Amazon Prime Video India held a big press event today to announce the slate of original and licensed Indian content they plan to release over the next two years. The company’s YouTube channel published a short video with footage from some of the featured titles:
The presentation also included mention of three “special collaborations” and co-productions, which will presumably get theatrical releases before streaming on Prime. Those are Tiku Weds Shiru (starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Avneet Kaur), Neeyat (Vidya Balan), and Ram Setu (Akshay Kumar).
On top of all that, Amazon went ahead and announced all of the titles that fall under their licensing associations with production houses Ajay Devgn Ffilms, Dharma Productions, Excel Entertainment, and Yash Raj Films for their forthcoming theatrical releases. Here are all the Hindi movies that will make their way onto Prime after their theatrical runs are over (by order of theatrical release date if known, then alphabetical):
Govinda Naam Mera
Jug Jugg Jeeyo
Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani
Jee Le Zara
Kho Gaye Hain Hum Kahan
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In other Netflix news, Dear Zindagi expired today. I guess they hit their Alia Bhatt limit with Gangubai Kathiawadi and had to let one of her other pictures go.
I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with a release date for their Hindi anthology Modern Love: Mumbai. It debuts on Friday, May 13 (so probably the afternoon of May 12 in the US). The anthology lineup is seriously impressive:
RAAT RANI – directed by Shonali Bose, starring Fatima Sana Shaikh, Bhupendra Jadawat, and Dilip Prabhavalkar
BAAI – directed by Hansal Mehta, starring Tanuja, Pratik Gandhi, and Ranveer Brar
MUMBAI DRAGON – directed by Vishal Bhardwaj, starring Yeo Yann Yann, Meiyang Chang, Wamiqa Gabbi, and Naseeruddin Shah
MY BEAUTIFUL WRINKLES – directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, starring Sarika, Danesh Razvi, Ahsaas Channa, and Tanvi Azmi
I LOVE THANE – directed by Dhruv Sehgal, starring Masaba Gupta, Ritwik Bhowmik, Prateik Babbar, Aadar Malik, and Dolly Singh
CUTTING CHAI – directed by Nupur Asthana, starring Chitrangda Singh, and Arshad Warsi
Finally, I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Hulu with the premiere of the limited spin-off series Anupama: Namaste America. New episode debut daily at 1 p.m. CT in the US, with the final episode dropping on April 28. Hulu also revealed the trailer for their new Hotstar Special Hindi series Home Shanti, premiering May 6.
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.
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.
In other Netflix news, the Malayalam film Night Drive debuts on the service in the US in the early afternoon on April 9. Also, the title of the upcoming Netflix Original Hindi film Jaadugar — which I wrote about in my 2022 preview for What’s on Netflix — has been changed to Love Goals.
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.
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.
2021 was a rough year, and one of the things that had to take a backseat for me was movie reviews. After a few months of catching up on some of last year’s releases, I feel like I’ve finally seen enough to pick some titles for my annual Best of and Worst of lists.
Here are my best and worst Bollywood movies of 2021, starting with the best:
Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar is one of director Dibakar Banerjee’s finest films — which is saying a lot, considering his sterling body of work! Parineeti Chopra and Arjun Kapoor play a banker and her kidnapper on the run from assassins out to kill both of them. It’s a beautifully-paced thriller that allows enough time for substantial character development as well as an examination of the expectations and limitations placed on women by patriarchy and capitalism. It’s for sure my favorite film of 2021.
Bollywood has produced several successful horror comedies in recent years, and Bhoot Police is right on trend. Saif Ali Khan and Arjun Kapoor (again!) play brothers who conduct sham exorcisms, only to find out that ghosts might be real after all. Themes about sibling bonds and the unique relationship each child has with their parents are expertly woven into the story. I’m jealous of the terrific screenplay, written by the trio of director Pavan Kirpalani, editor Pooja Ladha Surti, and co-writer Sumit Batheja.
Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui is Bollywood’s first mainstream romantic comedy with a transgender lead. Though it might have benefited from more transgender representation in front of and behind the camera, it does demonstrate the commercial viability of stories about transgender people. Plus, it’s a very enjoyable movie with likeable, complex leading characters.
Of course, 2021 also had its share of duds as well. Here are my worst movies of the year:
Dybbuk is a ghost story with nothing to say about anything. It’s not even fun in a stupid way.
Bhuj: The Pride of India chronicles an interesting part of India’s 1971 war with Pakistan, but the story as it’s told is truncated to fit into a single movie. This would have been better as a series.
The title of Worst Bollywood Movie of 2021 belongs to the dreadful Akshay Kumar action flick Sooryavanshi. Part of director Rohit Shetty’s “cop universe,” Sooryavanshi the character is annoying. Sooryavanshi the movie is lazily written and hateful toward Muslims. I’m not sure why Shetty felt like he had to expand his “universe” (just kidding, of course I know: $$$), but he’d have been better off just making Singham sequels until the end of time.
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.
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.