Movie Review: Bulbbul (2020)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Bulbbul on Netflix

With her first go as a feature film director, screenwriter and lyricist Anvita Dutt proves herself a master of atmosphere in the gorgeous gothic horror movie Bulbbul.

The story begins in 1881 somewhere in the Bengal Presidency at the wedding of Bulbbul (Ruchi Mahajan), a precocious 5-year-old who doesn’t really understand what’s happening. She is reassured in the carriage ride to her new home by Satya (Varun Buddhadev), a boy a few years older than her that she assumes is the person she’s been married to. Only upon arriving at the lavish estate of Lord Indranil (Rahul Bose) does she learn that her husband is not Satya but Indranil himself, Satya’s much older brother.

While Indranil waits for his child-bride to grow up, Bulbbul and Satya become inseparable companions. He regales her with legends of the “demon woman,” a witch who prowls the trees at night on feet turned backwards, hoping to find the little princess and gobble her up. They share the palace with Indranil’s identical twin brother Mahendra (also Bose) — who has an intellectual disability and an unsettling fascination with Bulbbul — and Mahendra’s beautiful but jealous wife, Binodini (Paoli Dam).

Two decades later, Satya (now Avinash Tiwary) returns home after several years abroad to find his home radically changed. Mahendra was murdered, Binodini lives in a colony with other widows, Indranil left the palace, and Bulbbul (now Tripti Dimri) rules in his place. The bookish, demure girl Satya remembers has become confident and aloof. She lounges, fanning herself with an ostentatious fan made of peacock feathers. Satya asks Bulbbul, “Where did the sweet little lady I knew disappear? What did you do with her?” “I gobbled her up,” she teases.

Something is clearly wrong in the jurisdiction, but what is a matter of opinion. Satya wants to solve a series unexplained murders, including Mahendra’s. There’s also the matter of the blood-red night sky and sense of foreboding that pervades the woods around the palace. But Bulbbul and her close confidant, Dr. Sudip (Parambrata Chattopadhyay), are more concerned about domestic issues, like the suspicious injuries sustained by Master Dinkar’s wife.

Violence against women is a theme throughout the film, and a couple of scenes are quite brutal. Not the scenes of violence themselves, but shots of the grisly aftermath. Dutt is careful not to make the violent acts in any way titillating. The scenes are simply sad, accompanied by a heartbreaking musical theme from composer Amit Trivedi.

Rather than focusing on the violent acts themselves, the story highlights a key mechanism that allows such violence against women to go unchecked: the otherwise good men who refuse to see it, as personified by Satya. He’s not violent, but he won’t believe that the men around him are. When Bulbbul and Sudip bring up Master Dinkar (Subhasis Chakraborty), Satya’s first reaction is to call him “a fine man.” Satya is so ensconced within the ruling patriarchy that he assumes that the way other men treat him is the way they treat everyone, and he’s willing to accept their version of events without question. Satya is more suspicious of those who challenge his perception of reality — especially an outsider, like Sudip.

Tiwary is successful at portraying Satya as a nice enough guy who just doesn’t get it, but whose ignorance has devastating consequences. Dimri’s ability to convey how much Bulbbul adores Satya amplifies the significance of those consequences.

Dimri has to play essentially two characters: Bulbbul before Satya leaves, and Bulbbul after he returns. She’s so good at both, but she’s particularly fun to watch as Bulbbul the ruler. The film’s best scenes are between Bulbbul and Sudip, Satya’s foil. Chattopadhyay is terrific when he plays the sidekick to a powerful woman, as he did in Kahaani.

Bulbbul‘s most memorable element is its color palette. Dutt uses filters liberally to set the mood of scenes, deploying super saturated tones for specific effect. The red night sky is discomforting, but it’s surprisingly bright. By contrast, the interior of the palace after dark is a heavy blue that allows shadows to proliferate. It doesn’t have the same unnatural quality of the sky outside, but it feels more dangerous. Dutt’s bold and effective use of color in Bulbbul sets a high bar for her next project — one that she seems more than capable of reaching.

Links

Streaming Video News: December 5, 2020

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with the addition of the new series Bhaag Beanie Bhaag, starring Swara Bhaskar as a woman chasing her dream of becoming a standup comic. The lauded animated film Bombay Rose was supposed to arrive on December 4, but a technical issue has delayed its release.

Some really good movies expire from Netflix on December 8, so watch them while you still can:

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with a bunch of Indian titles added this week, including the premieres of the Telugu film Bombhaat and the sports docuseries Sons of the Soil: Jaipur Pink Panthers.

Just a reminder that Friday, December 11 has a couple of big new Hindi streaming releases: Sanjay Dutt’s Torbaaz on Netflix and Bhumi Pednekar’s Durgamati on Amazon Prime. Amazon often launches their Indian titles at midnight in India, which means Durgamati will likely be available the afternoon of Thursday, December 10 in the United States.

[Disclaimer: all of my Amazon links include an affiliate tag, and I may earn a commission on purchases made via those links. Thanks for helping to support this website!]

Movie Review: Laxmii (2020)

0.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Laxmii on Hotstar

Is it possible for a film to be longer than its actual runtime? Laxmii sure feels like it is. Every time I paused the movie — which released directly on the streaming service Hotstar — I swear, there was always more time remaining than there was before.

Laxmii isn’t just boring, although it is painfully that. The more you watch, the more you realize how vapid it is. Plot elements and characters are plucked from a generic pool of comedy tropes and carelessly thrown together, with no attempt at continuity or resolution. Any social issues raised are examined with so little depth that the film offers no meaningful insight into them. One might forgive these flaws if Laxmii was funny, but it isn’t.

Akshay Kumar plays Asif, a debunker of superstitions. He stops a public demonstration against a suspected witch, exposing the fraudulent holy man conducting it. The woman on trial — who has a swollen lip and visible hand-prints on her face from a beating doled out by her husband — tells Asif, “You saved my marriage.” Ack. Laxmii is way, way too comfortable with violence against women, with this sequence being but one example of many.

Frequent violence against women also makes the film feel dated, as though it’s cobbled together from elements from movies from decades ago. Take Asif’s marriage to Rashmi (Kiara Advani). She’s introduced in one of the most tired ways: fretting that Asif forgot their wedding anniversary. Advani isn’t given much to work with in Laxmii, but her performance is not good. Neither is Kumar’s.

Asif and Rashmi are estranged from her family because her father Sachin (Rajesh Sharma) disapproves of Asif’s Muslim faith. Religious differences are irrelevant to the plot, but rather than write real conflict, writer-director Raghava Lawrence went with the default reason Bollywood movie parents disapprove of their child’s choice of spouse.

Let’s talk about Rashmi’s family. The logic that went into casting the actors makes no sense. The real age of the actor is in parentheses in the list below, followed by each actor’s role in Laxmii:

  • Akshay Kumar (53 years) — Rashmi’s husband, Asif
  • Ashwini Kalsekar (50 years) — Rashmi’s sister-in-law, Ashwini
  • Manu Rishi Chadha (49 years, 10 months) — Rashmi’s brother, Deepak
  • Rajesh Sharma (49 years, 1 month) — Rashmi’s father, Sachin
  • Ayesha Raza Mishra (43 years) — Rashmi’s mother, Ratna
  • Kiara Advani (28 years) — Rashmi

Somehow, Rashmi’s brother is played by an actor older than the actors playing his parents. Rashmi’s mother is younger than everyone except for Rashmi. And here’s the thing: everyone looks pretty much their real age (save for some “old lady” makeup for Rashmi’s mom). Besides the ick factor of Kumar romancing someone 25 years his junior, trying to pass Rishi Chadha off as young enough to be Sharma’s or Raza Mishra’s son is preposterous.

Asif and Rashmi head to her family’s house for her parents 25th wedding anniversary (*record scratch sound effect*) — hold on, Manu Rishi Chadha is supposed to be younger than 24 years old or younger?!? Rarely does a review warrant calling out the casting director, but what the heck is going on here, Parag Mehta?

Strange things start happening when Asif ignores advice and gets some kids to play cricket on a vacant lot that everyone insists is haunted — because it is. [Side note: one of those kids is Asif’s orphaned nephew Shaan, who disappears in the second half of the movie and is never mentioned again.] When Asif brings his cricket stumps into the house covered in blood and human tissue that no one acknowledges as such, he brings the spirit of the dead person with him. The ghost terrorizes Ratna and Ashwini, who do lots and lots and lots of screaming that is supposed to be funny but isn’t. They aren’t able to exorcise the spirit before it takes possession of Asif.

The spirit is that of a transgender woman named Laxmii (Sharad Kelkar), who loves fashion and beauty treatments. Watching Akshay Kumar sashay and wear bangles is not the height of comedy that director Lawrence thinks it is. Nor does the fact that Asif is supposed to be possessed by a woman at the time make the image of Akshay Kumar striking Ashwini Kalsekar any less troubling.

Flashbacks show how Laxmii met her untimely fate and explain why her spirit has been unable to move on. We also see her give a touching speech about how transgender people deserve the same love and opportunities as everyone else. That could have made the story feel progressive, had Lawrence not promptly followed it by reinforcing harmful superstitions about the supernatural abilities of transgender people.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect more from a movie that thought these cringeworthy lines from Asif were a fitting way to sum up its moral message: “Frankly there wasn’t much difference between Laxmii and me. I would eradicate the fear of ghosts in people. And Laxmii wanted to eradicate the ghost of inequality from society.” It’s so, so terrible.

Links

Streaming Video News: November 12, 2020

Bollywood fans have two brand new movies to choose from today — both starring Rajkummar Rao. On Netflix, Rao features in the dark comedy Ludo as part of an ensemble that includes Abhishek Bachchan, Aditya Roy Kapoor, Sanya Malhotra, Fatima Sana Shaikh, and Pankaj Tripathi. On Amazon Prime, Rao and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub play rival gym teachers in director Hansal Mehta’s comedy Chhalaang (also available in 4K UHD).

Today’s new releases cap off a busy holiday week on streaming that started with Laxmii‘s Hotstar premiere on Monday. Yesterday, Soorarai Pottru debuted on Prime in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and Telugu (under the title Aakaasam Nee Haddhu Ra).

Lots of other Indian titles have been added to Amazon Prime in the last few days, so head over to my Prime list to see what’s new. And don’t forget to check my Netflix list to see what’s new and what titles are expiring soon. Have a wonderful Diwali!

[Disclaimer: all of my Amazon links include an affiliate tag, and I may earn a commission on purchases made via those links. Thanks for helping to support this website!]

Streaming Video News: November 9, 2020

A week of new releases to celebrate Diwali kicked off with today’s premiere of the Akshay Kumar horror comedy Laxmii on Hotstar. Thursday, November 12 sees the debut of the ensemble dark comedy Ludo on Netflix and the Tamil film Soorari Pottru on Amazon Prime. Finally, the social comedy Chhalaang premieres on Amazon Prime on Friday, November 13.

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with the new release Gatham, which is available in Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu. There’s been a ton of upheaval on Prime in the last week, with hundreds of titles disappearing — some for several days — only for most of them to reappear on the service. The listings at my page are now up-to-date, but it did mean hours of ultimately pointless work for me. 😦 I wish Amazon handled its contract renewals and expirations as seamlessly as Netflix does.

Speaking of which, 21 Indian shows and movies are set to expire from Netflix on November 15. The full list is available on my Netflix page under the “Expiring Soon” section near the top of the page. Of the expiring films, these are the ones that I’ve reviewed:

[Disclaimer: all of my Amazon links include an affiliate tag, and I may earn a commission on purchases made via those links. Thanks for helping to support this website!]

Streaming Video News: October 30, 2020

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with today’s release of the Original Hindi horror film Kaali Khuhi. Netflix also launched the trailer for the Telugu movie Miss India, which debuts on November 3.

The following titles expire from Netflix on November 1:

I also updated my list of Bollywood titles on Amazon Prime with lots of Indian and Pakistani titles added this week, including the premiere of the new Kannada film Bheemasena Nalamaharaja.

In other streaming video news, pressure from Karni Sena forced the producers of Laxmmi Bomb to change the title of their forthcoming film to Laxmii. The Akshay Kumar horror-comedy releases on Hotstar on November 9.

Movie Review: Khuda Haafiz (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Khuda Haafiz (“May God Be Your Protector“) is the next step in action star Vidyut Jammwal’s shift away from characters who are ready-made killing machines and toward roles that require him to give a more complicated emotional performance. Sure, he still breaks arms and lands plenty of punches, but carnage isn’t the main goal.

Instead of playing a commando, a cop, or a villain, this time Jammwal plays Sameer Chaudhary — the world’s buffest software engineer. The film opens in March, 2008, with a battered Sameer begging the Indian ambassador to the fictitious Middle Eastern country of Noman (which I constantly misread as “Boman,” as in “Boman Irani”) for help finding his missing wife. The ambassador says, “I need every detail. Start from the beginning.” Boy, does Sameer comply.

Flashback to the beginnings of Sameer’s romance with his wife Nargis (Shivaleeka Oberoi), which started a year earlier in India. The two were set up by their parents and fell deeply in love. After a few blissful months, the global recession hit, shuttering Sameer’s small business and putting Nargis out of a job at her call center.

With no work on the horizon, the two apply for jobs in Noman through a broker named Nadeem (Vipin Sharma). The film establishes the grim local economic situation and why moving to a foreign country for temporary employment seems worth the risk. Nargis’s work permit and travel documents arrive first. Nadeem assures Sameer that his documents will arrive in a few days and encourages Nargis to fly to Noman with a group of other women.

The following day, Sameer gets a panicked call from Nargis that she’s been kidnapped. The job she’d applied for had been a ruse, with Nadeem serving as the front for an international sex trafficking ring. Armed with only Nadeem’s dubious information, Sameer flies to Noman to rescue his wife.

It’s refreshing to see Jammwal mix things up and play a character who does not have a set of skills suited to this exact situation. His programming background gives him insight into how to get some information from a cell phone carrier, but that’s really the only advantage he has. He doesn’t even speak the local language — which winds up not being an issue because all the important people in Noman conveniently speak Hindi.

Most important of the people Sameer meets is a cab driver named Usman (Annu Kapoor). He sees Sameer’s distress and feels obligated to help as a matter of faith. Usman helps Sameer connect enough of the dots that the two actually find Nargis. A subsequent sequence in which Sameer has to let go of Nargis’ hand in order to save her is beautifully filmed to make it look as though she’s swallowed up by a sea of goons. Kudos to cinematographer Jitan Harmeet Singh for that wonderful shot.

During Sameer’s attempted rescue attempt, Jammwal does an excellent job performing Sameer as a guy who is not a professional stuntman. Sameer hesitates before jumping from dangerous heights, only doing so when he has no choice. He fights like it’s a matter of self-preservation, not like a guy who knows from the start that he’ll win. Nevertheless, the action scenes are entertaining as always.

Jammwal’s acting isn’t exactly subtle. Though, to be fair, Sameer is frequently panicked or angry. And when Khuda Haafiz is sad, it’s really sad. Jammwal’s performance is appropriately restrained in the film’s love song montages. Oberoi is competent in the few scenes she’s in. Kapoor is quite good, as are Shiv Panditt and Aahana Kumra, who play a pair of Nomani security agents who help Sameer find Nargis.

Overall, Khuda Haafiz is well-executed and accessible to a wide audience. It appeals to Jammwal’s core action fanbase while expanding its reach to include viewers who may want more plot than butt-kicking.

Links

Streaming Video News: October 13, 2020

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with the recent addition of the Netflix Original Hindi romantic comedy Ginny Weds Sunny. Other Hindi films added today include Dil, Disco Dancer, Fida, Phir Hera Pheri, and Hunterrr, which has good performances by Gulshan Devaiah and Radhika Apte.

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with a bunch of Indian content added over the weekend, as well as today’s premiere of the English-language Desi horror film Evil Eye.

Amazon recently revealed its lineup of global premieres for the rest of 2020, and it features three notable Hindi titles. Director Hansal Mehta’s Chhalaang stars Rajkummar Rao and debuts on November 13; Bhumi Pednekar’s thriller Durgavati launches on December 11; and Varun Dhawan’s reboot of Coolie No. 1 premieres on Christmas. Here’s Amazon’s announced lineup of Indian titles for the next three months:

  • Halal Love Story (2020/Malayalam) — coming October 15 [trailer]
  • Putham Pudhu Kaalai (2020/Tamil) — coming October 16 [trailer]
  • Mirzapur, Season 2 (2020) — coming October 23 [trailer]
  • Bheema Sena Nalamaharaja (2020/Kannada) — coming October 29
  • Soorari Pottru (2020/Tamil) — coming October 30
  • Chhalaang (2020) — coming November 13
  • Manne Number 13 (2020/Kannada) — coming November 19
  • Middle Class Melodies (2020/Telugu) — coming November 20
  • Durgavati (2020) — coming December 11
  • Maara (2020/Tamil) — coming December 17
  • Coolie No. 1 (2020) — coming December 25

[Disclaimer: all of my Amazon links include an affiliate tag, and I may earn a commission on purchases made via those links. Thanks for helping to support this website!]

Theater Update: October 6, 2020

With Khaali Peeli presently showing at the AMC South Barrington 24 in South Barrington, I checked to see which of the Chicago area theaters that regularly carry Bollywood films are currently operating, and under what terms. If the government ruling allowing cinemas in India to reopen later this month prompts new Bollywood films to release theatrically, will there be a home for them here?

In the Chicago area, the answer is a definitive: probably? AMC theaters are obviously open, though hours and days of operation vary by location. The region’s only all-Indian theater — MovieMax Cinemas in Niles — is closed indefinitely because of the pandemic. Regal Entertainment is closing all 536 of its US theaters on Thursday, October 8, which takes out the Cantera (which carries almost every Hindi release) as well as the Regal Round Lake Beach.

Marcus Theaters in Addison and Elgin are open Friday-Sunday and Tuesday. You can order concessions online and pick them up in cinema for your own movie night or game night at home, which is pretty tempting (especially since I’m writing this right before lunch).

Theaters in the Cinemark family like Seven Bridges, Stratford Square, and Deer Park are open Friday-Sunday. Those theaters are traditionally more dependent upon new releases out of South India than Bollywood, but that may change since cinemas are desperate for new content.

Cinemark has a really cool (but pricey) program right now called the Private Watch Party. You can rent an entire screen for you and a group of up to 20 people to watch a new release or classic film all by yourselves. Locally, new releases are priced at $149, and older films at $99. My husband and I are planning to do this for just the two of us when Dune releases on December 18. [Scratch that: Dune just got pushed to October 21, 2021.] I’m not sure if this deal will apply to any Bollywood or South Indian films that may open in Cinemark theaters, but it could be a good option if you’re concerned about safety and/or if you have a large family.

It’s still unclear what the next Indian movie to open in Chicago theaters after Khaali Peeli would be. All of this could be moot if A) a spike in infections triggers theater closures in all or part of the region, or B) theater chains decide it’s not financially viable to operate under current conditions without blockbuster Hollywood content. For now, the take away is: if you feel it’s safe to return to cinemas and are desperate to watch an Indian movie on the big screen, head to South Barrington for Khaali Peeli while you can. Or you can just stay home, like me.

Update: In response to Regal’s planned closure later this week, AMC and Cinemark have vowed to continue operating during the pandemic, according to CNBC. Just to add some further perspective, when Baaghi 3 released on March 6, it did so in thirteen local theaters: 7 AMC theaters, 1 Cinemark, 2 Marcus, 2 Regal, and 1 independent (MovieMax). As of now, only three of those theaters will be closed if/when a new Bollywood title releases locally.