Category Archives: Reviews

Series Review: Aranyak (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Aranyak on Netflix

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)

Watch Dasvi on Netflix

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)

Watch Sharmaji Namkeen on Amazon Prime

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)

Watch Jalsa on Amazon Prime

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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Movie Review: Sooryavanshi (2021)

0.5 Stars (out of 4)

The third member of Rohit Shetty’s “cop universe” of cinematic heroes — Sooryavanshi — is introduced in his namesake film. It’s even worse than I expected it to be.

The plot draws from the standard Bollywood “supercop” genre playbook. A sleeper cell of Islamic terrorists is planning an attack on Mumbai, and the only man who can stop them is Veer “Surya” Sooryavanshi (Akshay Kumar). What differentiates the film is the degree to which it leans into lazy genre tropes and outright harmful stereotypes.

First among the lazy tropes is that patriotism is a blanket excuse for reckless or immoral actions. Shootout in a crowded marketplace? Extrajudicial murder of unarmed perpetrators? Engaging in a firefight with a suspect while your son is in the car, leaving the boy wounded? All okay, so long as they’re done for the sake of the country.

This feeds into the second lazy trope: that patriotism is the only personal quality that matters. There’s a theme in the movie about the importance of family, but it only pertains to Surya’s wife Ria (Katrina Kaif), not Surya. Ria wants to protect their son Aryan from Surya’s blinkered commitment to duty, and she’s painted as the villain for wanting to move to Australia without her husband. Never is it mentioned that maybe Surya should not have married or procreated if his duty to country prevents him from ever prioritizing his family and may require him to put them in danger. But that leads us back to the first lazy trope: Surya’s patriotism excuses him being an awful father and husband.

Another lazy “supercop” trope is that the hero is the only person who can defeat the villains. No one else in the vast local and federal anti-terrorism infrastructure is up to the task. When Surya takes one afternoon off at Ria’s insistence, one of his team members dies (making Ria the bad guy once again).

One caveat: Sooryavanshi skirts this lone-hero trope in its climactic sequence by including cameos from the other members of Shetty’s “cop universe” — Simmba (Ranveer Singh) and Singham (Ajay Devgn). Together, the trio defeats the terrorists in a climactic showdown that lacks spatial orientation. Lots of stuff explodes, but rarely ever within the same frame as the star actors, ruining the immersion.

All the cameos do is remind the audience that Devgn is the only actor of the three with the charisma to pull off this type of character. That Singham wins the final fight in this, another hero’s movie, just cements that.

Beyond an over-reliance on tropes — which can be forgiven if a movie is fun — Sooryavanshi is deplorable in its depiction of Muslims. It builds the plot around the harmful stereotype that every Muslim man deserves suspicion as either a possible terrorist or a corrupter of Hindu women. The only way to prove that you’re a patriotic Indian Muslim is to join the police force or collaborate with them, despite knowing that they engage in torture and extrajudicial murder.

It makes for depressing viewing. When it’s not depressing, it’s annoying thanks to Surya’s pathological inability to remember people’s names. The joke is revisited frequently, and it’s never funny.

The only positives in Sooryavanshi are Javed Jaffrey’s grounded performance as a veteran counter-terrorist agent and Akshay Kumar’s entertaining hand-to-hand fight scenes, of which there are too few. But for them, the film would be irredeemable.

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Movie Review: Bhoot Police (2021)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Bhoot Police on Hulu

Bhoot Police (“Ghost Police“) is a really satisfying, high-concept horror comedy.

Brothers Vibhooti (Saif Ali Khan) and Chiraunji (Arjun Kapoor) are exorcists for hire, carrying on the legacy inherited from their father, the renowned spiritual healer Ullat Babu (Saurabh Sachdeva, in flashbacks). However, the brothers’ business is a grift. Non-believer Vibhooti rationalizes their work as harmless since their sham spells put peoples’ minds at ease, but Chiraunji isn’t so sure. He’s convinced that their father’s encoded spellbook holds some key to the spirit realm, if only he could figure out how to read it.

Chiraunji asks his dearly-departed father for a sign, and Dad delivers. Chiraunji drops the spellbook, and a hidden scroll unlocking the book’s code pops out. The book lands at the feet of a woman named Maya (Yami Gautam) who needs the brothers’ help. Decades ago, Ullat Babu banished a ghost from her family’s tea estate, but the ghost seems to have returned. Now that Chiraunji can decipher his father’s book, perhaps he can perform a real exorcism and save Maya’s business.

The performances in Bhoot Police are a lot of fun. Khan’s opportunistic cad Vibhooti is contrasted against Kapoor’s earnest, sentimental Chiraunji. Gautam’s warmhearted Maya is balanced by her party girl sister Kanu (Jacqueline Fernandez, whose energetic performance is slightly over the top). Amit Mistry and Javed Jaffrey do exactly what needs doing in their supporting roles.

Because Bhoot Police feels silly and fun, it’s easy to miss how much thought went into its construction. Making the brother’s disparate personalities the main driver of conflict and then doubling it by adding two sisters with a similar dynamic adds depth to the story. There’s a goofy subplot with Jaffrey as a police inspector who’s hunting the brothers that has an unexpected payoff. The story behind the ghost haunting the estate is surprisingly emotional. All these layers give the actors a lot to work with and keep the plot moving along.

None of this should be a surprise given the team behind Bhoot Police. Director Pavan Kirpalani previously directed the excellent psychological thriller Phobia, starring Radhika Apte. That film required a great understanding of character, which is present in the characters in Bhoot Police as well. Both of the brothers suffered from the trauma of their father’s death but found different ways of coping with it. Revisiting the scene of their dad’s most famous exorcism forces the brothers to finally confront their feelings about him.

Kirpalani wrote both Phobia and Bhoot Police with Pooja Ladha Surti, who also edited both movies. She’s Sriram Raghavan’s go-to co-writer and editor, too, having worked with him in those capacities on Andhadhun and Badlapur (among other films).

Bhoot Police‘s other co-writer and assistant director — Sumit Batheja — wrote the dialogue for the hilarious action comedy A Gentleman.

With such talented people behind the camera, it’s no wonder that Bhoot Police is as enjoyable and well thought out as it is. The cast in front of the camera brings the story to life with a seeming effortlessness. If only every comedy could be made with this much care and deliberation.

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Movie Review: Looop Lapeta (2022)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Looop Lapeta on Netflix

Looop Lapeta is an official remake of the 1998 German film Run Lola Run (complete with a couple of cute nods to the original). To give a hint to the Hindi adaptation’s main problem, consider this: Looop Lapeta is 2 hours and 11 minutes long, while Run Lola Run has a runtime of just 1 hour and 20 minutes.

From the start, debutant feature director Aakash Bhatia makes a statement with the film’s bold visual style. The color palette tends toward saturated greens and reds, and the camera makes frequent use of closeups of the actors’ faces. The style, coupled with a raucous soundtrack, preps the audience for a film that could be colloquially described as a bit “extra.”

Taapsee Pannu plays Savi, a former track athlete whose plans were dashed by a career-ending knee injury. She’s saved in her moment of despair by Satya (Tahir Raj Bhasin), a guy who means well even if he struggles to do well. Though they love each other, they’re getting nowhere, with Savi addicted to prescription drugs she steals from the elderly man she takes care of and Satya gambling away whatever money he earns.

Things get serious when Satya loses $5 million and has less than an hour to replace it before his gangster boss cooks him alive. Savi jumps into action to save Satya, stymied in her quest by a lovelorn cab driver named Jacob (Sameer Kevin Roy) and bumbling brothers Appu (Manik Papneja) and Gappu (Raghav Raj Kakker), among others.

There’s more to Savi’s mission than simply saving Satya’s life — Savi has to stop hurting herself and others and reengage with society in a productive way — but the film doesn’t do the early work to establish why we should care whether Savi and Satya succeed. It’s taken for granted that we will because they’re the main characters and because Savi is pregnant (something she’s not happy about).

That said, when the film finally establishes what Savi’s real goal is, the story is quite enjoyable. Pannu does a nice job switching from a woman angry with the world to one with a purpose. Her subplot with Jacob the cabbie is pretty fun.

Yet the movie would’ve been better if it were quite a bit shorter. Bhatia’s remake is 50 minutes longer than the original, and without good reason. The script relies on repetition for humor, to its detriment. Characters repeat the phrase “pachaas laakh” (“five million”) to each other over and over in a scene that repeats itself multiple times throughout the film. It’s not amusing.

Worse still is the time devoted to the bumbling brothers Appu and Gappu, sons of a jewelry store owner who feel unappreciated by their dad. They plan to rob the jewelry store at the same time Satya is trying to rob the same store. The brothers are irritating and repetitive, subtracting more than they add to the story.

Director Bhatia’s first feature film shows some promise, but he missed a crucial lesson from his source material: less is more.

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Movie Review: Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui is the first mainstream Bollywood romance to feature a transgender lead character. While the movie represents a huge step forward, it opens up a wider conversation about representation and who gets to tell trans stories.

Manu (Ayushmann Khurrana) runs a gym in Chandigarh that struggles for business. He hopes that winning the local strongman competition in a few months will raise his gym’s profile, but his chances of beating the reigning champ are slim.

Then Maanvi (Vaani Kapoor) arrives. New in town, Maanvi shows up at the gym to start a new Zumba program — one of Manu’s schemes to keep the gym afloat while he trains for the competition. Maanvi is gorgeous and energetic, and soon her Zumba students outnumber the bodybuilders.

On top of being popular, Maanvi is kind and generous. She helps Manu when he breaks his nose, getting him safely home and impressing his family in the process. The two spend time together, sparks fly, and love blooms.

Yet Maanvi is cautious. She’s been hurt before, so it’s only when Manu proposes marriage that she tells him an important secret: she’s transgender. Confirming her worst fears, Manu reacts terribly, spewing hateful slurs and vowing to ruin her life.

Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui is aimed at a broad audience — many of whom may not have given much thought to what it means to be transgender and the challenges that come with that — so the plot hinges on Manu’s emotional process as he comes to understand what Maanvi’s confession means for both of them. He educates himself about what it means to be transgender, educating the audience in the process.

Given the power imbalance that favors male stars in Bollywood, many romantic comedies treat their female leads as little more than accessories to the male lead. Not so with Maanvi. She has a full backstory that’s conveyed through her current relationships and also via smaller details, like the cutting scars on her arms or the nervous way she fidgets with the strap on her purse during a conversation that could turn awkward. The film tells us who Maanvi was by showing us who she is, without relying on flashbacks. Maanvi is a prime example of how to write a female lead character with as much depth as the man she’s romancing.

Two main points of criticism can be leveled at Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui that have nothing to do with how watchable or competently-made the movie is (it is both): the actor playing Maanvi is not a transgender woman, and no one on the writing team — including director Abhishek Kapoor — is trans. To the second point, the idea for the film’s story came from writer Simran Sahni, who is a mother to two trans daughters. Director Kapoor has stated in interviews that he and his co-writers consulted with trans people and organizations while writing the film.

Not casting a trans woman to play Maanvi is a missed opportunity. That’s taking nothing away from Vaani Kapoor’s performance, which is the best of her career. But casting a transgender woman would have elevated the movie from being a “conversation starter” to an example of turning a good intention into action. Director Kapoor claims that the film needed an established star like Vaani to draw the audience’s attention, but how can trans actors become stars if directors and producers won’t cast them?

Abhishek Kapoor told Filmfare: “This is not the last movie, this is the first movie of its kind that has been made and the kind of response and the kind of houses that this story has penetrated because of the kind of casting we’ve done . . . there is an understanding of the trans community and from hereon when you cast trans people for roles, I think it has opened doors, it has started conversations.” He’s right that this is the first movie of its kind. And maybe it was the studio or producers who insisted on a cisgender woman playing Maanvi. Still, hoping that someone else will see the success of Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui and take the next step is by no means a sure thing.

As much as I enjoyed the film, I recognize that as a cisgender woman I may have missed important context or other elements that could be problematic. I’ve linked below to a couple of articles about the film written by trans women that I found helpful, as well as interviews with Abhishek Kapoor about his casting choices. I’ve also linked to a great video essay about intention in storytelling that, while about a different specific subject (Asian-inspired movies by non-Asians), still seems relevant to Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui.

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Movie Review: Gehraiyaan (2022)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Gehraiyaan on Amazon Prime

Gehraiyaan is writer-director Shakun Batra’s third film, after his brilliant sophomore effort, Kapoor & Sons. Unfortunately, Gehraiyaan repeats some of the same missteps from Batra’s enjoyable but frustrating debut — Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu — including problems with pacing and a muddled thematic conclusion.

Deepika Padukone stars as Alisha, a woman plagued by fears of succumbing to the same fate as her mother, who died by suicide when Alisha was a little girl. Now an adult, Alisha is dating her childhood best friend Karan (Dhairya Karwa), working overtime as a yoga instructor to support his floundering dreams of being a novelist. She feels stuck — a sentiment her mother expressed before her death.

Then Alisha’s cousin Tia (Ananya Panday) re-enters the picture. Tia is rich, the sole beneficiary of her dad’s real estate empire, which he once shared with Alisha’s father. The parents split on bad terms shortly before Alisha’s mother’s death, separating the cousins and sending their financial fortunes in opposite directions. Now Tia is living the high life with her handsome fiance Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi), her father’s former protege who aspires to be a big-time developer himself.

On the night they first meet, Zain flirts with Alisha. That should be a red flag to Alisha, but she’s desperate for a change. When opportunity presents itself, she and Zain begin an affair. This exacerbates tensions in her relationship with Karan, leading them to break up. Zain promises to end things with Tia in six months, after he returns an investment she made in his company. Then, he promises, he and Alisha can be together.

Alisha and Zain make a sexy pair, and the thrill of their relationship is apparent. There’s always the danger of what would happen if Tia found out — especially since Tia repeatedly hints in conversations with her mother that there’s something important that Alisha doesn’t know.

About halfway through Gehraiyaan, the relationship drama takes a backseat, as the movie pivots to focus for way too long on financial shenanigans at Zain’s company. The details aren’t particularly interesting in and of themselves, and are even less so because they don’t prompt Zain to undergo any character growth. It’s established early on that Zain’s only priority is himself, and the time spent on his subplot feels like it comes at Alisha’s expense. She’s the only character in the film on a personal growth journey.

Part of Alisha’s journey is deciding what kind of relationship to have with her estranged father Vinod (Naseeruddin Shah), whom she blames for her mother’s death. Given their immense talents, it’s little surprise that the scenes between Padukone and Shah are highlights. Panday is also really good in her supporting role, playing Tia as both canny and vulnerable. The film could have used more scenes between her and Padukone as well.

Even when Alisha’s character growth is foregrounded in the plot, the ways the film’s themes are applied to her story feel off. One theme is about moving beyond the past and choosing the direction of one’s life, but it’s hard for Alisha to choose wisely, since every person she knows is hiding something from her. And the theme of moving forward is at odds with a contradictory theme that you can’t really escape the past anyway.

At best, Batra is trying to too hard to avoid a predictable ending. At worst, his theming is just a mess. Either way, the story ends on what feels like a pointless twist. Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu suffered from a similarly disappointing fate. Kapoor & Sons didn’t have that problem, so here’s hoping Batra nails it next time.

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