Streaming Video News: September 10, 2020

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with the addition of the new Hindi sci-fi film Cargo. Other additions today include the Gujarati movie Dhh and a handful of Marathi titles:

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with today’s addition of two new Indian series: Comicstaan Semma Comedy Pa (Tamil) and Wakaalat From Home (Hindi).

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Movie Review: Shakuntala Devi (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Shakuntala Devi on Amazon Prime

Director Anu Menon’s Shakuntala Devi — based on the life of the woman nicknamed “The Human Computer” — opens with a note: “Based on a true story as seen through the eyes of a daughter, Anupama Banerji.” Rather than organizing the narrative as a sequential depiction of the highlights of Shakuntala’s career, the most pertinent episodes of her life are woven into a story about the challenging relationships between mothers and daughters. Events in Shakuntala Devi jump between time periods and settings, the earliest being Shakuntala’s childhood in Bangalore in 1934 and the latest being London in 2001, when her daughter Anu threatened to file criminal charges against her over unfair business practices.

When Shakuntala was around five years old (played by Araina Nand), her family realized that she had a unique affinity for numbers, solving complicated equations entirely in her head despite having no education of any kind. (Scientists and Shakuntala herself were never able to fully explain how her arithmetic abilities worked.) Her father Bishaw (Prakash Belawadi) made little Shakuntala the poor family’s breadwinner, putting his pig-tailed daughter onstage to solve math problems submitted by audience members. Local shows around Bangalore turned into performances elsewhere in India, before Shakuntala finally moved to London on her own.

Though her anger at her father for depriving her of a normal childhood and education was always apparent, Shakuntala — played as an adult by Vidya Balan — harbored a simmering contempt for her mother (played by Ipshita Chakraborty Singh) for not standing up to Bishaw on her daughter’s behalf. That resentment drove Shakuntala to become rich and famous and informed her own style of parenting — and not necessarily for the better.

Anu was born from the marriage of Shakuntala and Paritosh Banerji (Jisshu Sengupta), a government employee in Calcutta. Their relationship developed after Shakuntala was already internationally acclaimed, having added a magician’s showmanship to her performances. She tried being a stay-at-home mom for a while, but soon the road beckoned. She took young Anu with her, assuming that a life of travel would make the girl into an independent explorer like her mother. That’s not how it worked out.

Being disappointed by men is a recurring theme in Shakuntala’s life. Whether it’s their frustration at not being “needed” by her or, as in the case of Paritosh, a refusal to give up his job and follow her on the road, her paramours’ commitment to traditional gender roles only hardened her resolve to break them. Yet the film is clear that Shakuntala shared equally in the blame for her failed romantic relationships. She never found a way to integrate her career and home life. She also hated to lose, which led to young Anu being used as a pawn in the war between her parents.

As Anu grows up, we see how Shakuntala’s stubbornness and inability to compromise impacted their relationship. Anu (Sanya Malhotra) turns out to be just as stubborn as her mother and is determined to be nothing like her, just as Shakuntala was determined not to be like her own mother. Through conflict — including the above mentioned criminal charges — Shakuntala and Anu come to some important realizations about accepting our loved ones for who they are and learning to see our parents as more than just our parents.

Malhotra has the challenge of playing Anu when she is a married woman, but also when she’s a young teenager living in London. As a teen, Malhotra’s performance risks being overshadowed by her unflattering (but authentic) early 1990s attire. She’s more effective as Anu grows up and is forced to truly reckon with her mother as an adult.

If the goal was to portray Shakuntala Devi’s best and worst qualities, they couldn’t have found a better performer than Balan to do so. Balan makes Shakuntala feel like someone you’d love to know but hate to live with. She’s also effectively portrays Shakuntala across multiple decades.

From the vantage point of 2020, the idea of going to watch someone solve equations on stage sounds quaint, but Balan imbues with her character with such charisma and flair that she successfully translates Shakuntala’s appeal for a contemporary audience.

Links

Streaming Video News: September 4, 2020

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with today’s addition of the brand new Telugu movie V (available in Kannada, Malayalam, and Tamil as well). The new Malayalam film C U Soon was added earlier this week. A Spanish-dubbed version of the Rajkummar Rao-Nargis Fakhri movie 5 Weddings is also now available on Prime.

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with the addition of the South African Desi comedy sequel Kandasamys: The Wedding. Netflix just released the trailer for Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, which will be available for streaming on September 18:

Akshay Kumar’s Laxmmi Bomb was rumored to debut on Hotstar on September 9, but it’s undergoing re-shoots, so no release is imminent. Instead, Hotstar will launch a second season of its original series Hostages on September 9.

In other news, Yash Raj Films plans to launch its own streaming service. This could potentially lead to YRF titles being removed from Amazon Prime, which currently holds the streaming rights to the studio’s catalog. The news report is light on details, so we’ll have to wait and see how YRF justifies asking consumers to subscribe to yet another streaming service.

Happy Labor Day weekend!

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Streaming Video News: August 28, 2020

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with today’s debut of the semi-autobiographical Original series Masaba Masaba, starring Masaba Gupta and her mother, Neena. A new season of the docuseries The Creative Indians was also added this week, featuring episodes about actors Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, and Boman Irani; directors Dibakar Banerjee and Imtiaz Ali; and movie location scout Nataranjan Ramji. The 2020 Malayalam film Maniyarayile Ashokan debuts August 30.

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with dozens of Indian films added in the last week, including the 2020 Hindi horror flick Cookie. The streaming service announced an October 23 premiere date for Season 2 of the Amazon Original crime series Mirzapur.

The romantic drama Sadak 2 — starring Sanjay Dutt, Alia Bhatt, and Aditya Roy Kapur — made its worldwide debut on Hotstar today.

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Movie Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

The Personal History of David Copperfield is tiring to watch. It’s mentally draining to spend two hours trying to determine what emotional reaction the filmmaker intends to inspire in the audience. It’s physically exhausting as well, following the frantic movements of handheld cameras while other shots tilt up at such a sharp angle it’s as though you feel your own neck straining. One needs to be well-rested before attempting to watch this film.

Writer-director Armando Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell update the Charles Dickens novel with Dev Patel in the title role, narrating David’s life story to an audience in a theater. His tale follows the ups and downs of his life, starting with his happy childhood (young David is played by Jairaj Varsani), his fall into poverty, rise back to prosperity, and so on.

Much attention is paid to the colorful characters in David’s life, but with so much emphasis on their eccentricities that they never quite manage to feel like real people. David’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood, is played by Tilda Swinton. She’s introduced in one of the film’s earliest scenes smashing her nose up against a pane of glass. The message to the audience is: “You love when Tilda Swinton plays wacky characters, so here she is again!” Same for Peter Capaldi as chronically indebted Mr. Micawber and Hugh Laurie as befuddled Mr. Dick, who is obsessed with Charles I.

Besides Patel, Iannucci deliberately included other non-white actors in key roles, differentiating his film from the multitude of movies about Victorian England with all-white casts. But Inannucci doesn’t take this step toward inclusivity far enough to make his cinematic world feel truly multicultural. Of the twenty or so characters besides David with a significant number of speaking lines, only five are played by people of color. Except for David’s friend Agnes Whitfield (Rosalind Eleazar), the characters with the closest personal connections to David are all white.

The pace of the narrative forces David to speed through many of the significant events of his life before they’re able to make much emotional impact. Highs give way to lows and back to highs, all covered in a layer of wackiness that keeps the audience at an emotional distance.

Such briskness keeps David from evolving as a character as well. Things happen to him, he reacts, and then the story moves on to something else. Patel is fine in the role as it’s written, but David’s quirks — he frequently mimics the speech of the people around him — seem to substitute for character growth.

Working in the film’s favor are some nice performances, including a small but impactful appearance by Gwendoline Christie as David’s stepfather’s stern sister. Laurie as Mr. Dick and Eleazar as Agnes are charming. A delightful scene in which both of them have a picnic with David and Aunt Betsey provides a welcome respite in an otherwise exhausting film.

Links

  • The Personal History of David Copperfield at Wikipedia
  • The Personal History of David Copperfield at IMDb

Movie Review: Gunjan Saxena — The Kargil Girl (2020)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Gunjan Saxena on Netflix

Gunjan Saxena didn’t set out to be the Indian Air Force’s first woman combat pilot. She just wanted to fly. While the movie based on her life — Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl — shows some of the key events in her pathbreaking career, it focuses more on how her extraordinary willpower and the support of her devoted father helped her make history.

Gunjan grew up in the 1980s wanting to be a pilot. A clever song sequence shows young Gunjan (played by cute Riva Arora) wearing aviator sunglasses and playing with toy planes to the tune of “Mann Ki Dori.” Lyrics like, “From the moment I saw you, I just can’t get you out of my head,” describe first love, but it’s love between a girl and an airplane.

Her father, Anup (Pankaj Tripathi), believes his daughter can accomplish anything she puts her mind to. He’s determined to help her, even over the objections of Gunjan’s mother Kirti (Ayesha Raza Mishra) and Gunjan’s older brother Anshuman (played by Aaryan Arora as a kid and Angad Bedi as an adult.) Mom and brother claim to want to save Gunjan from heartbreak in a world that limits the options for girls and women, but their attitudes just reinforce those limitations.

As she grows up, Gunjan (played as an adult by Janhvi Kapoor) proves herself an overachiever, topping her classes and doing whatever is required to reach her goal. Joining the Air Force’s first class of women pilots turns out to be the quickest way for her to get in the air. When Gunjan fails the Air Force fitness exam by being seven kilograms overweight, she and Anup train using a diet and exercise routine movie superstar Rekha mentioned in a magazine.

The relationship between father and daughter is the heart of Gunjan Saxena. First-time writer-director Sharan Sharma took the advice of his co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra, who previously wrote great family-oriented films like Dangal, Panga, and Chhichhore. Sharma told First Post that, given the volume of excellent source material, “the biggest difficulty in a film of this nature is deciding what should not go into it.” Given how delightful Tripathi and Kapoor are together, focusing the story on their bond was clearly the right move.

Gunjan Saxena is only Kapoor’s third lead role, and she proves herself completely capable of carrying a feature film. She makes it looks easy, whether the challenges facing Gunjan are physical or emotional.

Whatever Anshuman’s motivations were for warning Gunjan against being a pilot, he was right that not everyone would be pleased about her choice. She realizes that after she becomes the first woman at her assigned Air Force base. From petty annoyances like not having a dedicated restroom to outright hostility from some of her fellow soldiers, she faces the extent to which some men will go to exclude women from certain spaces. A scene in which Gunjan’s commanding officer Dileep Singh (Viineet Kumar) finally tells her why he doesn’t think she belongs is heartbreaking. Kapoor handles the scene with grace and finesse.

The film’s action sequences when Gunjan is called into service during the Kargil War are well-executed and thrilling. The cinematic license Sharma takes with events ramps up the excitement and emotional resonance.

There’s a lovely scene in which Gunjan discusses the meaning of patriotism with her father, asking whether the desire to fly is sufficient reason to join the Air Force. Anup — a career military man himself — replies that patriotism isn’t measured by who shouts slogans the loudest, but by whether one does their duty to the best of their ability. It’s a fitting way to distill the real Gunjan Saxena’s approach to her life and a fine way to describe Janhvi Kapoor’s portrayal of her.

Links

Streaming Video News: August 21, 2020

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with today’s addition of the Netflix Original crime drama Class of ’83, starring Bobby Deol. Director Ashutosh Gowariker’s disappointing romantic comedy What’s Your Raashee? returned to the service after a month away.

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with dozens of Indian titles added in the week, including two Abhishek Bachchan films: Bluffmaster! (which is good) and Raavan (which is really good). Amazon announced a September 1 release date for the new Malayalam movie C U Soon and a September 5 release date for Nani’s new Telugu film V.

TV Review: Indian Matchmaking (2020)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Indian Matchmaking on Netflix

Indian Matchmaking took Twitter by storm as soon as it premiered on Netflix. Perhaps Delhi Belly actress Poorna Jagannathan summed up the early reaction best with her tweet: “#IndianMatchmaking was horrifying. Also, #Netflix, how soon can you drop season 2 (asking for a friend)”.

Indian Matchmaking features Mumbai-based professional matchmaker Sima Taparia trying to find suitable partners for singles in India and the United States, setting them up on dates and bringing in experts like a life coach, astrologer, and face reader when necessary.

The series is quick to get through, with most of its eight episodes clocking in at under forty minutes. The first episode introduces three characters who are effective hooks: likable Nadia from New Jersey; Texas lawyer and excellent reality TV villain Aparna (who at one point says, “You know how I hate comedy”); and Mumbai jewelry designer Pradhyuman, who would rather be anywhere else than on this show and is cringey to watch as a result.

But Indian Matchmaking has some serious issues, often because of what goes unchallenged by the show. Yashica Dutt wrote a great article in The Atlantic about the show’s inherent casteism. Taparia frequently touts potential prospects’ “fair” complexions, but the show doesn’t address the obvious colorism in her remarks.

Part of the problem is that Indian Matchmaking — a Netflix Original series — was made with no input from Netflix India. It’s an American creation from Los Angeles-based filmmaker Smriti Mundhra, who was apparently the only South Asian involved in the production, according to Variety.

Besides the show’s social and cultural problems, there’s also the fact that it’s just not that well made. Mundhra received awards for her 2017 documentary A Suitable Girl, which also deals with arranged marriage and also stars Taparia. But a 90-minute film is different than an 8-episode series, and Mundhra doesn’t nail the transition from one medium to the other.

Casting is an issue. Over a hundred potential subjects were narrowed down to eight people willing to have their romantic lives scrutinized on TV. Of the eight, the only reliable content generator is Aparna, who appears in five of the show’s episodes. Nadia is gone after three episodes. Pradhyuman’s exit in Episode 5 overlaps with the introduction of the series’ most tragic figure, Akshay — another rich Mumbai guy who wants even less to do with the show than Pradhyuman, but whose overbearing mother Preeti is so desperate to show the world how wealthy her family is that she happily sacrifices her son.

Akshay features in four episodes, as does Texas school counselor Vyasar. Delhi fashion designer Ankita stars in three, while single mother Rupam is only in two episodes. The eighth and final single is a woman whose name I don’t even remember who is introduced in the last ten minutes of the series.

If Mundhra intended for each cast member to get his or her own episode, that clearly wasn’t going to work. Besides the two cringey guys who didn’t want to be there, a couple of the women realized during filming that there were either better ways to meet available men or that they weren’t as interested in marriage as they thought they were.

To make up for that lack of usable material, Mundhra stretches storylines in some places and recycles them in others. Episodes 5 and 6 both end with Vyasar mentioning his need to have the same important conversation with his date, Rashi. If that conversation ever happened, it didn’t make it into the show.

Almost every character’s story ends with them on a positive date, but with no clear closure to their storyline. Aparna does goat yoga with a nice guy named Jay, and then she’s just gone. I guess we’re supposed to assume that they lived happily ever after? (The LA Times, Oprah magazine, and Esquire wrote follow up articles about whether any of the relationships formed on the show succeeded.)

Beyond the more serious negative cultural impact of Indian Matchmaking, bad casting and deceptive editing make the series unsatisfying to watch. I’m sure it’ll get renewed for a second season, but I don’t need to see it.

Streaming Video News: August 14, 2020

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with the addition of Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, a new biopic starring Janhvi Kapoor as the first woman to fly in combat for the Indian Air Force. An uplifting film to catch while you can is 2015’s Dhanak, which expires from Netflix on August 20. Two siblings trek across Rajasthan on foot hoping to find Shah Rukh Khan, who they believe can cure the little boy’s blindness. It’s really, really good.

Netflix also released the trailer for the new Original series Masaba Masaba, a fictionalized version of the life of fashion designer Masaba Gupta (daughter of actress Neena Gupta). Both Gupta women star in the series, and the trailer highlights a few celebrity guest cameos.

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with dozens of Indian films added in the last week, including a bunch of Hindi titles from Reliance Entertainment and Shemaroo Entertainment. Here are the ones I’ve reviewed:

If you watch any of these movies, make it Love Story 2050. The vision for the future laid out in this sci-fi flick Priyanka Chopra wishes we’d all forget is hilarious in the worst possible ways. I’d have to re-watch it to be sure, but it might qualify as “so bad, it’s good.”

Vidyut Jammwal’s new action flick Khuda Haafiz debuted on Hotstar today. The streamer also unveiled the trailer for Sanjay Dutt’s Sadak 2, which premieres on August 28.

Streaming Video News: August 6, 2020

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with 30 new Indian titles added in the last week, including the new Amazon Original Hindi series Bandish Bandits (also in 4K UHD). The music-themed show features a soundtrack by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, who were among the participants in a concert of songs from the series that streamed live on YouTube. Watch it here:

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with an August 21 premiere date for the Netflix Original Hindi film Class of ’83, starring Bobby Deol. The trailer launches later tonight.

Kasey Moore of What’s on Netflix analyzed all of Netflix’s content across all languages and found that 10% of the movies and series on Netflix are in Hindi (552 titles total). That’s the second highest percentage after English (55%, or 3,186 titles). And in case you missed it, head to What’s on Netflix to check out my roundup of all the new Indian content added to Netflix in July.

Hotstar announced an August 28 release date for Sadak 2, starring Pooja Bhatt, Sanjay Dutt, Aditya Roy Kapur, and Alia Bhatt.