Category Archives: Reviews

Movie Review: Toolsidas Junior (2022)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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An overly-long first half keeps Toolsidas Junior from reaching its full potential, but a strong second half rewards those willing to stick with this underdog story.

Writer-director Mridul Mahendra (listed in the credits as Mridul Toolsidass) based his film on a true story: his own. Perhaps that’s why it feels like there’s a lot of extraneous material in Toolsidas Junior — stuff personally important to the filmmaker that he wanted to include, even though it slows the pace of the film.

The movie opens with a snooker tournament at the Calcutta Sports Club in 1994. Toolsidas (Rajiv Kapoor, in his final film) is a bit of a showboat, doing tricks to impress his adoring 13-year-old son Midi (Varun Buddhadev). Toolsidas earns his spot in the next day’s finals, set to face the reigning champ: the villainous Jimmy Tandon (Dalip Tahil).

Toolsidas celebrates at the club bar with what he promises is just one drink. Hours later, Midi’s furious mom (Tasveer Kamil) sends him to collect his drunken dad. This is something Midi has clearly done numerous times. At the tournament finals, Jimmy uses a break in the action to trick Toolsidas into getting drunk, allowing the villain to come from behind and win for a sixth consecutive time.

Sensing turmoil in the family, Midi’s older brother Goti (Chinmai Chandranshuh) becomes convinced that the boys have to start earning money. A fan of get-rich-quick schemes, Goti wants to use Midi’s diligence and athletic aptitude to make a ton of money. Goti’s assumption that Midi will be naturally gifted at whatever sport he tries is ridiculous, but the film treats it seriously, devoting way too much time to Midi failing repeatedly and Goti getting mad at him. What should have been a brief montage drags on interminably.

The pace plods along even after Midi convinces Goti that there’s money to be made gambling on snooker. Plus, learning to play will give Midi the chance to avenge his dad’s loss and defeat Jimmy. Midi’s too young to play at the Sports Club, so he finds a pool hall in a seedy part of town where he meets his mentor: crusty, enigmatic former national champion Salaam Bhai (Sanjay Dutt). The process is so protracted that Midi’s training doesn’t begin until an hour into the film.

One can’t blame viewers for bailing out before this point, but this is when Toolsidas Junior gets good. Salaam Bhai has clever ways of explaining techniques to Midi, like equating various methods for striking the ball to the punching styles of Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikanth, and Mithun Chakraborthy.

Salaam Bhai also uses the opportunity to teach Midi a lesson about economic class. Midi’s family has membership at an exclusive country club. Salaam Bhai is poor and always has been. When Midi takes a win on a technicality and passes up a chance to play, Salaam Bhai lights into Midi. A privileged kid like him can’t understand what it’s like to skip eating just to save enough money to play. Midi leaves food on his plate because he’s never has to worry where his next meal will come from. Ever the good student, Midi takes Salaam Bhai’s lesson to heart. There’s plenty of cruft in Toolsidas Junior, but Mridul Mahendra deserves credit for including this subplot in his story.

Varun Buddhadev is Bollywood’s go-to child actor of the moment for good reason. His performance in Toolsidas Junior is really solid, and it’s obvious how much effort he put into learning snooker for the film. The movie is at its best when Buddhadev and Sanjay Dutt interact with one another. They make a winning team.

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Movie Review: Jungle Cry (2022)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Jungle Cry — based on the true story of India’s surprise performance at the 2007 Under-14 Rugby World Cup — struggles to find its style, blunting the emotional impact of this underdog story. But if you’ve ever wanted to learn the rules of rugby, Jungle Cry is a great tutorial.

After an unnecessary voice-over giving background on the true story, the movie opens with a well-shot chase sequence. Four schoolboys run from some older men with a jar of stolen marbles, displaying incredible athleticism in their flight. A white man named Paul (Stewart Wright) witnesses their skills, convincing him he’s in the right place to find untapped rugby talent.

Any long-time watcher of Hindi-language films reflexively cringes as soon as a white person appears onscreen, knowing that these movies sometime are forced to hire non-actors (or at least actors who sound uncomfortable speaking native-level English) for these roles. But fear not. Jungle Cry is a British-Indian co-production, so all of the white actors are actually good. The film even employed Diane Charles as dialogue writer for the United Kingdom portions of the movie.

Paul’s mission is to train a team of Indian boys to play rugby for a tournament in the UK in just four month’s time. The head of the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences in Odisha, Dr. Samanta (Atul Kumar), relishes the opportunity to give a dozen of his students — all kids from impoverished villages — a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the world.

The Institute’s athletic director Rudra (Abhay Deol) disagrees. He recruited most of the boys to play soccer and thinks they won’t be able to learn a new sport. Rudra decides he’d rather quit than partake in this ultimately harmless experiment, even if it means leaving the students who’ve come to rely on him.

Even if this objection is grounded in reality, it’s a strange hill for Rudra to die on in a movie. It’s also weird that Dr. Samanta doesn’t immediately assign Rudra to be Paul’s much-needed translator, giving Rudra the chance to see the boys’ progress firsthand. The subplot feels like an attempt to force tension into the story, but it doesn’t achieve its goal.

This sequence relies a lot on awkward, documentary-style interviews with the adult characters. These interviews are interspersed throughout the plot, subdividing narrative sections and keeping the story from flowing naturally. This continues as the boys succeed in qualifying for the tournament and fly to England (with Rudra after Paul gets dengue), where they meet their team physical therapist, Roshni (Emily Shah). Shah struggles the most in the interview format, though she’s more comfortable in her scenes with Deol (who gives a solid performance).

Jungle Cry doesn’t differentiate the boys or give their characters distinct personalities (unlike another underdog Hindi sports film, Chak De India, where the members of the hockey team are just as important as their coach). It’s also unclear how old the boys are supposed to be. In reality, the team was made up of kids under the age of 14, and the tournament in the film is repeatedly referred to as a “junior tournament.” Yet the athletes from all the teams–Indian and otherwise–look a lot older than middle schoolers.

Where Jungle Cry excels is in explaining the rules of rugby and showing how the game is played. The explanation part is handled as Paul introduces the game to the boys. During the tournament, the camera is always positioned to show what is important about the action taking place. That could mean positioning the camera at field-level to see what happens to the ball during a scrum or pulling back just far enough to watch the logical sequence of passes as the ball progresses downfield. It’s instructive but also exciting as it shows the narrative of what’s happening on the field. Again, if you’ve ever wanted to learn about rugby, watch Jungle Cry.

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Book Review: This Place | That Place (2022)

4 Stars (out of 4)

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*This Place | That Place will be released on June 14, 2022

The innovative format of Nandita Dinesh’s This Place | That Place, along with its timeless subject matter, make her debut novel an absolute must-read.

Dinesh’s background in theater and the study of protest movements informs how she constructs This Place | That Place. The novel is primarily a dialogue between two characters, organized to read almost like a screenplay. The conversations are supplemented with other documents, including excepts from a guidebook and a developmental materials for a curriculum, along with notes from the character reviewing the document. The inclusion of these materials reminded me of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future.

The (sadly) evergreen subject of This Place | That Place is military occupation. Conversations between the two main characters — a man from the occupied country and a woman from the occupying country — take place inside his house during the first few days of a surprise military curfew.

In order to make her novel as universal as possible, Dinesh doesn’t assign names to either the countries or the characters. The book could be about Ukraine and Russia or Palestine and Israel, etc. Yet the setting is clearly inspired by Kashmir (“This Place”) in 2019, when India (“That Place”) revoked Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 and cut off access to the outside world. Fans of Hindi films will appreciate the characters’ discussion of a “Shakespeare adaptation” set in the region, clearly referring to director Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet.

Conversations between the main couple tend to focus on limits: practical limits on the movements of people under curfew; the limits of her ability to understand his experience of living under occupation; limits on the ability of individuals and groups on either side to change the terms of the occupation. The pair deliberately avoid addressing the romantic tension between them in order to delay the most frustrating discussion of all: the limits the occupation places on their possible future as a couple.

The woman from “That Place” is in “This Place” to pilot a (secret) course to deprogram occupying soldiers, similar to tactics used to deprogram cult members. The goal is to get soldiers to question their orders, rather than follow them blindly and to view the local citizens as people, not enemies. It’s one of an array of interesting resistance tactics discussed in the book. Editorial notes attached to the woman’s curriculum give further insights into the characters.

Perhaps of most interest to those of us lucky enough to live outside of a military occupation is the man’s document on how to endure prolonged periods of curfew. Most of the man’s solutions involve taking control of time — the only thing one has in abundance when locked inside one’s house — or at least the perception of it.

As the book explains, despite an outsider’s best efforts to empathize, it’s almost impossible to truly understand what it’s like to be trapped with no access — physical or virtual — to the outside world for days or months. Dinesh does a wonderful job guiding the reader to empathize with the situation right up until the point when the reader realizes that it can’t really be done without personal experience. It’s a an effective call to action.

Dinesh uses her wealth of experience to craft a thought-provoking novel that doesn’t claim to have all the answers. Rather, This Place | That Place invites further exploration and provides a new lens through which to see the world. As one character states: “One of the things that people without the experience of curfew don’t understand, is how easy it is to keep entire nations subjugated when its citizens cannot access information.” That’s a warning all of us should take to heart, no matter where we live.

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Movie Review: Thar (2022)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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A veteran cop’s boring beat is upended by three murders and the arrival of a stranger in the Western noir Thar. Rajasthan is the ideal setting for a Western, and the stunning scenery is highlighted beautifully.

Inspector Surekha Singh’s (Anil Kapoor) decades-long career has been uneventful. Stationed in the Rajasthani town of Munabao in 1985, there’s little in the way of crime, except for the occasional drug bust of smugglers bringing heroin across the border from Pakistan.

All that changes in a single day. A married couple is found shot dead in their home, their daughter’s dowry stolen. Another dead man is found hanging from a tree, an axe embedded in his chest. For the first time in their careers, Singh and his partner Bhure (Satish Kaushik) feel like real police. They figure drug runners are responsible for the deaths, as they set about investigating the connection between the victims.

At the same time, a taciturn stranger arrives in town. He reluctantly gives his name: Siddharth (Harshvarrdhan Kapoor). He’s looking for a few men to help him move some antiques back to Delhi. Men in Munabao routinely work jobs in the city for months at a time, so his request isn’t unusual. A woman named Chetna (Fatima Sana Shaikh) assures him that her husband Panna (Jitendra Joshi) and his friends will be back in a matter of days, and Siddharth agrees to wait.

After Panna — an arrogant misogynist — and his compatriots return, it becomes clear that Siddharth’s intentions are not good. His polite interactions with Cheta are at odds with his actions when he’s going about his business. The mystery at the heart of Thar is: why is Siddharth doing what he’s doing?

Keeping Siddharth’s agenda a secret for as long as the movie does de-prioritizes his character development, blunting the emotional impact when his motivations are finally revealed. That said, Harshvarrdhan Kapoor is great at being mysterious. Nonverbal communication plays a big part in Siddharth’s interactions with Chetna, and Shaikh and Kapoor play off one another exceedingly well.

Relationships play a huge part in Inspector Surekha’s life. He’s got a supportive wife, and Bhure is his best friend, not just his coworker. Writer-director Raj Singh Chaudhary and editor Aarti Bajaj make a point to emphasize how much Bhure means to Surekha. Anil Kapoor and Satish Kaushik are a delightful duo. And Jitendra Joshi is really, really good at playing the loathsome Panna.

The desert location in Thar is not only crucial for making the way the story plays out possible. It’s also absolutely stunning. Though geographically and botanically distinct from the American Southwest, the area in Rajasthan where Thar was filmed feels like the perfect place to shoot a Western. The rocky hills spotted with scrubby brush make an ideal setting for a shootout.

One cautionary note for squeamish viewers is that Thar is very gory — more so than it needs to be to make its point about the nature of the violence being committed. But no one can say the makeup department didn’t do their job, that’s for sure.

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Movie Review: Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Alia Bhatt sparkles in filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi. Bhansali’s visuals are mesmerizing as ever, but the characters are the real stars.

Gangubai (Bhatt) was born Ganga, the educated daughter of a barrister. At 16, a man she loved tricked her into running away to Mumbai to pursue a movie career. There, he sold her to Sheela Mausi (Seema Pahwa), the owner of a brothel.

With her only choices being life as a sex worker or death, Ganga chose to live. Her first client nicknamed her Gangu, a moniker she adopted to mark this new phase of her life. When she became the madam of the brothel following Sheela Mausi’s death, the other women christened her Gangubai as a sign of respect.

Gangubai’s great strength is her empathy for the women around her. Her first act of defiance under Sheela Mausi is to take a handful of other women out to see a movie — hardly a radical act, but one that affirms their humanity. Gangubai knows that the only way to achieve her goals of securing safety and dignity for her fellow sex workers and education for their children is to put herself in a position of power, even if it means sacrificing her own personal happiness.

Gangubai succeeds because she’s great at understanding what motivates people. Bhansali drives that home by making sure that, in every scene, it is perfectly clear what every character wants. That goes for main characters and those in supporting roles. It’s so consistent throughout the film that it’s clearly something that Bhansali and co-writer Utkarshini Vashishtha put a lot of thought into.

Bhansali also pays a ton of attention to the way characters move. Choreography is obvious in the film’s two large-scale dance numbers, but it’s present in simpler gestures, too: the way someone tilts their head dismissively or the way Gangubai’s rival Raziabai (Vijay Raaz) sidles up behind her in an attempt to intimidate.

The focus on movement is most thrilling in the two love songs between Gangubai and Afshan (Shantanu Maheshwari), an apprentice tailor. Afshan leans back timidly as Gangubai leans in, tricking him into thinking she’s going to kiss him as she reaches for a bottle. Both songs “Jab Saiyaan” and “Meri Jaan” are super sexy, as Gangubai and Afshan move teasingly around each other. Maheshwari got his start in entertainment as a member of the Desi Hoppers dance crew, and his expert body control infuses every part of his performance. Casting him was an inspired choice.

Songs integrate into the story seamlessly — so much so that Gangubai Kathiawadi could make for a good starter “Bollywood-style” movie for someone who thinks they don’t like musicals. The song numbers fit perfectly within the flow of the story.

The only weak point in the film comes from another typical Bollywood element: a character giving a climactic speech in front of a crowd. The scene doesn’t have the same impact as it would have in real life, and it slows down the momentum. The movie also ends with a narrated outro that sounds like the closing paragraph from an elementary school social studies report.

Alia Bhatt’s charismatic performance can’t be praised enough. It’s a swaggering role, but it’s always clear why Gangubai is the way she is. Her brash persona is a necessary part of her plan to improve the lives of the women around her.

She’s surrounded by some colorful characters brought to life by even more great performances. Pahwa is appropriately loathsome as Sheela Mausi, and Raaz’s Raziabai is chilling. Ajay Devgn is terrific in his extended cameo as the helpful gangster Rahim Lala.

Best of all are those closest to Gangubai. Maheshwari’s Afshan is adorable, and Indra Tiwari is sensational as Gangubai’s best friend and sidekick Kamli. Bhatt’s lead performance deservedly gets most of the attention, but the ensemble around her is terrific as well.

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Series Review: Aranyak (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Aranyak is Netflix India’s answer to Twin Peaks. With a compelling story and right-sized episodes, the supernatural (or is it?) murder mystery is made to be binged.

Aranyak takes place in the perpetually overcast fictional mountain town of Sironah, surrounded by a dense forest. Police officer Angad Malik (Parambrata Chattopadhyay) arrives to take over duties from Kasturi Dogra (Raveena Tandon), who’s taking a leave of absence from the force to deal with family issues.

On the day Angad arrives, a French tourist named Julie (Breshna Khan) reports her teenage daughter Aimee (Anna Ador) missing. Angad and Kasturi bicker over who should lead the case until Aimee’s body is found hanged in a tree. The cops agree to work together, putting Kasturi’s leave on hold.

Aimee’s death hits Sironah hard because of its similarities to a series of murders 19 years earlier that left over a dozen young women dead and the residents of the town emotionally scarred — none more so than Kasturi’s father-in-law Mahadev (Ashutosh Rana). He led the investigation into the murders but was unable to find the killer known as the “leopard man.”

The leopard man is a figure of local myth: a murderous beast and also the steward of a crop of “mystery mushrooms” that cure disease, but at a grievous cost to those who consume them. Whether the killer from 19 years ago was a man or a monster remains up for debate in Sironah.

One curious fact about the new crime is that all the rich and politically-connected residents in town seem to know that something bad happened to Aimee before the police do. Local politician Jagdamba (Meghna Malik) and sketchy rich guy Kuber Manhas (Zakir Hussain) try to leverage that information to their advantage.

There are many more characters and possible suspects. The story — written by Rohan Sippy and Charudutt Acharya — does a nice job of keeping all of them somehow connected to the crimes of the present or past. Each of the series’ eight episodes runs about 40 minutes, giving enough time to flesh out characters and their motivations without getting bogged down in backstory.

The runtime gives enough space to deal with the themes that Aranyak shares with Twin Peaks: collective trauma, whether evil exists as an independent entity or whether it’s simply individual moral corruption, and how “good” people reckon with this evil in their midst.

One of the more interesting characters is the politician Jagdamba. Her position is in jeopardy because her young adult son Kanti (Tejaswi Dev Chaudhary) was previously convicted of rape. She wants to protect him, but she also believes that he committed the current crime and fears that he might do it again. She’s concerned not just because he’s a political liability, but because she doesn’t want him to hurt anyone else — yet she’s not sure how to stop him. She loves her son, but he might be irredeemable.

This subplot fits with the show’s focus on the dangers faced by women, be it rape, murder, roofies, or cyberstalking. The stakes are raised for Kasturi because she has a daughter, Nutan (Tanseesha Joshi), who is the same age as Aimee. One of the commonalities between Aimee’s death and the murders from 19 years ago is that the police weren’t able to prevent any of them, only respond to them after the fact.

Aranyak has a few glaring flaws. Kasturi does stupid things that put people in danger, and she’s never heard of the jugular vein. Action scenes in the final episode defy the laws of space-time. The finale’s closing shot is sincerely crazy. The whole reason I watched the show was because Shah Shahid of the Split Screen Podcast warned me that the show’s final seconds were nuts, and he was right.

That said, the story build-up to that point is solid enough to make time invested in Aranyak worthwhile. Consistently good performances help, too, with special acknowledgement of Joshi as Nutan and Wishveash Sharkholi as Bunty, her boyfriend. Though the story feels complete as is, I’m very curious to see where Season 2 would go, based on the finale’s closing seconds.

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Movie Review: Dasvi (2022)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Comedies made for an audience of all ages aren’t often considered prestige viewing, but they’re no less difficult to get right. Dasvi does just that, telling a story with broad appeal that never feels dumbed-down, thanks to solid performances and terrific story structure.

Abhishek Bachchan stars as Ganga Ram Chaudhary, Chief Minister (CM) of the state of Harit Pradesh. He’s used to getting his way, flaunting his power by transferring a local police officer he deems too strict and shutting down a proposal to build a school in favor of building a mall.

When he’s thrown into jail pending a bribery investigation, his life doesn’t change that much. Suck-up prison guard Satpal (Manu Rishi Chadha) gives Chaudhary special accommodations, and Chaudhary’s timid wife Bimla Devi (Nimrat Kaur) fills in as CM, taking direction from her husband over the phone.

All that changes when the prison gets a tough new warden, Jyoti Deshwal (Yami Gautam Dhar). Wouldn’t you know, she’s the same strict cop Chaudhary had transferred before he went to jail. She axes Chaudhary’s special privileges, including his daily calls to Bimla Devi, who’s left to govern on her own. Jyoti mocks Chaudhary’s eighth-grade education, calling him an “uncouth bumpkin.”

This hit to his pride — and his desire to avoid manual labor — inspires Chaudhary to take on the challenge of earning his high school diploma while behind bars. If he fails, he promises to drop out of politics.

Chaudhary is a fun comic hero because his flaws are obvious to the audience, but not to him. We know his dismissive attitude toward education needs to change, but why should it while he’s living the life he wants? When he finally gets on the right path, it’s a fun twist that his biggest obstacle is not the warden but his own wife, who’s come to enjoy the power that comes with being the CM.

A lot of the jokes in Dasvi stem from verbal faux pas committed by Chaudhary and Bimla Devi. Not all of the wordplay humor translates, but Laxminarayan Singh does a good job of nailing most of the jokes via the English subtitles (as when Bimla Devi insists that they build an “effigy” of her, when she means “statue”).

But Dasvi isn’t so much a laugh-out-loud comedy as it is one that lets the powerful make fools of themselves. The film doesn’t rely on tacky jokes or goofy sound effects, instead letting well-drawn characters highlight what’s funny about a perverse situation. This is all possible thanks to a carefully constructed screenplay by Suresh Nair and Ritesh Shah and some ace direction by Tushar Jalota, who helms his first feature film.

The cast does exactly what it needs to do to set the right tone, giving characters the right mix of silliness and sentiment. Abhishek Bachchan, Yami Gautam Dhar, and Nimrat Kaur carry most of the load, but supporting actors like Manu Rishi Chadha and Arun Kushwaha — who plays the math wiz bicycle thief Ghanti — complete the world-building.

Dasvi feels a lot like a Hollywood comedy in its structure, but it still makes room for a Bollywood-style dance number and a closing speech about the importance of education (for better or worse). It fits that such a widely accessible film would debut on Netflix, a platform always looking to reach a global audience. Making an all-ages film that families around the world can enjoy watching together is a worthy goal and no mean feat.

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Movie Review: Cobalt Blue (2022)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Authors don’t often direct the movie versions of their books, and perhaps with good reason. The Netflix Original film Cobalt Blue — based on a novel written by Sachin Kundalkar, who also directed the movie — could have benefited from an outsider’s perspective.

The story takes place in 1996 in Kerala. Literature student Tanay (Neelay Mehendale) lives with his grandparents, parents, brother Aseem (Anant V Joshi), and sister Anuja (Anjali Sivaraman). When the grandparents die, Tanay’s parents rent their vacant room to a paying guest, who is never named (played by Prateik Babbar).

The Guest is an artsy beefcake, prone to shirtlessness. His looks draw the admiration of Anuja and the other young women in the neighborhood, as well as Tanay. The Guest correctly interprets Tanay’s constant hovering as romantic interest, and the two have sex. Tanay is in love, but the Guest is coy about his feelings.

Meanwhile, Tanay’s parents are trying to find a groom for tomboy Anuja. She wants to take her field hockey career to the next level, but her parents insist that she start looking and acting like their idea of a proper lady.

While I’ve not read the book on which Cobalt Blue is based, I suspect much of the dialogue is taken directly from it, because it sounds like dialogue written to be read, and not actually spoken. Few of the conversations in the film actually sound conversational. Most lines are delivered with flat affect and punctuated with unnatural dramatic pauses.

The performances across the board are quite stiff, but none more so than that by Mehendale as Tanay. His posture and gait are so rigid as to make Buckingham Palace guards look relaxed by comparison. On top of that, some of his facial expressions — especially in the final shot of the film — are plain odd.

This is Mehendale’s first film, but his inexperience isn’t solely to blame for his awkward performance. That’s on the director, who should have given him better guidance. Kundalkar himself is not new behind the camera, with eight Marathi and Hindi films under his belt before this one.

Considering that Kundalkar wrote the book on which this movie based and adapted the screenplay himself, it’s reasonable to conclude that this is precisely the film he wanted to make. But its flaws feel like issues that could have been rectified by someone with a fresh perspective — someone who hasn’t had these characters in his head for more than two decades. The film has interesting things to say about the loneliness of being gay in a time before widespread internet access. The story isn’t the problem, just the way it’s presented.

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Movie Review: Sharmaji Namkeen (2022)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Rishi Kapoor’s final film is a charming story of a man trying to navigate his unplanned retirement. Sharmaji Namkeen is a lovely way to send off a legend.

A critical fact to know going in is that Kapoor passed away before the filming of Sharmaji Namkeen was complete. In a brief video before the movie starts, Kapoor’s son Ranbir explains that they considered various ways to finish the film but ultimately settled on having actor Paresh Rawal take over Kapoor’s role for the scenes he wasn’t able to film.

Though Kapoor and Rawal aren’t exactly lookalikes, the transitions between scenes are pretty seamless, thanks to rigorous attention to costume continuity. Though one doesn’t become blind to the difference, the premise of two actors sharing the same role is easy to roll with.

Kapoor and Rawal play Brij Gopal Sharma, a manager at an appliance company who’s forced to take an early retirement at age 58. Having devoted his whole life to his work, Sharmaji doesn’t know what to do with his newfound free time.

Sharmaji’s eldest son Rinku (Suhail Nayyar) has strong opinions about proper activities for a retiree — opinions he’s more comfortable expressing now that he’s the family breadwinner. Younger son Vincy (Taaruk Raina) just wants to go unnoticed as he fails his way through college.

One thing Sharmaji is good at is cooking, having taken over kitchen duties after his wife passed away. Rinku rejects Sharmaji’s idea of opening a snack shop, deeming cooking an unseemly profession for a middle-class retiree. Sharmaji’s best friend Chaddha (Satish Kaushik) suggests that he cater a party for a group of well-heeled women — a gig that would be easy enough to keep secret from Rinku. Thus begins Sharmaji’s second chapter as a professional chef and his friendship with a bunch of fun-loving ladies.

On a related note, the footage of food in Sharmaji Namkeen is beautifully shot by cinematographer Piyush Puty. Everything Sharmaji cooks looks scrumptious.

Sharmaji Namkeen is refreshing because it has plenty of conflict but no villains. Sharmaji and Rinku are both stubborn, with strong opinions about how the other one should live his life. Their cycle of keeping secrets from each other just to avoid a fight isn’t healthy or sustainable, but there isn’t any malice in it. They’re both just slow to adjust to their new reality.

While the theme about love and loyalty between family members is stated overtly, there’s a related theme about the importance of friends. The love-hate friendship between Sharmaji and Chaddha is adorable, but the support Sharmaji finds with his new circle of women is equally endearing. Given the prevalence of loneliness among seniors, Sharmaji Namkeen is a nice reminder that it’s never too late to make new friends.

Kapoor’s performance is very strong, establishing Sharmaji as persnickety but kind-hearted. Rawal matches Kapoor’s tone so well that the character feels totally cohesive. It’s wonderful that writer-director Hitesh Bhatia and his crew found a way to complete Sharmaji Namkeen. It’s a very enjoyable film.

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Movie Review: Jalsa (2022)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A hit-and-run accident upends the lives of a popular broadcaster and her cook in the drama Jalsa. Strong performances are the saving grace of a film that feels incomplete.

Jalsa opens with a shocking crime. A teenage girl is with a boy on a deserted railway overpass late at night. They fight and she runs away, straight into the path of an oncoming car. The driver and the boy flee, neither knowing if the girl is alive or dead.

Then the story rewinds to earlier in the day, before the accident. Flash-forward opens aren’t generally my favorite plot device, but this one effectively builds tension in Jalsa, because the story catches back up to the crash in about 20 minutes.

During that intervening time, the audience is introduced to Maya Menon (Vidya Balan), a TV journalist known for her tough — and maybe a little self-righteous — interviews of powerful people. Her long hours keep her away from her 10-year-old son Ayush (Surya Kasibhatla), who has cerebral palsy. Ayush is looked after by Maya’s mom (Rohini Hattangadi) and Ruksana (Shefali Shah), the family cook, whose long hours keep her away from her own family.

Since the audience and several of the characters quickly learn the identity of the hit-and-run driver, Jalsa isn’t a true mystery but more of an examination of the consequences of the crime. A subplot with a pair of cops trying to stall the investigation serves as a bit of a red herring, but it doesn’t feel organically integrated into the plot. Likewise, the speed with which a newly hired junior reporter at Maya’s station — who has only just moved to the city and knows no one — uncovers evidence of the police coverup is unconvincing.

Class plays a strong role in the narrative, as Maya and Ruksana face the challenges of parenting with dramatically different resources at their disposal. As someone from outside India and the diaspora (and as someone who’s not rich), I felt like I was missing context about the relationships between wealthy employers and members of their household staff. Without knowing what the expected level of intimacy between the employers and employees should be, I had trouble deciphering when people were acting abnormally or what should be read into certain interactions. Whether that’s my own lack of context or a fault of the writing, I can’t say.

It is worth noting that in my review of Jalsa director Suresh Triveni’s 2017 debut, Tumhari Sulu, I also felt like the movie wasn’t clear about the characters’ feelings or how the audience was supposed to feel about them. Maybe this is just an aspect of Triveni’s storytelling style that I don’t connect with. I also suggested in my Tumhari Sulu review that he bring on a co-writer for his next film, and he did: Prajwal Chandrashekar. Perhaps that’s why I found Jalsa slightly more successful.

Despite Triveni’s storytelling faults, Balan and Shah are such gifted actors that it’s hard not to be invested in their characters. Both women experience pain, anxiety, and anger, and the performances by Balan and Shah are right on point. Manav Kaul — who played Balan’s husband in Tumhari Sulu — has a nice cameo as Maya’s ex-husband/Ayush’s dad.

Another quality performance comes from Surya Kasibhatla as Maya’s son Ayush. Casting a boy who actually has cerebral palsy makes the role that much more impactful. We can understand why the adults around Ayush feel so protective of him, but also why he’s more independent than they think he is. Kasibhatla plays Ayush with just the right amount of cheek for a kid who’s trying to assert more control over his life but who still loves his family. Casting Kasibhatla was a great choice, and I hope to see him in other films in the future.

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