Tag Archives: 2.5 Stars

Movie Review: Student of the Year 2 (2019)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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With an opening scene that features hundreds of students celebrating the start of an intercollegiate competition by chanting, “Student! Student!”, it’s clear that Student of the Year 2 (“SOTY2” henceforth) is not meant to be intellectually challenging. Nevertheless, the romantic comedy-drama sequel is plenty of fun, with some surprisingly rich character development.

Though not a direct sequel to 2012’s Student of the Year, SOTY2 is made in the same narrative mold as the first: a low-income university student competes against his well-heeled contemporaries for respect and the love of a pretty girl. While the original SOTY launched the careers of three newcomers who would become big stars — Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan, and Sidharth Malhotra — SOTY2 is star Tiger Shroff’s sixth leading role.

This time Shroff plays Rohan, a working class student at the underfunded Pishorilal Chamandas College where he excels at the sport kabaddi. His wealthy childhood sweetheart Mridula (Tara Sutaria) attends hoity-toity St. Teresa’s College. Without telling Mridula about his plan, Rohan gets an athletic scholarship and transfers to St. Teresa’s to be closer to her.

Rohan is a fish out of water at his new school, where everyone wears designer clothes and drives sports cars. He’s no longer the best athlete, with that distinction belonging to Manav (Aditya Seal), the reigning intercollegiate Student of the Year titleholder. Rohan makes an enemy of Manav’s snobby, vindictive sister Shreya (Ananya Panday, daughter of actor Chunky Pandey). Even Mridula — who goes by “Mia” on campus — acts less than thrilled to see poor Rohan on her fancy turf.

While Rohan could find a place at St. Teresa’s as one of Manav’s toadies, that won’t impress Mridula. What starts out as a good-natured rivalry between the two campus studs changes when Manav realizes Rohan’s ambitions, and Manav reminds Rohan of the hierarchy in the harshest way possible. But Rohan finds an unexpected ally in Shreya, who’s tired of living in her brother’s shadow. Maybe Rohan’s been trying to impress the wrong woman.

Though Shroff is typically drawn to action movies, he’s more charming in a lighter role like this that requires some self-awareness. Shroff nicely depicts Rohan’s struggle to fit in, as well as his realization that he should’ve been kinder to his peers back when he was Big Man on Campus at his old college.

Shreya’s character development is even more impressive than Rohan’s. She evolves from spoiled and aloof to generous and kind, as Rohan learns more about her troubled home life, while still keeping the core of her character intact. Her instinct to respond to slights with cattiness never changes, but she begins to curb her impulsiveness. One would never guess that this is Panday’s first feature role, she’s that good.

This is also Sutaria’s first feature role, having started her career in television. She doesn’t quite match the charisma of Shroff or Panday, but her character isn’t as deep as either of theirs. Mridula is written as shallow and fickle, which doesn’t leave Sutaria much room to maneuver.

Manav is also one-note — a rich bully from start to finish. Seal has to deliver dopey lines with a straight face, such as the multiple times Manav calls Rohan “loser of the year.” On the positive side, Seal and Sutaria are the best dancers of the lead quartet.

The film’s dance numbers are fun and impressive in scale, although they do have some weird elements. Will Smith strolls across the stage during one song for absolutely no reason. A couple of numbers feature a bunch of white women in cheerleader outfits, which stands out because there aren’t any non-Indian male students at St. Teresa. Also, one of my friends was crushed to discover that “Mumbai Dilli Di Kudiyaan” was just released for promotional purposes and wasn’t actually in the movie.

SOTY2 also has a lot of kabaddi scenes, which are sort of exciting, but I didn’t come out of the film understanding anything more about the rules than I did going in. (Although I was delighted to learn that you’re allowed to kick people in kabaddi.) There are also some unrealistic track and field sequences that have slow-motion shots of Manav turning to stare at Rohan in the middle of a race and looking aghast. As the leadoff runner for Westmont High School’s state-qualifying 800-meter medley relay team in 1994, I can assure you that there isn’t time for such theatrics during a sprint.

Then again, the whole premise of the Student of the Year competition is ridiculous to begin with. It’s only available to male students, there’s no academic component, and it only features two events — one of which is a team sport. Points are accrued by school, not by individual, yet the final award is given to a single participant. It’s pretty dumb if you think about it, so better to just enjoy Student of the Year 2 for its lavish dance numbers and Ananya Panday’s promising debut.

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Movie Review: Kalank (2019)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Kalank (“Stigma“) is a middling extravaganza, neither as good nor as bad as it could have been. Lavish sets, impressive dance numbers, and a gorgeous cast make it an enjoyable enough one-time watch, so long as you keep your attention at surface level.

Set just before Partition, the story follows Roop (Alia Bhatt), a young woman forced to integrate into a wealthy Hindu family living near Muslim-majority Lahore under unusual circumstances. Her acquaintance Satya (Sonakshi Sinha) proposes a business arrangement: in exchange for funding dowries for Roop’s younger sisters, Roop will move in to Satya’s home and grow closer to Satya’s husband, Dev (Aditya Roy Kapur). Satya is dying from cancer, and she hopes Dev will marry Roop after Satya’s death. Roop insists that she’ll only enter the home as Dev’s co-wife — a prudent move since Satya otherwise wouldn’t be around to make sure her wishes are carried out after death.

The second marriage proceeds and Roop moves into the Chaudhry family mansion with Satya, Dev, and Dev’s stiff father, Balraj (Sanjay Dutt). It would have been interesting to watch Roop and Satya negotiate their evolving roles in the household (as Bhatt’s character Sehmat did in Raazi) and learn more about nature of their tense preexisting relationship, but filmmaker Abhishek Varman sidelines Satya. Her illness progresses off-screen, and she and Roop have few interactions after their initial one. It’s unfortunate how small Sinha’s role in Kalank is given her prominence in the film’s marketing and the quality of her performance in her few scenes.

Dev tells Roop that he agreed to the marriage to make Satya happy, and that while he will never be mean to Roop, neither he will ever love her. Perhaps it’s because of the limitations of Dev’s nature, but Kapur’s one-note performance in the role is not one of his best.

In order to escape her stifling home life, Roop undertakes vocal music tuition from the famed courtesan Bahaar Begum (Madhuri Dixit) in a working-class Muslim neighborhood. There Roop meets Gendry, er, Zafar (Varun Dhawan): a hunky blacksmith who’s the unacknowledged bastard son of — you guessed it — Roop’s father-in-law, Balraj. Zafar neglects to mention that to Roop so that he can use her to take revenge against the family that abandoned him.

Varman lays the melodrama on thick, with lots of longing looks, near-kisses, and simmering tensions between family members. It’s fun, if that’s the kind of story you’re in the mood for. The melodrama is enhanced by song numbers that are grand in scale and a delight to watch, especially when Madhuri Dixit takes the floor. The sets have a depth of field, and every rooftop and alleyway is populated with extras. Some settings do feel over-the-top for their location. Bahaar Begum’s brothel is apparently so successful that she can afford to stack chandeliers atop one another, and Blacksmith Alley’s festival budget tops the production costs of most Bollywood films.

Then again, I don’t think authenticity was Varman’s goal with Kalank — especially not with Karan Johar financing the film. Everything is big and glamorous, regardless of whether it makes sense. I’m not sure if the costumes are true to the time period, but they look fabulous. The cast members — particularly Dixit, Sinha, and Bhatt — look stunning under Devdas cinematographer Binod Pradhan’s lens.

Kalank gets its worst bang for its buck on an awful CGI bull-riding sequence involving Zafar that includes maybe one shot of an actual bull. I’m not sure why this made the final cut of the film, except that they must have spent a lot of money on it.

Kalank‘s larger-than-life relationship drama is set within a complicated political environment. While Roop is falling in love with Zafar behind her husband’s back, neoliberal Dev uses his newspaper to promote the economic benefits of bringing a steel mill to Lahore — a move that would decimate the local, Muslim-run blacksmith industry. Dev — who is also anti-Partition — thinks he’s just seeing the big picture, envisioning an India made prosperous by innovation. Never mind that only his family’s prosperity is assured by such advances, at the expense of a struggling lower class.

Dev’s main antagonist is Zafar’s friend Abdul Khan (Kunal Khemu, who’s excellent in Kalank), a politician responding to his base’s growing discontent. His own politics become more religiously divisive over time in part because of the mood of the neighborhood but also due to Zafar’s aggrieved goading. There’s an inevitability to the violent climax, and Khan admits he couldn’t stop it if he wanted to (not that he wants to, by that point).

Kalank‘s epilogue — featuring Bhatt in a weird direct-to-camera speech — suggests that all this trouble could’ve been avoided if we just set aside our differences and chose to get along. But could it? The plot makes a compelling case for the Muslims in the film to favor Partition by whatever means necessary. Things were already tough — huge festival budgets and extravagant brothel chandeliers notwithstanding — and likely to get worse, all so that the (Hindu) rich can get richer and the (Muslim) poor poorer. I’m not saying this applies to actual history, but in the terms the movie sets for itself, the angry mob’s response makes sense.

That said, it stinks to see another mainstream film depict Muslims as violent, except for those noble enough to sacrifice themselves to save innocent Hindus. And it stinks that this is another movie that wants us to sympathize most with characters who are wealthy enough to escape difficult situations without regard for the mess they leave behind.

In order to enjoy Kalank, one must ignore the politics undergirding it and allow oneself to revel in the superficial beauty of it all. I was able to do that while I was in the theater. Only afterward did the film’s unfortunate aspects start to weigh on me.

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Movie Review: Badla (2019)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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There’s a lot to like in Badla, but I’m not sure how much any of it matters, since the film’s central mystery is so obvious. I’m no mystery buff, but I sussed things out in the first fifteen minutes.

Wealthy London CEO Naina Sethi (Taapsee Pannu) stands accused of murdering her lover Arjun (Tony Luke) after she wakes up in a hotel room next to his dead body and a pile of cash. She insists that an unknown blackmailer lured them to the hotel, and that the blackmailer knocked her out before killing Arjun.

With Naina stuck in her apartment under house arrest, renowned lawyer Badal Gupta (Amitabh Bachchan) arrives to prepare her for trial. Naina’s main attorney, Jimmy (Manav Kaul) — who’s off tracking down a potential witness — says that Badal is the best in the business, and Badal himself assures Naina that he wants her case to be his final victory before retirement.

Naina agrees to tell Badal the whole truth, but she’s surprised when he brings up the case of a missing young man. Though she obfuscates at first, Badal’s hunch is right — there is a connection between the missing man and her dead boyfriend.

Though the entire present-day portion of the story takes place in Naina’s apartment, we see relevant events of the past through flashbacks. Badal and Naina suggest differing interpretations of what happened, and Pannu and Luke alter their characters depending on the version of the story being told. Bachchan’s performance is more limited because his character only interacts with Naina and only within her apartment. And his character’s approach to his client seems overly adversarial.

Badla is based on the 2016 Spanish thriller The Invisible Guest, and it makes sense that Kahaani director Sujoy Ghosh would be drawn to its story. Pannu’s role was originally written for a man, and the character’s gender was changed at her insistence. That allowed Ghosh to make a second film about a woman from London whose guile and tenacity are underestimated by the men around her, involved in a crime that’s more complicated than it first seems.

Where Badla falls short of Kahaani‘s success is in the film’s the central mystery and the way information is parceled out. Even as Kahaani‘s heroine Vidya — a pregnant woman played by Vidya Balan — finds new details about her husband’s disappearance, the audience can never be completely sure what’s going on. She’s an unconventional lead for this type of movie, so we don’t have enough information or points of reference to figure things out far in advance.

Badla is more conventional, despite its someone novel technique of keeping Naina and Badal in her apartment and reenacting flashbacks of dubious veracity. Arjun’s murder is a locked-room mystery, so the audience knows to look for clues and discrepancies in the story as presented. The film also shows early on the incident that stars the chain of events ending in Arjun’s murder, so we know to be suspicious of the story we’re being told from that point on.

As I said above, I’m not even a mystery aficionado, but I wrote in my notes early into the film what I suspected was the answer to Badla’s riddle. From that point on, it was just a matter of the film finally proving my guess correct. The story never really give me a reason to doubt my assumption.

Badla’s short runtime of 118 minutes meant my vindication came quickly, but it was an unsuspenseful two hours. Thankfully, the performances are pretty entertaining, both by Pannu and Luke as well as Amrita Singh, who plays the missing man’s mother. Also, Amaal Mallik’s songs “Kyun Rabba” and “Tum Na Aaye” are fantastic. Badla isn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours, it’s just a little disappointing as a mystery.

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Movie Review: Once Again (2018)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A reclusive movie star pursues a romance with the woman who cooks for him in Once Again.

Comparisons between Once Again and 2013’s The Lunchbox are inevitable. Both films are about lonely Mumbaikars who form a romantic attachment to one another through the medium of food. While The Lunchbox chronicles the development of attraction, Once Again pushes its lead couple forward into a relationship.

There are some critical differences between the two films. The duo in The Lunchbox have a significant age difference working against them: she’s a young mother with a child, he’s days away from retirement. In Once Again, the obstacles are economic class and gender expectations. Amar (Neeraj Kabi) is one of the nation’s most popular stars. Tara (Shefali Shah) runs a restaurant, which she’s done for the twenty years since her husband died, as a means to support her family.

Recently divorced, Amar lives alone. He has a standing order with Tara’s restaurant to supply dinner to his high-rise apartment. Calls to Tara for meal requests became more intimate in nature over time, and Once Again begins with Amar asking the restaurateur to finally meet in person.

Tara has her hands full. Her son Dev (Priyanshu Painyuli, who played the title character in Bhavesh Joshi Superhero) is getting married, and she’s fighting with the bank to secure a loan for restaurant repairs. On top of that are all the questions of what a romantic relationship would mean for her after decades alone, always putting her own wants and needs second to those of her children.

Amar is more impulsive and less introspective, showing up outside of Tara’s restaurant unannounced one day. It’s the push the fledgling romance needs, and the two find they share a crackling chemistry. But of course things can’t go smoothly for the middle-aged lovebirds. When paparazzi take photos of them on a date, it creates havoc, especially for Tara.

Once Again acknowledges the greater burden borne by Tara. She’s suddenly an item of public interest, followed by reporters once she steps out of the sanctuary of her kitchen. Dev and his future in-laws fret about the perception of impropriety among their social circle — as if a woman is only allowed one romantic relationship in her life, even if her husband dies when her children are very young, as in Tara’s case.

Amar himself seems less understanding of Tara’s predicament than filmmaker Kanwal Sethi’s script is. Amar is used to being famous, and no one bats an eye at when a man reenters the dating scene in middle age. Plus Amar’s wealth affords him a kind of social protection that doesn’t apply to a struggling small business owner like Tara.

Once Again‘s great failing is that, even though it raises issues on Tara’s behalf, it seems to side with Amar’s “who cares what anyone else thinks” romantic notions. Amar is allowed to chart the course of their relationship, driven by his own wants and without any course corrections to make things easier for Tara.

The subplot about Tara’s bank loan is badly mismanaged. Its inclusion seems to inevitably point toward a conversation between Tara and Amar about his possible financial assistance and the effect of their economic inequality on their relationship, but she never even mentions the loan to him. The loan is a big issue for Tara and Dev, so for her to not even mention it to Amar is weird.

Elements working in Once Again‘s favor include endearing performances by Shah, Kabi, and Painyuli. The movie’s MVP is Director of Photography Eeshit Narain, who shoots delectable footage of Tara cooking in her restaurant and positively hypnotic footage of Mumbai at night, shot from inside Amar’s car as he drives restlessly around the city.

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Movie Review: Manmarziyaan (2018)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Emerging adulthood is a particularly annoying stage of human development. Teenage immaturity is no longer a viable excuse for bad behavior, but many emerging adults are still self-centered enough not to fully appreciate the impact of their actions and choices on those around them or even on their own futures. It was a stage I was glad to grow out of and glad for my friends to grow out of.

It’s a tricky balance to write a drama about emerging adults that feels authentic but isn’t as irritating as real life. Maybe director Anurag Kashyap and writer Kanika Dhillon get things too right in Manmarziyaan (“The Heart’s Wish“, international title “Husband Material“). Two-and-a-half hours of watching characters repeat the same mistakes because they lack the self-knowledge not to is tiresome, even with a tremendous cast in the leading roles.

Headstrong hockey player Rumi’s (Taapsee Pannu) romantic relationship with wannabe DJ Vicky (Vicky Kaushal) is the neighborhood’s worst-kept secret. Sick of the local gossip, Rumi’s family tells her to marry Vicky, or they’ll find a groom for her.

For Rumi, the solution is easy. An engagement will pacify her family indefinitely, and she and Vicky have professed their love to each other anyway. But Vicky is happy the way things are, with all the sex he wants and none of the responsibility that comes with a publicly acknowledged relationship.

As immature as Vicky is, Rumi isn’t much better. She spends far too long ignoring the reality Vicky presents to her and wishing for him to be someone he’s not. She accepts a marriage proposal secured by her family as a means of punishing Vicky, not really considering that the groom-to-be, London banker Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan), thinks he’s getting a wife, not some other guy’s spiteful girlfriend.

The first half of Manmarziyaan is so dense with material that the interval break comes as something of a surprise, resetting the story right when it seems to be nearing a conclusion. The film shifts focus from how Vicky’s immaturity ruins his relationship with Rumi to how Rumi’s immaturity ruins her relationship with Robbie. It’s too much of the same thing.

The bigger question is why Robbie thinks Rumi is worth all the trouble, since he really doesn’t know much about her. She gives him the silent treatment when he asks her questions — that is when she’s not sneaking off by herself. Why would someone as ready for marriage as Robbie is put up with her petulance for as long as he does?

Robbie claims that he wants an unconventional bride, and Rumi’s vivacity intrigues him more than other, more demure candidates suggested by the matchmaker. But when Rumi and Robbie are together, she behaves much like a conventional housewife, cooking and waiting up late for him. There’s no discussion of how her other interests — playing hockey and working at her family’s sporting goods store — fit in with married life, or how she’d spend her days if it was just her and Vicky in London, with no family or friends around. The movie makes it seem as though the only obstacle between Rumi and wedded bliss with Robbie is Vicky, but maybe the version of married life Robbie offers her is part of the problem.

It’s not the cast’s fault that Manmarziyaan doesn’t quite work. Pannu’s spiritedness is balanced by Bachchan’s steadfastness. Kaushal goes full-tilt with Vicky, especially during Amit Trivedi’s great song “DhayaanChand” (one of several songs in the film to feature the twin hip-hop dancers Poonam & Priyanka, who steal the whole movie). The soundtrack overall is quite good.

Watching the characters in Manmarziyaan repeat the same mistakes over and over brought back memories of a time when my friends and I made ourselves unhappier than we should have been by trying to force relationships to work that never could. It was a relief to grow out of that phase. I wish the characters in the film had done so sooner.

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TV Review: Breathe (2018)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Amazon’s TV series Breathe is brilliant at times: sharp and thought-provoking, giving skilled actors known mainly for their film work a chance to shine in a different medium. Yet it’s a series of ups and downs, with more downs than ups as the story progresses.

R. Madhavan leads the series as Danny Mascarenhas, father to an ailing son named Josh (Atharva Vishwakarma). The severity of Josh’s illness is mentioned indirectly at first, when Danny pulls a relative aside during a birthday party and asks him to take back an overly generous gift for Josh, lest the boy realize something is up. “Why do we have to tell him what we know?” Danny kindly tells the uncle. When next we see Josh, he’s in the hospital, being treated for a disease that’s given him months to live unless he receives a lung transplant. The whole sequence is beautifully constructed.

In order to receive a new set of lungs, Josh not only has to wait for a donor with the correct rare blood type to pass away — and in a manner that keeps their organs viable for transplant — he has to wait for the three people ahead of him on the recipient list to get their lungs first. Bereft of options, Danny steals a list of registered donors and hatches a morally questionable (at best) plan to extend the lives of Josh and those ahead of him on the transplant list.

Elsewhere in Mumbai, another father tortures himself over his own failure to protect his child. Police detective Kabir Sawant (Amit Sadh) lost his young daughter three years earlier when the curious girl accidentally shot herself with his service revolver. Kabir’s resultant misery and alcoholism have driven his wife, Ria (Sapna Pabbi), to file for divorce. As Kabir finally tries to pull himself out of his depression, he senses something fishy about a series of accidents among a cohort of people with the same blood type, who all happen to be organ donors.

Sadh and Madhavan are perfectly cast as the two fathers: one searching for redemption and the other trying to save his son while he still can. Both actors command attention despite some flaws in the way their characters are written. Kabir spends the first few episodes mired in a drunken funk, but he’s really engaging when his plotline finally meets with Danny’s. Danny is better from the get-go, although his arc becomes scattershot he pivots from cold-hearted to conflicted from scene to scene.

On the whole, the show is strongest during the setup phase, as Danny pursues a course of action prohibited by his Catholic faith (and laws and general human decency, of course). Interesting graphical illustrations of the factors he must consider when incapacitating his victims cleverly forces the audience to put themselves in the mind of a methodical killer. (Note: though the dialogue is primarily in Hindi, the articles and written materials shown onscreen in this sequence are written in English.)

During this phase of the story, we see Danny’s schemes play out in real-time. It’s intense, since there’s always a chance that something will go wrong. However, in later episodes of Breathe, Danny’s crimes are shown only after we know he’s gotten away with them, removing all the tension. This also makes the later crimes seem ridiculous and impossible to execute, rather than meticulously planned operations.

The weakest point in the entire series is Episode 5: “Bad Fish.” With Kabir convinced that he’s on the trail of a serial killer, he first asks his boss for leave to investigate before heading to Ria’s to warn her. Both scenes — which together make up the first ten minutes of the episode– are nothing but people shouting at Kabir as he tries to explain himself. Kabir’s boss wants him to focus on his overdue paperwork, and Ria and her father just want Kabir to leave.

This is bad writing for multiple reasons. First, it’s annoying to endure ten consecutive minutes of characters screaming the same things over and over. Second, one of the points Breathe emphasizes is that, for all his faults, Kabir is an excellent detective. Everyone around him says so. For him to be dismissed by both his boss and his ex-wife and her family makes no sense given what they know about him. Finally, his father-in-law’s refusal to listen to Kabir’s concerns for Ria makes little sense in a show built around the paternal desire to protect one’s offspring.

Despite being a show about a guy who hunts down organ donors, Breathe does a good job challenging stigmas against organ donation particular to India. Danny discusses concerns over the spiritual implications of organ donation with another family in the hospital waiting room in a scene that explains both objections to the practice as well as scriptural evidence that supports the practice. The series repeatedly shows just how critical the need is for donors willing to make one last compassionate act as they exit this life.

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Movie Review: Pari (2018)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Despite its sometimes disorganized story structure, the horror film Pari: Not a Fairytale (“Fairy: Not a Fairytale“) views maternity and childbirth through a compelling sinister lens.

Debutant director Prosit Roy’s movie opens with a boring scene of two single people — Arnab (Parambrata Chatterjee) and Piyali (Ritabari Chakraborty) — chitchatting on a rooftop after being set up by their parents. They aren’t very interesting, and any information about them that may eventually prove relevant could have been introduced later.

The movie should have started with the next sequence. Arnab’s parents drive him home from the meeting on a rainy back road. Their discussion of a possible marriage proposal intensifies, and a distracted Dad accidentally hits an old woman, killing her.

As the police investigate the deceased’s identity, they find a frightened young woman named Rukhsana (Anushka Sharma) chained inside a ramshackle barn. Rukhsana has had no contact with the outside world, hidden by her mother — the dead woman — from a nameless man who wants to kill her.

Early on, Pari is largely a collection of horror movie must-haves, like sudden loud noises and people appearing abruptly in frame. There’s no finesse in how the jump scares are applied. There’s also a surprising amount of gore, which seems to exist only to prepare the audience for more blood to come — although that later gruesomeness reinforces the movie’s themes, while the early stuff doesn’t.

The story hits its stride when Arnab becomes Rukhsana’s reluctant caretaker. She’s been so sheltered that she eats out of the garbage bin, not knowing that there is food in the refrigerator, because she doesn’t know what a refrigerator is. Arnab isn’t sure if Rukhsana’s mystery man is real, but he accepts that her fear of him is.

Of course the man is real, and he’s hunting Rukhsana. Professor Quasim Ali (Rajat Kapoor) is obsessed with stopping a doomsday cult from disseminating the bloodline of the djinn Ifrit. The professor takes more than a little pleasure in destroying those he suspects are connected to the djinn.

In Pari, Ifrit’s influence is tied to the female reproductive cycle, the sanguine nature of which drives director Roy’s visual style. Roy and his co-writer Abhishek Banerjee use Ifrit’s influence as a mechanism to explore the unique physical connection between mothers and their offspring. The gore associated with this aspect of the story — in the form of injuries visited upon the female characters — makes sense, evoking the bloody nature of childbirth.

Another theme related to that mother-child connection is its corollary: the lack of a physical connection between father and child, and how that frees men to abandon their unborn progeny at will. Professor Ali personifies society’s desire to punish women for out-of-wedlock pregnancy (consensual or not).

Kapoor’s performance as the professor is the spookiest element of Pari. He coolly partakes in murder and torture as an ordinary part of doing business. The dull opening scene featuring Chatterjee and Chakraborty is a blip, with both of them getting better and better as the story progresses. Sharma commands the screen, as always, though it would’ve been fun to spend more time with her character as Rukhsana discovers the modern world.

For all of its flaws, Pari is a film with a lot of interesting ideas. Just don’t expect too many scares.

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Movie Review: Love Per Square Foot (2018)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Writer-director Anand Tiwari’s debut feature film Love Per Square Foot shows a lot of promise. Drawing from his own acting experience, Tiwari coaxes charming performances from his talented cast.

Two young strangers in Mumbai long for homes of their own. IT guy Sanjay (Vicky Kaushal) is tired of living with his fussy parents, Lata (Supriya Pathak) and Bhaskar (Raghuvir Yadav). Loan officer Karina (Angira Dhar) wants financial independence, a feat her mother Blossom (Ratna Pathak Shah) never quite achieved.

Sanjay is being strung along by his sexy boss, Rashi (Alankrita Sahai), and Karina is dating Sam (Kunaal Roy Kapur), a nice guy she likes but doesn’t love. When Sanjay and Karina hit it off at a mutual friend’s wedding, they realize that they can’t achieve their dreams if they stay with their current partners.

In order to take advantage of a government-sponsored housing program for newlyweds, Sanjay and Karina decide to apply together. They only have to get married if they win an apartment via a lottery draw, and even then, their arrangement is based on business rather than affection. They’ll split everything 50-50, from the costs of owning the apartment right down to household chores. That they start to fall in love with each other during the process is just a bonus.

The story takes its time establishing the relationship between Sanjay and Karina, which is great because Kaushal and Dhar are adorable together. Fresh off of his chilling turn as a crooked cop in Raman Raghav 2.0, Kaushal transitions seamlessly into an ideal romantic leading man. Dhar is effortlessly likeable and cute in her first film role.

Tiwari’s storytelling style is concise, with characters resolving problems that would normally stretch over several scenes with just a sentence or two. It’s refreshing, but it also creates the need to continually manufacture new conflicts in order to keep the story going. Problems aren’t born out of well-integrated subplots but rather spontaneously generate, and the story drags.

The two ex-lovers are one well Tiwari returns to, with Rashi’s demands on Sanjay’s attention becoming increasingly outlandish and less believable. As a character, Rashi is one-note, which is too bad because Sahai shows some charisma in her first film role. Kapur’s Sam has fewer scenes, but the actor makes the most of them.

Tiwari relies even more heavily on the main characters’ parents to complicate matters, chiefly on the grounds of religious objections to the union. Sanjay is Hindu and Karina is Christian, though neither seems especially devout. The sudden parental religious objections feel obligatory — as though one can’t make a Bollywood romantic comedy without them — and they don’t easily fit with the central modern love story. Despite having wonderful actors in the roles, all of the parents are unfunny caricatures.

The rookie writer-director must perfect his story crafting, but overall, Love Per Square Foot is a fine debut — not just for Anand Tiwari but for Angira Dhar as well.

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Movie Review: Kahaani 2 (2016)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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It’s unrealistic to expect Kahaani 2 to replicate the success of a movie as special as Kahaani, but the sequel lacks many of the elements that made the original so memorable.

Writer-director Sujoy Ghosh again taps Vidya Balan to play a character named Vidya searching for a lost loved one in West Bengal. Kahaani 2‘s Vidya — Sinha this time, not Bagchi — is mother to a 14-year-old girl, Minnie (Tunisha Sharma), who is paralyzed from the waist down. The pair lives in the town of Chandan Nagar, about an hour away from Kolkata. Vidya returns from work to find her daughter missing, the girl’s phone and wheelchair left behind.

While the original Kahaani‘s Vidya spent the film tracking her missing husband with the help of a smitten police officer, the sequel’s Vidya is sidelined early on. It falls on a different cop, Inder (Arjun Rampal), to discover what’s going on when he stumbles upon an accident scene and recognizes the injured woman. However, he knows the victim by the name of Durga Rani Singh, not Vidya Sinha.

Inder’s only clue is Vidya/Durga’s diary, which chronicles events from eight years ago, when Minnie was six years old (played by cute Naisha Khanna) and the duo lived north in Kalimpong. Most of Balan’s scenes in the film are from these flashbacks. It’s frustrating that her character is inactive for much of the present-day storyline.

Inder takes the lead on the case as he adjusts to a new environment. A “gut feeling” gone wrong got him demoted from Kolkata to normally uneventful Chandan Nagar. Precisely how he earned his demotion isn’t explained, but all signs point to Inder being a decent guy. He’s got a sweet daughter and a wife, Rashmi (Manini Chadha), with whom he shares a playful antagonism. Even though Rashmi knows her husband is keeping something from her, she resists the urge to snoop in Vidya’s diary, waiting until Inder is ready to tell her the truth.

While Inder is a fine character, his problems aren’t are dire as Vidya’s, thus Ghosh’s choice to present the two character arcs in parallel doesn’t work. Vidya and Minnie find themselves in a life-or-death struggle, only for the action to cut to Inder fretting about whether his work on the case will earn him a promotion back to Kolkata. The stakes are so unequal that juxtaposing them makes Inder look more frivolous than he really is.

Balan is compelling in everything that she does, and Kahaani 2 is no different. It falls on her to deliver Ghosh’s message about the enduring trauma of sexual abuse, and she does so powerfully. Both girls who play Minnie do a lovely job and show tremendous promise. Also noteworthy is a sweet turn by Tota Roychoudhury as Arun, Vidya’s mild-mannered suitor in Kalimpong.

There are some beautifully vivid shots of Chandan Nagar at night, but the town doesn’t have a strongly defined identity the way that Kolkata did in the original Kahaani. That’s most obvious difference between the films, and — more than anything else — it is what marks Kahaani 2 as the inferior of the two movies.

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Movie Review: Tiger Zinda Hai (2017)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Tiger Zinda Hai (“Tiger Lives“) has its share of highlights, but the relentless plot requires a degree of stamina that would challenge any action movie enthusiast. Quick transitions from one set piece to the next allow little space for story or character development.

Set eight years after the events of Ek Tha Tiger, Salman Khan’s titular hero and his then-girlfriend-now-wife Zoya (Katrina Kaif) live in Austria with their son, Junior. The novelty of seeing Khan play a father onscreen is noteworthy, owing to its rarity.

Though Tiger and Zoya are retired from active duty, they haven’t left the spy life behind entirely. Zoya keeps her combat skills sharp by subduing armed robbers in the local grocery store, and Tiger confidently fights a pack of wolves while snowboarding. He has a room dedicated to tracking the activities of Indian intelligence agency RAW across the globe.

Thus, he’s not surprised when his former boss Shenoy (Girish Karnad) comes to him with an urgent mission: Islamic militants captured twenty-five Indian nursing students working in Iraq, and America has given India seven days to rescue their people before they bomb the hospital where the students are being held.

Zoya knows that Tiger’s love of country surpasses even his love for her and Junior, so she sends him on his mission without complaint. What they don’t know is that the Indian authorities neglected to tell them that fifteen Pakistani nurses are also being held in the same hospital. Tiger’s not the only one to get called out of retirement.

Tiger Zinda Hai‘s cynicism about politics is its most interesting attribute. As in the original film, the main couple personify the idea that Indians and Pakistanis have more in common than not, and that it’s the fault of the governments of both countries for pursuing agendas that make peace impossible. The members of Zoya’s and Tiger’s support teams also come to see the wisdom of working together toward shared goals, a tactic they wish could be applied across borders to improve things like education and healthcare on the subcontinent.

The sequel’s story expands that cynicism globally to indict America for what is deemed to be imperialism in the Middle East, chiefly the greedy pursuits of oil and lucrative weapons contracts cloaked under the guise of the eradication of terrorism. Abu Usman (Sajjad Delafrooz) — the leader of the terrorist group in Tiger Zinda Hai — cites his years in detention at Guantanamo Bay as the very reason for his radicalization.

Unfortunately, these political ideas aren’t woven into the plot, instead existing as meta-commentary directing the audience on how they can find their own kind of woke nationalism. Zoya’s and Tiger’s teams shed their instinctive mistrust of one another within minutes. Most of the criticism of America arises from conversations between Abu Usman and Poorna (Anupriya Goenka), the head nurse, but as supporting characters, the plot doesn’t devote much time to their character growth.

Then again, none of the characters in the movie really grow. Tiger is what he is: a patriotic humanitarian killing machine. Not that there’s anything wrong with such a character; it’s just a question of how much time can an audience be asked to spend with a character that reacts but doesn’t evolve.

The answer to that question is: something less than Tiger Zinda Hai‘s lengthy 161-minute runtime. Apart from one romantic song early in the movie — before Tiger leaves his family and we bid adieu to Junior for most of the film — the plot races through each action sequence, followed by a brief break to set up the next action sequence. After a while, all the explosions and fisticuffs become too much of a good thing.

Yet, when it is good, Tiger Zinda Hai is pretty fun. All of the movie’s best moments belong to Katrina Kaif, and she proves herself to be a compelling action hero in her own right. From her stunt-driving through narrow alleyways to her own one-woman-wrecking-crew takedown of a bunch of bad guys, Kaif commands the screen.

Khan is no slouch when it comes to fight sequences, of course, and his obligatory shirtless scene is a hoot. His sidekicks have little to do, raising questions as to how that can be the case given how long the movie is. Delafrooz’s relaxed demeanor makes him an effective villain.

One personal complaint is that Tiger Zinda Hai cuts corners by casting non-Americans in American roles, leading to some head-scratching accents. Also unintentionally hilarious is the fact that one of the American military officers in Iraq has his first name — Gary — written on his name tag on his uniform. Gary zinda hai!

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