effects and film techniques similar to those used in the Lord of the Rings movies to shrink a superstar actor. Zero was never about the struggles of a man with dwarfism. If it were, they’d have at least gone through the pretext of casting a little person for the lead role. (Same goes for Anushka Sharma’s role as a woman with cerebral palsy.) This was always about spending a budget fives times as large as the filmmaking duo had previously worked with on fancy special effects and an expensive cast, trusting in those effects and stars to bring people to the theater — regardless of whether the movie was any good or not.

Other than his diminutive stature, nothing differentiates Bauua from any number of Bollywood male leads who believe their gender entitles them to anything they want. As the son of a rich father (played by Tigmanshu Dhulia), Bauua has coasted through life on Dad’s dime since dropping out of school in the tenth grade. Now aged 38 — Khan is 53, by the way — that means Bauua has spent twenty years doing absolutely nothing.

Nevertheless, he confidently turns down all the potential brides chosen by the matchmaker (played by Brijendra Kala) until he spots a photo of Aafia (Anushka Sharma). Bauua is initially turned off by the tremors caused by Aafia’s cerebral palsy, but he decides her use of a wheelchair makes them more-or-less equal. Never mind that he’s a high school dropout and she’s a world-renowned rocket scientist.

Bauua’s defining moment is his response to being rejected by Aafia after a presumptuous proposal in front of a bunch of elementary school students. Bauua shows up at a press conference to publicly humiliate Aafia, stating that while she may be able to lead a mission to Mars, she can’t pick up the pen he just dropped on the ground. Pleased with himself, he walks away, only to hear a commotion behind him as Aafia crawls on the ground and lifts the pen.

What Bauua does is unforgivable, yet Aafia immediately forgives him and their love blossoms. Aafia’s inexplicable forgiveness of Bauua is a clear example of Bollywood’s desperate need for female storytellers. Rai & Sharma aren’t done humiliating Aafia yet, as Bauua ditches her to take his shot with the country’s sexiest actress, Babita Kumari (Katrina Kaif, in the movie’s only role with any semblance of believable humanity).

After the intermission break, Zero goes full bonkers. Bauua replaces a chimpanzee training for a space mission (which is totally not insulting to little people or anything).

I’m not sure if it’s an intentional homage, but Zero has a lot of parallels to my favorite So-Bad-It’s-Good movie: Gunda. Both have a monkey and a baby that shows up out of nowhere. Vengeful Bauua frequently speaks in movie lines, Gunda‘s Bulla in couplets. There are montages that make no geographical sense, as when Bauua spends a song stumbling through Times Square, downtown Orlando, and Huntsville, Alabama — all of which are supposed to be the same place, apparently. Zero‘s opening dream sequence even reminded me of the scene in Gunda where Bulla’s sister is raped.

All of which is to say, Zero is a terrible movie. The only reason it merits even a half-a-star rating is because Katrina Kaif is so damned good in her role. The rest of the movie is a trash fire.

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Movie Review: Kedarnath (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Two lovers on opposite sides of a religious and class divide fall in love just before their world falls apart in Kedarnath. The compelling central romance is eclipsed by a well-executed disaster sequence based on the tragic floods of June, 2013, which destroyed much of Kedarnath and killed thousands.

Mansoor (Sushant Singh Rajput) works as a porter, ferrying Hindu pilgrims and their belongings up the winding mountain path to Kedarnath Temple. He and the other Muslim porters and shopkeepers have a history of cooperation with the Hindu innkeepers, allowing everyone to make a steady living during the six months of the year that the temple is accessible.

An upstart Hindu landowner, Kullu (Nishant Dahiya), sees profit in building a fancy new hotel in the valley, increasing the number of pilgrims and displacing a number of shopkeepers in the process. Mansoor — whose mother’s shop would be demolished to make way for the hotel — argues that more buildings and pilgrims could put the infrastructure of the whole valley at risk. Briraaj (Nitish Bharadwaj), a Hindu priest, appreciates Mansoor’s dedication to Kedarnath despite not being a Hindu himself.

That appreciation only extends so far, however. Briraaj isn’t about to let his younger daughter, Mukku (Sara Ali Khan), date a Muslim. Mansoor’s relationship with her exposes simmering inter-religious divisions and provides a pretext for violence, led by Kullu, who’s engaged to Mukku after dumping her older sister, Brinda (the beautiful Pooja Gor). The floods hit before the town can erupt into full-scale riots.

Khan shows poise and charisma in her first film role, but Mukku is problematic. She has a lot in common with stereotypical Bollywood man-child protagonists in that she’s immature and unable to see things from other’s perspectives. She has no regard for how her romance with Mansoor affects him, his family, or the other Muslims in the valley, so confident is she that her desires are right simply because she desires them.

Unlike the typical man-child protagonist character arc in which he finds a woman who makes him aware of the world and his role in it, Mukku’s worldview doesn’t change. Her position as the privileged daughter of a powerful man makes her overestimate her ability to shape her world to her will. If she’s just persistent enough, she can break down Mansoor’s barriers and make him fall in love with her. That same persistence will get her out of her engagement to Kullu, she believes. She’s even convinced that she can influence cricket matches and the weather.

Having been mostly insulated from negative consequences thus far, Mukku fails to account for all of the other factors that influence the events in her life, like the desires of other people, the lucky bounce of a cricket ball, and the randomness of a natural disaster. Mukku’s arrogance makes one question whether, from a narrative standpoint, her star-crossed romance with Mansoor is a worthy enough endeavor to balance the deaths of thousands in raging floodwaters.

That balance undermines the vibrant romantic tension conjured by Khan and Rajput. This is Rajput’s most charming performance in years after lackluster outings in M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story and Raabta, a reminder of how good he can be in the right role. It would be fun to see these two leads pair up again in the future after Khan gains more acting experience.

Director Abhishek Kapoor successfully blends practical effects with computer generated ones in Kedarnath‘s climactic disaster, with Rajput and Khan battling treacherous waters in thrilling sequences. The rarity of Bollywood disaster movies is perhaps reason enough to watch Kedarnath, coupled with the intrigued of a star scion’s debut (Khan’s father is Saif Ali Khan). If only the central romance matched the film’s spectacle.

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Movie Review: The Price of Free (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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The fantastic 2013 drama Siddharth follows a poor family’s search for their son, a victim of child trafficking. 12-year-old Siddharth takes a factory job in a distant city for a month to earn money for his younger sister’s dowry. When the boy doesn’t return, his parents have to search for him with scant information of his whereabouts, extremely limited funds, and no picture of their son to show to the authorities.

For parents facing a similar crisis to the family in Siddharth, Delhi’s Bachpan Bachao Andolan (“BBA”) is there to help. The documentary The Price of Free gives a look at the organization and its devoted leader, Kailash Satyarthi, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his part in freeing more than 87,000 Indian children from slavery. (The film debuted at the Sundance film festival under the title Kailash and was renamed before its streaming video release on YouTube.)

The keys to Satyarthi’s success are his complete commitment to the principle that every child should have a childhood and his optimism that this is an achievable goal — albeit an incredibly difficult one. The Price of Free explains just how complex the problem really is, with Satyarthi himself admitting to underestimating the scope the first time he tried to free a man’s daughter from sex slavery and failed.

Actually rescuing a child from forced labor is somewhere in the middle of a process that begins with trying to stop trafficking from happening in the first place, through a combination of laws and corporate pressure to poverty eradication efforts. After a child is trafficked, the BBA team attempts to locate and release the child — and any other children present — hopefully arresting their captors in the process.

What to do with the children they rescue is a whole other problem, one that Satyarthi and his wife Sumedha discovered early in their activism as their apartment filled with traumatized children far from home. The solution was Mukti Ashram, a temporary boarding school run by Sumedha as a place where recently freed kids could live, play, and learn while BBA workers track down their parents.

The Price of Free opens with footage of a harrowing factory raid that liberates sixty-three boys, the most frightened of whom is little Karim. Given the presence of police alongside BBA activists, the boys assume they are in trouble, and Karim won’t stop crying. In a surprisingly intimate gesture, Satyarthi sits with Karim and has the boy touch his beard, joking with Karim that he’s missing a beard of his own. It pays off days later, when Satyarthi hears that Karim is still nervous at the ashram. He asks, “Is this the friend who touched my beard? Show me how you did it.” Little Karim beams as he reaches up to give Satyarthi’s cheek a familiar pet.

A heartbreaking problem BBA addresses is the reality that some of the children they reunite with their families will just wind up in forced labor again, such is the depth of their poverty. One father admits to accepting a bribe from a trafficker of as little as 2000 rupees — less than $30.

The challenges and rewards of BBA’s activism are presented fairly by filmmaker Derek Doneen, without being manipulative or melodramatic, as befitting Satyarthi’s own can-do attitude. BBA’s work requires a great deal of bravery — one never knows if the police assigned to accompany them on raids have been bribed by traffickers — and Doneen and crew deserve credit for following the activists into potentially dangerous situations for the sake of documenting their work.

If there’s one complaint about The Price of Free, it’s the inconsistency of the English subtitles. Most of the banter and other background chatter like police radios isn’t subtitled at all. If multiple people are speaking at once, only one person’s dialogued is subbed. I know documentaries don’t have lavish budgets, but the film feels incomplete without full subs.

Even with over 150 million kids worldwide still engaged in child labor, The Price of Free and Kailash Satyarthi’s work with BBA give hope that this really is a problem we can tackle. If you’d like to get involved in the movement to end child labor, check out The Price of Free‘s website, Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, or 100Million.org.

You can watch The Price of Free in its entirety below:

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Movie Review: Karwaan (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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The dehumanizing nature of modern office culture is ideal movie fodder. Companies tout their soul-crushing policies as necessary for the sake of “efficiency” — code for cutting labor costs to increase the profits of shareholders and executives. Karwaan (“Caravan“) beautifully puts the lie to this vision of efficiency, showing instead how interpersonal connections and generosity are often better tools for getting things done than cold bureaucracy.

Dissatisfied IT worker Avinash (Dulquer Salmaan) learns of his father Prakash’s (Akash Khurana) death via a curt phone call from a travel agent informing him where to pick up the body. The two men hadn’t spoken in years, since Prakash forced his son to abandon a promising photography career for a job offering financial stability. Avinash followed his father’s wishes but never forgave him, ground down by a boring job in an office where posters touting the employees’ replaceability are considered motivational.

The body shipped to the airport in Bangalore is not that of Avinash’s father but of a woman who died in the same bus accident. The airport’s cargo supervisor isn’t keen to track down Dad’s body, leaving it to Avinash to arrange a swap with Tahira (Amala Akkineni), the daughter of the dead woman who received Prakash’s body by mistake. Avinash hops in a van with his jaded friend Shaukat (Irrfan Khan), and they drive to Kochi to make the exchange.

The road trip gives Avinash opportunities to showcase just how much one man can accomplish with a generous spirit — and a van. Tahira calls in panic when she can’t reach her daughter at college, prompting a side trip to Ooty to pick up free-spirited Tanya (Mithila Palkar). Conservative, grumpy Shaukat almost calls off the caravan when he sees Tanya wearing a dress that hits above the knee, but Avinash prevails, giving the trio further opportunities to do good on their way to Kochi.

Tanya’s youthful exuberance affirms Avinash’s altruism but highlights the rut he’s fallen into after years demoralizing office work. He judges Tanya irresponsible for her drinking, smoking, and casual flings, only to realize how much he must sound like his own dad to someone younger.

Though Shaukat’s attitude toward Tanya and some of Avinash’s own behavior are sexist, the movie itself isn’t. Akarsh Khurana’s screenplay and direction always side with Tanya’s right to make her own choices, especially since she’s not hurting anyone else and isn’t that irresponsible in the first place. Given that Tanya’s the one who instigates a side trip to return the belongings of another bus crash victim, she’s a net positive for the world.

Irrfan Khan is typically charismatic, but he never hogs the spotlight from his co-stars. Salmaan and Palkar are at their best during their scenes together. In an industry where 50-something actors routinely romance women in their 20s onscreen, it’s refreshing that Khurana’s script precludes a romance between Avinash and Tanya because of their age difference. It allows for a greater variety of scenes than we normally get when two attractive young performers are paired together.

Karwaan isn’t an explosive film — there’s exactly one action sequence, and it’s not handled that well — but sometimes you just want a movie about nice people doing nice things. Karwaan is that movie. Enjoy it.

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Movie Review: Thugs of Hindostan (2018)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Despite its novelty as a rare Bollywood seafaring epic, Thugs of Hindostan is done in by  predictable character development and a familiar plot focused too heavily on its male protagonists.

The film begins promisingly enough, with Ronit Roy playing the leader of the last Indian kingdom to resist takeover by the British East India Company in 1795. After instructing his young daughter Zafira (played by fierce little Deshna Dugad) on the importance of protecting her homeland, King Mirza plans to attack the Brits at dawn, but the Company’s merciless lead officer Clive (Lloyd Owen) attacks first. Only Zafira escapes with the help of the royal family’s devoted bodyguard, Kattappa…er, Khudabaksh (Amitabh Bachchan).

Fast-forwarding eleven years introduces the swaggering trickster Firangi (Aamir Khan). Firangi’s name means “foreigner,” explaining his willingness to pit Indians against Indians and Brits against Indians, all in the name of making a buck. He has no allegiance to the burgeoning resistance movement threatening the Company, making him the perfect spy to gather information on behalf of Clive’s second-in-command, Officer Powell (Gavin Marshall, who coordinated the circus acts for Dhoom 3, which also starred Khan and was directed by Thugs director Vijay Krishna Acharya).

The rebel leader “Azaad” (“Free”) is really Khudabaksh, assisted by grown up Zafira (Fatima Sana Shaikh), who’s become a deadly fighter. The name Azaad is confusing, because it’s hard to tell when the rebel army shouts the word if they’re cheering for the man specifically or the concept of freedom, generally. This is significant because the first character we see in the movie is Zafira as a girl. Thugs should be her revenge saga, but Khudabaksh appears to get all the credit for attacking the Brits — unless the masses really are cheering for freedom and not just for him. Either way, crown princess Zafira winds up playing second fiddle to her bodyguard.

As is the case for many Hindi films, the challenge in Thugs is weighing the needs of the story against the needs of the stars. The stars’ needs clearly trump the narrative in this case. Without Khan or Bachchan — and perhaps with an actress with a longer resume than Shaikh’s — Zafira would be the main character. But one feels a calculus governing the whole plot, and that’s ensuring that the biggest stars get the most screentime. For example, Khan must be onscreen for three-fourths of the movie (I’m estimating), Bachchan for less (but he gets more dramatic entrances), etc. That limits the scope of what other characters are able to do and diminishes their importance.

That calculus is responsible for the absurdly lazy incorporation of Katrina Kaif’s dancer character Suraiyya into the plot. She’s summoned out of the ether as the screenplay demands, with no attempt to make her feel like a person who exists when she’s not onscreen. She’s a character designed for item numbers, nothing more. It’s a shame because Kaif is captivating in her brief dialogue scenes, and there had to have been some way to further utilize the grace and athleticism she displays in the songs “Suraiyya” and “Manzoor-e-Khuda”.

Shaikh is likewise underutilized, despite having the most compelling emotional arc. She and Kaif share a nice moment in which their characters discuss the dangers of revolutionary action (after telling Khan’s chatterbox character to shut up). The film’s high point is a touching scene in which Zafira mourns her family, and Khudabaksh sings her to sleep as he did when she was a girl. The film is lessened for putting Zafira’s thirst for vengeance second to the question of whether Khan’s Captain Jack Sparrow-lite character will finally become a good person (of course he will).

One point in Thugs of Hindostan‘s favor is that they cast British actors who don’t sound ridiculous speaking Hindi, which is not common practice in Bollywood. There are good supporting performances by Roy, Sharat Saxena, and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub as Firangi’s psychic sidekick. Ila Arun has the only other female role of note, giving a funny turn as Jaitumbi, a potion-maker with a crush on the much-younger Firangi.

Thugs of Hindostan has one of the biggest budgets of all time for a Bollywood film, and it gets quite a lot of value for the money. Battle scenes are fun and clever, set against stunning backdrops. The leather armor worn by Zafira and Khudabashk is gorgeous, designed by Manoshi Nath and Rushi Sharma. Dance numbers are grand in scale.

High production values coupled with decent story pacing are enough to maintain interest while watching Thugs of Hindostan, even if its narrative deficiencies make it ultimately forgettable.

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TV Review: Ghoul (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Ghoul on Netflix

Ghoul pulls no punches in its depiction of the dangers of state-sanctioned religious intolerance. The show’s monsters are scary, but not as terrifying as the vision of the future presented by writer-director Patrick Graham.

The miniseries comprises three episodes, each with a runtime between 40-45 minutes (excluding closing credits). In all, Ghoul is about as long as a feature film. I appreciated the built-in breaks, which occur at logical points in the plot. This is a perfect kind of storytelling format for a streaming video platform, and I won’t be surprised to see it become more common as filmmakers adapt to changing audience viewing habits.

Graham keeps the scares to a minimum in the first episode: “Out of the Smokeless Fire,” establishing a world where every day is a nightmare for those on the wrong side of new societal divisions. A fascist Indian government cracks down on homegrown terrorism by outlawing certain religious texts and practices, burning books and whisking away citizens believed to harbor anti-nationalist sentiments for “re-education.” The only people targeted in crackdowns are Muslims, although the show doesn’t specifically identify the government as Hindu nationalist.

Naive patriotism inspires Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte) to enlist in the military, despite being the daughter of an Islamic scholar (played by S.M. Zaheer). She’s convinced that the government’s harsh tactics truly are about national security and not religious oppression, as her father believes — so much so that she turns in her own father for re-education. Soon after, she’s posted at a secret government prison to aid the interrogation of notorious terrorist Ali Saeed (Mahesh Balraj), who is captured in the show’s opening, half-dead and surrounded by the corpses of his followers. But why would the military assign Nida, a junior interrogator, to such a high-profile case?

The last two episodes draw from any number of horror films in which the characters are trapped in a remote location with a monster, their terror turning them against one another when their survival depends on them working together. Few of the soldiers and prisoners get any meaningful character development other than Colonel Sunil Dacunha (Manav Kaul), whose idea it was to bring Nida in, and Lieutenant Laxmi Das (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee), Dacunha’s skeptical second-in-command.

Although the relative anonymity of the other soldiers signals their expendability, it also highlight’s the shows message that any agent of a fascist government is liable for its crimes. Not every soldier in Dacunha’s prison personally tortured prisoners, but all of them knew about it and did nothing to stop it. The jail’s cremation room is a stark visualization of the parallels to Nazism present throughout Graham’s screenplay.

When Ghoul‘s namesake creature finally appears, the story becomes quite scary, playing on the fears of those within the prison. Several of the soldiers, including Dacunha, are haunted by the way engaging in torture has warped their sense of morality — not enough to stop torturing people, unfortunately — allowing the monster to play on their guilt. The scares in Ghoul are more psychological than surprise driven, and there’s a considerable amount of blood.

Nida is plagued by her own guilt, and she has no allies in her new surroundings. Apte is compelling in the lead role, showing both Nida’s grit and vulnerability. Bravely, the series doesn’t downplay her commitment to the totalitarian government. She’s willing to follow orders until the moment she’s absolutely convinced that she’s been duped. Nor does Ghoul try to make Dacunha more sympathetic than he should be. Kaul depicts Dacunha as conflicted, but unquestionably a bad person. Ghoul knows which way its moral compass points, and it’s not afraid to show it.

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