Tag Archives: 1 Star

Movie Review: Coolie No. 1 (2020)

1 Star (out of 4)

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One of the questions at the heart of Coolie No. 1 is, “Why can’t a poor man marry a rich woman?” In this case, the answer is: “Because he doesn’t deserve her.”

Coolie No. 1 is a remake of the 1995 film of the same name, both of which are directed by David Dhawan. I have not seen the original, so this review will focus solely on the remake.

The coolie in question this time is Raju (Varun Dhawan), head of the porters at a railway station in Mumbai. Raju defends his elderly coworker from an abusive jerk Mahesh (Vikas Verma), not with his wits but with his fists. In the scuffle, Mahesh is exposed as a drug dealer and arrested.

One witness to the fight is pandit Jai Kishen (Javed Jaffrey), who is on his way home after bringing a prospective groom to the mansion of hotelier Jeffrey Rosario (Paresh Rawal). When Rosario insults Jai Kishen and the groom, declaring that his daughters will only marry men even richer than himself, Jai Kishen vows revenge. He plans to trick Rosario into getting his daughter Sarah (Sara Ali Khan) married to a poor man, and Raju seems like the perfect pawn for his scheme. Raju takes one look at a photo of Sarah and is onboard.

Raju poses as Raj, the son of the king of Singapore. Sarah is smitten with how humble Raj is despite being so rich, and Rosario is smitten with Raj’s apparent fortune. Only after the handsome couple is wed does Rosario begin to doubt Raj’s identity. When Rosario spots Raj working at his old job, the coolie improvises, inventing a heretofore unmentioned identical twin brother — compounding his original lie and making things exponentially more complicated.

It’s hard to buy in to Coolie No. 1, because it never acknowledges the harm done to Sarah for the sake of chastening her father. Sarah is tricked into falling for a man who lies to her about his identity, promises her a lifestyle he knows he can’t deliver, then traps her in a legally binding marriage contract. Would she have married him if she’d known he was working class? Maybe. We have no way of knowing.

Part of that is because Sarah is written as an empty shell. She’s too vapid to be suspicious of Raju. She earnestly fears for his safety when his charade keeps him away from home overnight. She eagerly tackles the housework in their dilapidated apartment, as though she didn’t grow up in a mansion full of servants (I guess women are just supposed to be innately good at cleaning). She’s a beautiful blank slate who reacts the way the plot needs her to react.

Coolie No. 1 is yet another film that thinks goodness is conferred upon its main character just by virtue of his being the main character, regardless of what he actually does. It’s significant that Raju doesn’t tell Sarah the truth until she accidentally discovers his deception. He wasn’t struck by a pang of conscience, nor did he try to enlist her help. He planned to keep lying to her indefinitely. How exactly does that make him a good guy?

For non-Hindi speakers, jokes in Bollywood comedies don’t always survive the translation via subtitles. But much of the wordplay humor in Coolie No. 1 is in English, and it’s still not funny. Rosario’s rhyming shtick and Raju’s Mithun Chakraborthy impression grow tired almost immediately. The physical humor in the movie isn’t amusing either.

As for the film’s positive points, it does have a number of entertaining, large-scale dance numbers (although the one where Rosario peeps through the window of his daughter’s hotel room while she’s on her honeymoon is creepy). Shikha Talsania and Sahil Vaid are likable as Sarah’s sister Anju and Raju’s friend Deepak, respectively, who fall in love amidst the drama.

Varun Dhawan and Sara Ali Khan are both forgettable. In fact, let’s just forget this remake ever happened.

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Movie Review: Durgamati (2020)

1 Star (out of 4)

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Durgamati: The Myth‘s intriguing first half is undone by its messy, twist-happy conclusion.

Writer-director G. Ashok stuck closely to the premise of his 2018 bilingual film Bhaagamathie for this Hindi remake. Bhumi Pednekar takes over the role of an imperiled bureaucrat from Anuskha Shetty.

Pednekar plays civil servant Chanchal Chauhan. Her long association with the squeaky-clean politician Ishwar Prasad (Arshad Warsi) brings her to the attention of the Central Bureau of Investigations. The CBI has been tasked with finding dirt on Prasad because his righteousness is making his fellow politicians look bad. Prasad has promised to leave the country in fifteen days if he can’t find the culprits who’ve been stealing ancient idols from remote village temples — a high standard other politicians don’t want to be held to.

Chanchal is an easy target because she’s in prison awaiting trial for killing her fiance Shakti (Karan Kapadia) — a crime that seems out of character from what little we know about her. Shakti’s vengeful brother Abhay (Jisshu Sengupta) is the police chief responsible for Chanchal’s safety after the CBI moves her to an abandoned palace in the jungle. Locals believe the mansion is haunted, so there’s no chance of anyone interrupting the CBI’s illegal interrogation.

Before Partition, the palace was the home of Queen Durgamati, known for merciless treatment of her enemies. Chanchal is locked in the mansion alone, only brought out during the day for fruitless questioning by CBI Director Satakshi Ganguly (Mahie Gill). Night after night, unseen forces torment Chanchal, psychologically and physically. A psychiatrist and a holy man disagree on the cause of the problem, but one thing is clear: Chanchal is not safe in Durgamati’s palace.

It’s hard to talk about any of the events after this point in the story without getting into spoiler territory. But we can examine what’s happened so far for indications of the kinds of problems that turn the ending into a total circus.

Take the plan to move Chanchal to the palace. The isolation is a selling point, but the mansion is huge and would be difficult to secure. It likely has numerous servants’ exits and other means of egress, but Abhay’s police team padlocks the front gate and calls it a day. Chanchal stays in the mansion alone, while the two cops assigned to guard her sleep in a shack beyond the gate. (The officers periodically get comic side bits that don’t fit the tone of the film at all.) Abhay has cameras installed in the mansion — hard to see how since the layers of dust inside are undisturbed and all the police are too scared to enter — but he doesn’t put one in Chanchal’s bedroom. No one from Satakshi’s CBI team sticks around to monitor the camera feeds overnight anyway. Chanchal could sneak out, and no one would be the wiser until morning.

The point of all this is that director Ashok wanted to use the palace setting no matter what, without thinking through all of the problems the setting presented. This inattention to detail gets worse as the story progresses, diffusing the sense of mystery built in the first half. Events happen for the sake of dramatic twists, and not because they would logically happen that way. Many of the solutions provided aren’t hinted at beforehand, but rather conjured as if by magic.

Gill and Sengupta are careful not to overplay their characters, both of whom undergo some welcome growth. Pednekar and Warsi are good in the parts of the script that allow them to be, less so in the moments that would have been hard for anyone to make convincing.

Throughout the film, elaborate plans like the palace interrogation scheme hinge on characters behaving in very specific ways. When a whole plan could come unraveled if one person makes an unexpected choice, says the wrong thing, or steps in the wrong direction, it strains credulity. Durgamati isn’t detail-oriented enough to be believable.

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Movie Review: Total Dhamaal (2019)

1 Star (out of 4)

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The good thing about watching Total Dhamaal on DVD is that my DVD player has a 1.5x speed option. Sitting through this at normal speed would be unbearable.

Total Dhamaal is a reboot of the Dhamaal franchise that began over a decade ago. It features some of the same actors but has nothing to do with the earlier movies. It’s an unofficial adaptation of the 1963 Hollywood comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Mad World henceforth), with disparate duos racing across the country in search of stolen loot.

The pilfered cash belongs to corrupt police commissioner Shamsher “Don” Singh (Boman Irani). Thieves Guddu (Ajay Devgn) and Johnny (Sanjay Mishra) brazenly steal Don’s money, only for their getaway driver Pintu (Manoj Pahwa) to run off with the suitcase full of cash himself.

After a series of interminable character introductions, Pintu is fatally injured in a plane crash in the middle of nowhere. He tells a bunch of motorists who come to check on him that he hid the money in a zoo hundreds of miles away. Those passersby include all the folks we met in the boring setup portion of the story: unhappily married couple Bindu (Madhuri Dixit Nene) and Avi (Anil Kapoor); good-for-nothing brothers Adi (Arshad Warsi) and Manav (Javed Jaffrey); and disgraced firefighters Lalaan (Riteish Deshmukh) and Jhingur (Pitobash Tripathy). Guddu and Johnny show up as well, but Pintu dies before confessing the exact location.

The duos hem and haw before agreeing that the first pair to find the money can keep it for themselves. Guddu and Johnny use trickery to get a head-start, but they run into Don and his sidekick Abbas (Vijay Patkar) along the way, who then join the pursuit as well.

There are some genuinely funny performances, which is not surprising given the caliber of the cast. Bindu’s withering stare when Avi’s “shortcut” gets them lost in a jungle is a highlight, as is the interplay between the crooked cops Don and Abbas. But director Indra Kumar’s poor storytelling gives his stars few opportunities to shine, weighing them down under a bloated plot and dull, repetitive jokes.

As obviously cribbed from Mad World as the film is, it’s baffling that Kumar and his writing team of Paritosh Painter, Ved Prakash, and Bunty Rathore didn’t use more of the original’s plot structure. In Mad World, the dying man’s revelation about the hidden money is the film’s opening scene, and the characters involved in the race are developed on the road. In Total Dhamaal, the deathbed confession doesn’t happen until forty minutes have elapsed, after all of the main players have been introduced in boring vignettes from their regular lives. These sequences are pointless because there is zero character development in Total Dhamaal, and it means that the road race only takes up about a third of the total runtime. The final third takes place at a zoo run by Prachi (Esha Gupta) that’s in danger of being demolished. The zoo’s monkey security guard is played by Hollywood monkey legend Crystal.

In order to pay his veteran cast, Kumar cut costs elsewhere. There is a remarkable amount of CGI used in the movie, even in the car chases. Almost all of Total Dhamaal was shot inside a studio, giving the movie a lifeless, artificial quality. While some footage of actual animals was used during the zoo sequences, for safety’s sake, there’s obviously a lot of compositing at work.

Total Dhamaal‘s great sin is that it isn’t funny. Jokes are extremely simplistic — often consisting of a man being kicked in the behind or almost hit in the crotch — but they are dragged out forever, as if it were possible for the audience to have missed something. The jokes also follow a formula: Character A notices danger over Character B’s shoulder and warns Character B three times before B finally turns and sees the trouble approaching. Then they both scream. This formula repeats multiple times, and it never gets any more clever. Scenes jump from one character duo to the next without any attempt at graceful transitions.

Sonakshi Sinha’s cameo in the song “Mungda” is the best part of Total Dhamaal, so I’ll just embed the song video below and save you the trouble of watching the movie.

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Movie Review: October (2018)

1 Star (out of 4)

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October is a difficult film to watch, but not for the reasons one might expect. The drama of a young woman’s life forever changed by injury is merely the backdrop for a too familiar story of an undeserving male character’s redemption.

Varun Dhawan stars as Dan, a hotel management trainee with no likeable qualities. He’s a snob who’d rather delegate work than do it himself, especially tasks he deems beneath him, like cleaning rooms and doing laundry. He’s a know-it-all who loves telling more experienced people how to do their jobs. He’s lazy, yet competitive enough to resent fellow trainees who are smarter and more capable than he is.

Among the trainees, the chief recipient of Dan’s bad attitude is Shiuli (Banita Sandhu). Whether his being a jerk to her indicates some kind of stunted elementary school-type crush or if it’s just his standard jerkiness is unclear. Shortly into the film, Shiuli slips from a third floor balcony at a New Year’s Eve party, rendering her comatose and permanently paralyzed.

Dan wasn’t at the party, so he only learns days after the accident that Shiuli’s last words before she fell were, “Where is Dan?” This sparks an obsession, leading Dan to spend all of his time at the hospital in the hopes that Shiuli will wake and tell him why she asked about him.

That sounds like the setup for horror movie, yet we know it can’t be, because Dan fits the mold of a common type of Bollywood hero: the boorish man-child who must finally become an adult. The arc for this character type is so familiar — in the course of falling in love with a good woman, he learns to care for someone other than himself — that director Shoojit Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi treat the hero’s emotional growth as the inevitable consequence of his devotion.

But Dan doesn’t change in October. He ends the movie as much of an obnoxious know-it-all as he is at the start, correcting Shiulu’s mother Vidya (Gitanjali Rao) on how to properly care for her daughter and wanting praise for his contributions (which include hovering over a workman building a ramp for a wheelchair).

Dan’s dedication to Shiuli’s recovery stems from his wanting an answer from her. He uses his obsession as a measure of moral superiority, criticizing her friends for not spending every free moment at the hospital. He can’t understand that they have other obligations — to the rest of their friends and families, and even to themselves — that they must tend to as well.

That’s because Dan’s misanthropy and willingness to ignore his own family leave him with no other relationships beside the one he invents with Shiuli, and he’s willing to sacrifice everything to maintain it. He skips work, stops paying rent to his roommate, and borrows money from everyone with no way to pay it back. He’s mean to hospital staff and other visitors.

But because Dan is the protagonist, his single-mindedness is depicted as positive. The little he does for Shiuli mitigates the rest of his awful behavior. On the rare occasions that he is punished, he fails upward. The movie is determined to maintain Dan’s hero status, in spite of his actions.

All of this is driven by a one-sided devotion. From all indications, Shiuli wasn’t interested in Dan romantically before her accident, and they were barely more than acquaintances. Does she like him hanging around her at all times? If not, she’s physically unable to tell him to leave. Would she want him involved in the minutiae of her healthcare, monitoring things as intimate as the amount of urine in her catheter bag?

In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Sircar said that he and Chaturvedi drew on their own experiences caring for seriously ill parents when creating October. Yet the amount of influence Dan has over Shiuli’s care feels unrealistic. Certainly Vidya knows her daughter better than Dan, thus making her a better judge of Shiuli’s wishes — especially since Dan is neither the one being subjected to extraordinary medical interventions nor the one footing the bill for them. Vidya’s ready assent to Dan’s will reinforces how little agency female characters have in October.

Dhawan is a versatile actor, and it’s nice to see him in a film that requires more subtlety than a loud comedy like Judwaa 2 or Dilwale. Yet, whenever he plays a character who is supposed to undergo substantial emotional growth — be it October, Badlapur, or even Badrinath Ki Dulhania — a woman is always subjected to physical harm in order for him to do so. That’s not Dhawan’s fault, but it does highlight a need for screenwriters and filmmakers to move beyond fridging women as an expedient pathway to male character growth.

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Movie Review: Basmati Blues (2017)

1 Star (out of 4)

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Basmati Blues is as problematic as its trailer makes it out to be, and it’s also just plain weird.

The weirdness reveals itself early, when Brie Larson — who filmed this before she was a household name — starts singing while watering plants and wearing a lab coat. Basmati Blues is supposedly an homage to Bollywood films, but the on-the-nose lyrics make it more akin to Western musical theater.

Larson’s character, Linda, is the scientist behind a super productive new strain of rice developed on behalf of Mogil, the agribusiness conglomerate she works for. Mogil’s CEO, Mr. Gurgon (Donald Sutherland), sends her to India to convince farmers to ditch their current rice in favor of the new strain she’s developed.

Upon setting foot in the country, Linda ticks off boxes on the checklist of Things That White People in Movies Find Surprising About India: It’s crowded! A stranger is carrying my luggage! There’s a cow in the road! People eat with their hands! That coconut is on fire!

This is a “Bollywood” movie by white people, for white people. Producer Monique Caulfield — who is married to the film’s writer-director Dan Baron — told Vulture: “the film is made for the Western audience.” Yet they don’t credit their Western audience with the ability to conceptualize India outside of a very narrow, stereotypical focus.

The trailer for Basmati Blues was criticized for its white savior narrative. Linda is indeed a white savior, but with a twist — she’s also a villain. The rice she’s created is more productive and pest-resistant, but it’s also sterile, forcing users to buy a fresh supply of seed each year from Mogil. This fact shocks both of local guys who’ve fallen in love with her — funny agriculture student Rajit (Utkarsh Ambudkar) and suave rich guy William (Saahil Sehgal) — but Linda is fully aware of the rice’s reproductive properties. She just never considered what it means economically for the customers who rely upon the rice and the communities they live in.

Linda somehow remains oblivious to the harm caused by her creations until very late in the film, well after the point that she should have had her revelation and change of heart. As such, it makes it hard to root for the happy ending with Rajit that the story is driving toward. Why does he deserve to be saddled with someone who seemingly lacks a conscience?

The music throughout is forgettable, but Larson and Ambudkar are decent enough singers. Their musical performances are overshadowed by the novelty of veteran actors Sutherland, Tyne Daly, and Scott Bakula singing and dancing.

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Movie Review: Fukrey Returns (2017)

1 Star (out of 4)

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Fukrey Returns is a stale bore, populated by characters the filmmakers seem determined not to give us any reasons to care about.

Familiarity with 2013’s Fukrey is essential. The only plot refresher regarding the original film is a sequence of video-only clips that run behind the opening credits of Fukrey Returns. If you haven’t seen Fukrey recently — or if it didn’t leave much of an impression — you’re going to miss some references (I know I did).

The main characters from the original are back, including: smug ladies man Hunny (Pulkit Samrat); his psychic toady Choocha (Varun Sharma); the guy who’s too smart to be hanging around with these idiots, Zafar (Ali Fazal); and the guy who doesn’t really have anything to do in the story, Lali (Manjot Singh). Also returning are the guys’ shady mentor, Pandit (Pankaj Tripathy), and their gangster nemesis, Bholi (Richa Chadda).

After a year in prison, Bholi is eager to take revenge on the four friends who sent her there. She owes a large sum of money to crooked politician Babulal (Rajiv Gupta) for arranging her release, so she needs to use Choocha’s prophetic dreams in order to raise a lot of money, fast. The plan is for the guys to collect wagers from the public, promising to double investors’ winnings when Choocha dreams of the winning lottery numbers. In fact, the lottery pays out at a rate of ten-to-one, leaving Bholi with eighty percent of the winnings. In return, the guys get to continue living.

When their scheme is thwarted, the guys are pilloried for having defrauded the public and are forced to run for their lives. Fortunately, Choocha manifests a new prophetic power he calls “deja Chu” — premonitions that offer their only hope for clearing their names, freeing Bholi from her debt to Babulal, and getting themselves off of her hit list.

The plot doesn’t unfold as neatly as I’ve described it. Establishing what the guys have been doing since the events of the original film takes up a lot of time, yet reveals surprisingly little about the characters. Subplots are introduced and then forgotten about until the end of the movie. Hunny’s girlfriend Priya (Priya Anand) and Zafar’s fiancée Neetu (Vishakha Singh) stage their own disappearing acts until their presence is required for the climax.

The quality of the cast is uneven. When characters played by Chadda, Fazal, and Tripathy interact with one another, the gulf between actors of their caliber and the rest of the cast feels as wide as the Grand Canyon, especially considering how little the script gives them to work with. It seems like Samrat and Sharma have plateaued as performers.

Of course, the most damning indictment is that Fukrey Returns just isn’t funny. Right away, we get a tired gag about Hunny being bitten in the rear by a venomous snake and Choocha having to suck out the venom, and the same gag repeats later. Director Mrighdeep Singh Lamba also doesn’t know when to end a joke, lingering on reaction shots of other characters well past the point when the audience is ready to move on the next gag. Hopefully Lamba and his co-writer Vipul Vig will accept that Fukrey‘s well has run dry and move on themselves.

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Movie Review: Baadshaho (2017)

1 Star (out of 4)

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Baadshaho (“Kings“) — the latest collaboration between director Milan Luthria and writer Rajat Arora — is a disaster. It’s like they forgot what story they were telling as the movie went on.

In Rajasthan in 1975, a slimy politician named Sanjeev (Priyanshu Chatterjee) uses the federally declared “state of emergency” as a pretext to loot the ancestral wealth of Rani Gitanjali (Ileana D’Cruz) in retaliation for her rebuffing his sexual advances years earlier. Sanjeev sends the army — led by an officer played by Denzil Smith — to retrieve a treasure trove of gold from Gitanjali’s estate, arresting her on pretext of hiding it from the government.

It’s worth noting for the sake of international viewers that the role and duties of royal families like Gitanjali’s isn’t explained, nor is the government’s claim over ancestral wealth. The details of the “state of emergency” aren’t explained either, so it’s not totally clear why the story had to be set in the 1970s. Then again, the costumes and sets are so generic that the only clue that the story isn’t set in modern times is that no one has cell phones.

From inside prison, Gitanjali reconnects with her former security guard and lover, Bhawani (Ajay Devgn), who takes seriously his vow to always protect her. She tasks him not with rescuing her from jail but with making sure that her fortune never makes it to Sanjeev in Delhi. Bhawani assembles a team that includes a safecracker named Tikla (Sanjay Mishra), a woman with an unknown debt to Gitanjali, Sanjana (Esha Gupta), and Dalia (Emraan Hashmi), whose contribution to the group is tacky temporary tattoos and repetitive stories. Bhawani and Dalia trade unfunny quips that perhaps didn’t survive the translation from Hindi to English.

The army’s plan is to drive the gold eight hours to Delhi in an armored truck that looks like a bank vault on wheels, with multiple combination locks right on the back door — a design that renders the plan’s covert nature moot. The supposedly high-tech truck — which can be “tracked by radio” — includes a bright red button that can be pushed in the event of an emergency, turning the truck into an impenetrable bunker for the span of six hours. Obviously, this button plays a huge part in the story, right? One of the thieves gets trapped inside and needs to be rescued or something? Nope. No one ever pushes the button.

Driving the truck is Officer Seher, played by buff Vidyut Jammwal. Jammwal’s character in Commando 2 was introduced with a closeup of the actor’s bicep. Upping the ante, Baadshaho introduces Seher in a train cabin wearing nothing but his underwear.

Because the plan is so straightforward — there’s literally one paved road in the region that can handle the weight of such a heavy truck — obstacles and subplots are manufactured in order to make the movie run longer than an hour. Seher waits four days before setting off for Delhi, conveniently giving the thieves time to plan. Sanjana is grossed out by Dalia one scene, only to fall in love with him in the next scene for no reason.

One of the main reasons to cast Jammwal is to take advantage of his athleticism and martial arts skills. All we get in Baadshaho is a chase scene in which Jammwal runs at about sixty-percent speed so as to not immediately overtake Hashmi. Fight scenes are poorly executed, with actors falling from punches thrown nowhere near them. Bad editing obscures the action, which is often just shots of the actors’ bodies blocking views of the fight. Jammwal’s performance is still the best thing about Baadshaho, but we don’t get to see enough of him doing his signature stunts.

Worst of all is the film’s ending. Without spoiling any specifics, the movie’s climactic fight suddenly stops. The survivors — now in an entirely different location — express relief that the fight is over. Credits roll. What happened to everyone else?! Who lives? Who dies? Is justice done, and for whom?

It’s not even just that things end suddenly. Luthria and Arora don’t bother to resolve the film’s inciting incidents. It’s as though they lost track of the plot threads and forgot who the bad guys are. Beyond being unsatisfying, it’s simply bizarre. Without any kind of meaningful conclusion, Baadshaho is a total waste.

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Movie Review: Raabta (2017)

1 Star (out of 4)

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Even in movies about reincarnation, where the audience knows that the lead couple is fated to be together, we still have to want them to be together in the first place. Raabta (“Connection“) gets that part of the formula wrong, pairing a likable woman with an immature moron.

It’s hard to overstate just how awful Shiv (Sushant Singh Rajput) is as a main character. He’s an entitled boor who hits on every white woman he sees, assuming them to be easy and stupid. A new job in Budapest gives him plenty of opportunities to be an abominable lech.

Of course, when he meets a lovely Indian expat named Saira (Kriti Sanon), Shiv is immediately ready to settle down with her. The presumed inherent moral superiority of Saira’s race and national heritage make it okay for her to jump straight into bed with Shiv, while the flirtatious white women Shiv dates are depicted as disposable tramps.

Saira can’t explain the depth of her attraction to Shiv (and neither can the audience). She senses it has something to do with her vivid nightmares of drowning, and his sudden appearance in them. Shiv dismisses her suspicions, always eager to downplay her concerns and dictate the terms of their conversations.

But Saira’s not alone in suspecting a connection to the past. Debonair rich guy Zak (Neerja‘s Jim Sarbh) has seen visions of Saira as well, from an ancient time when they were once in love. They meet when Saira and Shiv agree to the dumbest possible test of their fidelity: hitting on other people at a party to see if they are as attracted to anyone else as they are to each other. Shiv promptly rips off his shirt and jumps in a pool with some blondes, and Saira flirts with Zak, who is as classy and mysterious as Shiv is tacky and vapid.

Genre convention holds that Zak will turn out to have sinister intentions that endanger Shiv’s and Saira’s preordained romance. The problem is that Zak is objectively better in every regard than Shiv. Yes, even after Zak kidnaps Saira. That’s how deplorable Shiv is.

Rajput does his character no favors, turning in the worst performance of his career. Besides being annoying in the present, Shiv’s past self — Jillan — talks in a Christian-Bale-as-Batman growl, augmented by bug-eyed twitching. The only redeeming quality either version has is a set of six-pack abs (which Zak also may have; we just don’t get to see).

Sanon’s brief career has been distinguished by capable performances in roles with zero agency. Much like Sanon’s character in her debut film, Heropanti, Saira has no control over her own body. Shiv and Zak push, pull, and grab her at will, arguing over which of them she “belongs” to.

Further reducing Saira to object status is that she’s socially isolated in a way the two men aren’t. Shiv has parents in India, and his best friend Radha (Varun Sharma) accompanies him to Budapest. Zak has dozens of paid servants and bodyguards and can turn out hundreds of guests to a party on short notice. Saira, on the other hand, works alone, was orphaned at age two, and sees her boyfriend driven off by Shiv in the span of ten minutes. She has no connections to anyone, making it easier for the two men to do with her as they please.

If there is any bright spot in Raabta, it is Jim Sarbh. He takes a role that could have easily become cartoonish and makes Zak unhinged but understandable. Zak wants Saira as fulfillment of an ancient promise but also because she’s the only other person who shares his belief that the past is repeating itself. Shiv refuses to entertain Saira’s reincarnation story, belittling her as crazy despite the fact that she’s correct — yet another knock against these star-crossed lovers.

Sarbh’s cool charisma starkly contrasts Rajput’s over-the-top antics. It’s time for filmmakers to shift Sarbh from the compelling villain slot into leading man roles (and maybe consider demoting Rajput).

The biggest star in Raabta is Deepika Padukone, who performs an unenthusiastic item number for the title track. She sways and walks the runway, and that’s about it. I hope she got a ton of money for doing next to nothing, if only to serve as a cautionary tale for filmmakers considering such transparent casting stunts.

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Movie Review: Badrinath Ki Dulhania (2017)

1 Star (out of 4)

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The romantic-comedy Badrinath Ki Dulhania (“Badrinath’s Bride“) fails as both a romance and a comedy. A somewhat amusing first half is undone by a disturbing second half that is no fun to watch.

One of the qualities that made the main characters in writer-director Shashank Khaitan’s previous film, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (which starred the same lead actors in different roles) so likeable was that they both had strong moral values guiding their actions. That element is missing from Badrinath Ki Dulhania, resulting in a male lead character who is outdated at best.

Badrinath (Varun Dhawan) is the good-for-nothing youngest son of a money-lender, Mr. Bhansal (Rituraj Singh), in the town of Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh. The elder Bhansal already managed to guilt-trip Badrinath’s brother, Alok (Yash Sinha), into giving up the woman he loved in favor of an arranged marriage. Bhansal’s penchant for clutching his chest and reaching for an oxygen tank he doesn’t need prompts Badrinath to explain: “An Indian father has the weakest heart in all the world.”

This would be amusing were Bhansal not a sinister enforcer of repressive gender politics. Mrs. Bhansal never speaks, period. Alok’s wife, Urmila (Shweta Prasad), is a financial expert with an advanced education, but Bhansal will not allow his daughter-in-law to work. It’s as though he takes pride in forcing such an accomplished woman into a life of domestic servitude. Alok is too much of a coward to stand up to his father, despite his wife’s suffering.

Badrinath is just as cowardly as Alok, but also more entitled. Badrinath is so assured that he can have whatever he wants — taking it by force, if necessary — that he pursues a woman who is his intellectual superior and not the least bit interested in him: Vaidehi (Alia Bhatt).

After repeatedly rebuffing Badrinath’s stalkery come-ons, Vaidehi consents to let him and his friend, Somdev (Sahil Vaid), find a groom for her elder sister, Kritika. Though Vaidehi explains that this act of kindness will not lead to a romance between her and Badrinath, he’s sure it will.

The relationship between Badrinath and Vaidehi is cute enough until she wounds his pride, prompting a chilling post-interval turn in Badrinath. He shows some violent tendencies earlier in the film in his role as his father’s bill collector, but the sense of entitlement that drives his actions in the second half adds an element of menace.

It’s almost as if Khaitan believes that Dhawan’s good looks make his character’s actions less dangerous. A boy that cute wouldn’t really hurt her, right? Dhawan already showed that he can play scary in Badlapur, and there are echoes of that performance in this film.

Another knock against Badrinath is his cowardice. This fear on the part of everyone in the family to stand up to Mr. Bhansal — even when they know he is morally wrong — taints all of the them, but Badrinath most of all as the main character. He simply has too far to grow within the constraints of the story.

Karan Johar’s role as producer of the film is a problem because his name evokes memories of his own movie about a son challenging his overbearing father: Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…. The hero of that film seems vastly more progressive than Badrinath, despite the fact that K3G came out sixteen years ago.

Throughout Badrinath Ki Dulhania, there’s a feeling that Vaidehi deserves better. She and Badrinath may look nice together on the dance floor, but he can’t offer her anything she can’t achieve for herself on her own terms. All the credit goes to Bhatt, whose natural charisma outshines her co-stars.

With such an imbalance among the characters, we’re left with just another movie about a overachieving woman who must choose whether to sacrifice her goals for the sake of a man who wants a trophy for learning how to use a microwave.

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Movie Review: Shivaay (2016)

shivaay1 Star (out of 4)

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As producer, director, and star of Shivaay, Ajay Devgn had the freedom to create exactly the film he wanted. Such a concentration of power meant there was no one to tell him when he was headed in the wrong direction. As a result, Devgn’s second directorial venture is dense and slow, with an undercurrent of hostility toward women.

Shivaay‘s titular hero is another rendition of the human instrument of divine justice Devgn regularly plays. The character’s slightly superhuman qualities are displayed in an early song sequence, with Shivaay speedily descending a mountain while lyrics proclaim that “Shiva is in all of us.” Godlike, Shivaay tells some soldiers he rescued, “I will be here whenever I am needed.”

Unlike Devgn’s iconic character — police officer Bajirao Singham, from the Singham films — Shivaay isn’t beholden to the rules of any professional organization. He defines his own morality, which conveniently allows him to destroy much of Bulgaria in his quest to free his daughter from child traffickers.

His daughter, Gaura (British child actor Abigail Eames), is the product of an affair between Shivaay and Olga (Polish actress Erika Kaar), a Bulgarian woman studying in India. They fall in love on one of Shivaay’s Himalayan treks, for which Olga inexplicably packs short-shorts and tank tops. He saves her from an avalanche, establishing a precedent for Shivaay to rescue dozens of other women in distress before the closing credits roll.

The sequence that accompanies the song “Darkhaast” had the potential to be an interesting take on traditional romantic numbers. Shivaay and Olga make love in a precariously positioned tent as they await rescue after the avalanche. Olga is frightened as the tent falls to a ledge below, but the song continues, as do Shivaay’s romantic overtures, assured as he is of their divine protection. The problem is that Olga has a broken leg. Ain’t no way she gonna be rollin’ about and climbing on him with a broken leg!

Olga convalesces at Shivaay’s house, reminding him that she has to return to Bulgaria soon because her mother and sister depend on her financially. When Olga accidentally gets pregnant, Shivaay ignores her pleas not to be forced to carry a child she doesn’t want and can’t afford to care for. “Please give me this child…and you go,” he tells her. She caves to his emotional blackmail and births Gaura, but returns to Bulgaria without so much as looking at her daughter. Gaura grows up, inheriting her mother’s fair complexion and her father’s love for mountain climbing.

Casting Eames is a mistake for a couple of reasons. In order to work around Eames’ British accent and presumable inability to speak Hindi, Gaura is mute. Gaura is also supposed to be eight years old, yet Eames was twelve when Shivaay was filmed and looks very much her age. The miscasting is particularly distracting when Gaura throws violent tantrums that would be considered immature enough for an actual eight-year-old, much less a tween.

Gaura finds evidence that her mother is not dead — as she’d been told — and she demands to meet Olga. Father and daughter travel to Bulgaria and immediately stumble upon a child trafficking ring. Shivaay liberates a little boy and exposes the criminals, who kidnap Gaura in retaliation. By this point, there’s been an avalanche, a love affair, childhood montages, and an international trip, and the movie is barely an hour into its two-and-a-half hour runtime.

The quest to rescue Gaura triggers several chase sequences that would be more exciting if they were half as long. Also, with Devgn in charge of everything, perhaps no one felt comfortable addressing his rigid, sluggish running form. Many members of the audience at my showing headed to the restroom or concession stand during the action sequences, which is a worse condemnation than anything I can write.

Years spent raising Gaura haven’t tempered Shivaay’s anger at Olga, and he unleashes a torrent of abuse at her when she comes forward to help find Gaura. Nevermind that Shivaay didn’t even try to contact Olga before heading to Bulgaria, which would’ve avoided this whole problem in the first place, yet again placing his own desires before hers.

Shivaay’s hostility toward Olga is part of a weird undercurrent in the film that seems to question women’s ability to love children. Note the absence of mothers from the movie. Shivaay himself grew up without a mother, as did Gaura. When Shivaay frees another woman from forced prostitution, she doesn’t mention her mom, only wondering why her father didn’t come to save her.

Then there’s Anu (Sayesha Saigal), an Indian embassy worker who lives with her elderly father (she’s motherless, too, apparently). When Anu tells Shivaay to stop acting like a criminal, he takes her hostage, all the while questioning her patriotism for daring to tell an Indian man what he can’t do. Anu’s father sides with Shivaay, explaining that he simply did what any father would do to save his child, and that Anu can’t possibly understand. By that logic, doesn’t that then obligate Anu’s dad to attack Shivaay for trying to harm Anu?

All the hostility toward women, combined with bad pacing and monotonous action scenes, make Shivaay a slog. The most amusing moment in the film is when a hacker played by Vir Das yells, “I’m being double hacked!” But that line’s not actually supposed to be funny. Give Shivaay a miss.

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