Tag Archives: 2.5 Stars

Movie Review: Phone Bhoot (2022)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Phone Bhoot on Amazon Prime

Phone Bhoot is almost a very good movie. It has a distinct style and point of view, and Ishaan Khattar gives a hypnotic performance. But it badly needs editing.

It’s not just that Phone Bhoot is too long (though it is, especially for a comedy) or that scenes are too slow (though they are). It’s that all the cruft in the film makes the jokes less funny than if they were quick hits. There’s a reason why the Hamlet quote “Brevity is the soul of wit” endures over the centuries.

For example, take how the film’s main characters acquire their superpowers. Friends Major (Siddhant Chaturvedi) and Gullu (Khattar) are two horror-obsessed slackers. While fixing the glowing eyes of their Frankenstein-like monster statue named Raaka, our heroes are electrocuted. Instead of just convulsing for a few seconds then dropping, director Gurmmeet Singh has the camera repeatedly cut between Major, Gullu, and Raaka as the humans convulse for what feels like forever. The prolonged electrocution sequence has been a tired Bollywood comedy trope for a long time.

When the guys wake up, they find that they can see ghosts. Specifically, they can see Ragini (Katrina Kaif), a beautiful spectre who makes them a proposition. She will help them start an exorcism business, thereby earning enough to pay back the money that the guys owe their fathers. In exchange, they have to help her with a favor, no questions asked.

An interesting theme that comes up as the trio’s exorcism business takes off is the financial ramifications of death. The ghost of a young woman haunts the family of the man who killed her in a hit-and-run not just because of the unfairness of her life being cut short. It’s also because the woman was the breadwinner for her aging parents, who now live in poverty. Other ghosts have similar stories. It’s a thoughtful acknowledgement that justice may be best served in forms other than jail time or equivalent physical punishment.

Another cool thing about Major and Gullu is that they are obsessed expressly with Indian horror movies. There are very few references to Hollywood horror films in the movie, and all of the posters and props in their apartment are from older Bollywood flicks. Ragini’s name obviously comes from the Ragini MMS series, and I’m sure there are tons of other references for those with a deeper knowledge of spooky Hindi classics than I have.

Unfortunately, as with the electrocution sequence, the movie draws too much from outdated comedy and storytelling styles. Jokes last so long that they stop being funny. The story moves too slowly, especially since there isn’t really a b-plot. There’s plenty of room in the narrative for characters like the Major’s and Gullu’s dads to reappear to check on their unconventional sons’ progress, or for there to be more to the guys’ thin association with a witch whose name translates in the English subtitles as Wicky Witch (Sheeba Chaddha).

Likewise, it would’ve been better to have the guys encounter the movie’s villain Aatmaram Shastrashakti (Jackie Shroff) earlier in the story, rather than keep the evil sorcerer sequestered in the underground lair he’s leasing from Big Trouble in Little China‘s David Lo Pan.

Another disappointment is that the songs and choreography are forgettable. None of the numbers will rank among Kaif’s greatest hits, despite pairing her with an excellent dancer like Khattar. (Chartuvedi holds his own on the dance floor, too.)

Kaif’s performance is solid as the stand-in for the audience, rolling her eyes at the two dopes she’s forced to rely on for help. Chaturvedi’s mugging as Major is a bit much at times but mostly fits with his character’s personality. Khattar is the real standout, totally immersing himself in every scene, no matter how silly, and reacting authentically.

Were it 30 minutes shorter, Phone Bhoot would be a real winner.

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Movie Review: Blurr (2022)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Blurr on Zee5

Blurr — a remake of the 2010 Spanish movie Julia’s Eyes — is like two movies in one. The first half is a compelling thriller about a married couple at odds with each other about how to deal with a family tragedy. The second half is an inadequately-set-up horror film.

Gayatri (Taapsee Pannu) gasps for breath as she wakes from a nightmare about her identical twin sister, Gautami (also Pannu). She convinces her reluctant husband Neel (Gulshan Devaiah) to drive to the forest cabin where Gautami lives to check on her. There, they find Gautami’s body hanging from a noose in the attic.

The police are eager to close the case on Gautami’s apparent suicide, but Gayatri sensed in her dream that her sister wasn’t alone when she died. Gautami hated rap music, but her stereo blasts it out at full volume when turned on. Gayatri heard the whining sound of a camera flash in her dream — a sound she hears again in the house and around town as she and Neel decide their next steps.

Gayatri’s relationship with Neel is the most interesting part of Blurr. He acts sketchy, but he’s also right that maybe Gayatri doesn’t want to accept the obvious. After all, Gautami had been blind for the last year, the result of a degenerative eye condition that Gayatri also has. Given that the condition is exacerbated by stress, Neel’s worried about his wife’s health. Pannu and Devaiah have a terrific chemistry whether their characters are fighting or reminiscing about the good times. They make a great on-screen duo.

Eventually, Neel’s fears come true, and Gayatri is forced to undergo emergency surgery to restore her sight. She must keep her eyes bandaged for two full weeks in order for them to properly heal. Instead of recovering in the hospital, Gayatri insists on returning to her sister’s house.

This is purely a plot convenience to endanger Gayatri, but it makes little sense given her state of mind to this point. Before the surgery, she was convinced that the unknown person she believes killed her sister was following her and was able to enter her house at night. Staying in a fully staffed hospital is obviously safer, so her insistence on recuperating at home is absurd.

Gayatri’s loss of eyesight dovetails with the film’s theme of social invisibility. Multiple characters mention feeling as though people look past them — a cue to the audience to pay attention to characters on the periphery of the story. But writer-director Ajay Bahl is so stingy with clues that invested viewers will not find their diligence rewarded. The film’s last act is more of a survival horror story than it is a mystery.

Even though the second half of Blurr is a letdown, it’s generally an engaging and watchable thriller. Yet the biggest mystery of all is not what happened to Gautami, but why the killer needs a darkroom to develop Polaroid photos.

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Movie Review: Laal Singh Chaddha (2022)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Laal Singh Chaddha — an official remake of Forrest Gump — was released with the expectation that it would be yet another blockbuster for Aamir Khan, along the lines of 3 Idiots and PK. Such a high bar was always going to be tough to clear. Laal Singh Chaddha is a perfectly nice movie, but that’s it.

In this version, the Forrest Gump character is Laal Singh Chaddha (Khan). He admits that he’s not too smart, but his life has been full of twists and turns. He recounts his story to his neighbors in a train carriage — an unwilling audience at first, but they wind up riveted by the end.

Young Laal (Ahmad Ibn Umar) grows up in a small farming town where he’s teased for wearing leg braces. His only friend is a girl named Rupa (Hafsa Ashraf). Laal follows every order from Rupa to the letter, so when she orders him to run from bullies, he does so, discovering that he no longer needs his braces.

When Rupa’s father murders her mother during a spat over money, Rupa comes to live with her aunt at Laal’s house, where the older woman works as a housekeeper. Rupa vows to get very rich when she grows up so that she never has to be on the receiving end of the kind of abuse that killed her mom.

Rupa (played as an adult by Kareena Kapoor) is a much more interesting character than Laal. Rupa’s motivations are understandable, and she’s willing to take risks to get what she wants. Those risks come with high-stakes consequences she’s forced to deal with.

Laal, on the other hand, floats through life like a feather on the wind — an obvious visual metaphor the film uses during the opening credits. He doesn’t want anything other than to be with Rupa, and when he can’t be, stuff just happens to him.

A selling point for both Forrest Gump and Laal Singh Chaddha is that both lead characters accidentally wind up in proximity to pivotal events in national history. When Forrest Gump released in 1994, the technology used to put Tom Hanks’ character into historical footage was cutting edge. Thanks to the advent of Photoshop and proliferation of deepfakes in the twenty years since Atul Kulkarni started his Indian adaptation of the screenplay, the altered archival videos in Laal Singh Chaddha are no longer so novel.

There’s also the fact that the movie has little to say about the historical events it features. They exist more as name checks, and Laal’s proximity is often no more consequential than a fan’s attendance at a sporting event.

The magnitude of these historical events belie the film’s themes, which are actually quite small and personal in nature. The moral lessons are things like loyalty and following through on promises even when there’s no one around to hold you accountable. This isn’t a movie about a man who changes the world.

There’s nothing wrong with Laal Singh Chaddha‘s modest goals. It’s a totally watchable film, if a bit too long. Mona Singh is sweet as Laal’s loving mother. Aamir Khan’s wide-eyed performance is not dissimilar from his turn in PK, although that was a better movie.

Kareena Kapoor turns in a masterclass in acting in every scene she’s in. It’s almost unimaginable that she wasn’t first choice for the role (which was reputedly supposed to go to Manushi Chhillar). She may not play the title character, but Laal Singh Chaddha belongs to Kareena Kapoor.

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Movie Review: Mr. Malcolm’s List (2022)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the novel Mr. Malcolm’s List at Amazon

Mr. Malcolm’s List releases in US theaters July 1, 2022

Freida Pinto executive produces and stars in the Georgian era romance Mr. Malcolm’s List, based on the novel by Suzanne Allain (who also wrote the screenplay). The film has all the trappings of a mannered period drama, but it’s not as witty as it could be.

London, 1820s. Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) is aging out of her desirability as a marriage partner. She gets her hopes up when London’s most eligible bachelor Mr. Jeremy Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù) escorts her to the opera but is humiliated when he declines to ask her out again. She’s further incensed when her cousin Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) discovers that Mr. Malcolm has a list of requirements for a prospective bride, and that Julia was eliminated for being unable to hold an intelligent conversation.

Julia concocts a plan to trick Mr. Malcolm into falling in love with a seemingly ideal woman, only for the woman to produce a list of her own and dump him, paying back Julia’s humiliation in kind. Her childhood friend Selina Dalton (Pinto) — a pretty pastor’s daughter from the country, and an unknown in London society — is the perfect candidate for Julia’s scheme. Selina reluctantly agrees to help.

Upon her arrival in London, Selina is immediately beset by suitors. Besides Mr. Malcolm — whom Selina suspects is not the villain Julia believes him to be — handsome Captain Ossory (Theo James) also approaches her, fulfilling his late aunt’s wish for the two of them to meet. The attention paid to Selina doesn’t escape Julia’s notice, and she realizes her plan may not have been so brilliant after all.

Mr. Malcolm’s List meets most of the requirements for this kind of period romantic comedy drama. The costumes and sets are fancy. The actors are all good-looking. The dance at the masquerade ball is steamy, despite the fact that the participants’ physical contact is limited to holding hands. The plot unfolds at a good clip.

Yet the interactions between the characters leave a lot to be desired. Conversations lack a crisp back-and-forth exchange (2016’s Love & Friendship offers a good example of how it should be done). First-time director Emma Holly Jones and editor Kate Hickey leave too much dead air within conversations. Allain’s dialogue also needs punching up. Characters say obvious or straightforward things but react as though they’ve uttered something much more clever (Julia is especially guilty of this).

There’s also a character who exists as comic relief — Julia’s servant John (Divian Ladwa) — who never says or does anything funny enough to deserve the screentime he gets.

Mr. Malcolm’s List is not a stand-out in its genre, but it is a passably good example of it. The film’s shortcomings are less obvious once the plot really gets rolling.

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Movie Review: Toolsidas Junior (2022)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Toolsidas Junior on Netflix

An overly-long first half keeps Toolsidas Junior from reaching its full potential, but a strong second half rewards those willing to stick with this underdog story.

Writer-director Mridul Mahendra (listed in the credits as Mridul Toolsidass) based his film on a true story: his own. Perhaps that’s why it feels like there’s a lot of extraneous material in Toolsidas Junior — stuff personally important to the filmmaker that he wanted to include, even though it slows the pace of the film.

The movie opens with a snooker tournament at the Calcutta Sports Club in 1994. Toolsidas (Rajiv Kapoor, in his final film) is a bit of a showboat, doing tricks to impress his adoring 13-year-old son Midi (Varun Buddhadev). Toolsidas earns his spot in the next day’s finals, set to face the reigning champ: the villainous Jimmy Tandon (Dalip Tahil).

Toolsidas celebrates at the club bar with what he promises is just one drink. Hours later, Midi’s furious mom (Tasveer Kamil) sends him to collect his drunken dad. This is something Midi has clearly done numerous times. At the tournament finals, Jimmy uses a break in the action to trick Toolsidas into getting drunk, allowing the villain to come from behind and win for a sixth consecutive time.

Sensing turmoil in the family, Midi’s older brother Goti (Chinmai Chandranshuh) becomes convinced that the boys have to start earning money. A fan of get-rich-quick schemes, Goti wants to use Midi’s diligence and athletic aptitude to make a ton of money. Goti’s assumption that Midi will be naturally gifted at whatever sport he tries is ridiculous, but the film treats it seriously, devoting way too much time to Midi failing repeatedly and Goti getting mad at him. What should have been a brief montage drags on interminably.

The pace plods along even after Midi convinces Goti that there’s money to be made gambling on snooker. Plus, learning to play will give Midi the chance to avenge his dad’s loss and defeat Jimmy. Midi’s too young to play at the Sports Club, so he finds a pool hall in a seedy part of town where he meets his mentor: crusty, enigmatic former national champion Salaam Bhai (Sanjay Dutt). The process is so protracted that Midi’s training doesn’t begin until an hour into the film.

One can’t blame viewers for bailing out before this point, but this is when Toolsidas Junior gets good. Salaam Bhai has clever ways of explaining techniques to Midi, like equating various methods for striking the ball to the punching styles of Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikanth, and Mithun Chakraborthy.

Salaam Bhai also uses the opportunity to teach Midi a lesson about economic class. Midi’s family has membership at an exclusive country club. Salaam Bhai is poor and always has been. When Midi takes a win on a technicality and passes up a chance to play, Salaam Bhai lights into Midi. A privileged kid like him can’t understand what it’s like to skip eating just to save enough money to play. Midi leaves food on his plate because he’s never has to worry where his next meal will come from. Ever the good student, Midi takes Salaam Bhai’s lesson to heart. There’s plenty of cruft in Toolsidas Junior, but Mridul Mahendra deserves credit for including this subplot in his story.

Varun Buddhadev is Bollywood’s go-to child actor of the moment for good reason. His performance in Toolsidas Junior is really solid, and it’s obvious how much effort he put into learning snooker for the film. The movie is at its best when Buddhadev and Sanjay Dutt interact with one another. They make a winning team.

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Movie Review: Jalsa (2022)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Jalsa on Amazon Prime

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.

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Movie Review: Looop Lapeta (2022)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Looop Lapeta on Netflix

Looop Lapeta is an official remake of the 1998 German film Run Lola Run (complete with a couple of cute nods to the original). To give a hint to the Hindi adaptation’s main problem, consider this: Looop Lapeta is 2 hours and 11 minutes long, while Run Lola Run has a runtime of just 1 hour and 20 minutes.

From the start, debutant feature director Aakash Bhatia makes a statement with the film’s bold visual style. The color palette tends toward saturated greens and reds, and the camera makes frequent use of closeups of the actors’ faces. The style, coupled with a raucous soundtrack, preps the audience for a film that could be colloquially described as a bit “extra.”

Taapsee Pannu plays Savi, a former track athlete whose plans were dashed by a career-ending knee injury. She’s saved in her moment of despair by Satya (Tahir Raj Bhasin), a guy who means well even if he struggles to do well. Though they love each other, they’re getting nowhere, with Savi addicted to prescription drugs she steals from the elderly man she takes care of and Satya gambling away whatever money he earns.

Things get serious when Satya loses $5 million and has less than an hour to replace it before his gangster boss cooks him alive. Savi jumps into action to save Satya, stymied in her quest by a lovelorn cab driver named Jacob (Sameer Kevin Roy) and bumbling brothers Appu (Manik Papneja) and Gappu (Raghav Raj Kakker), among others.

There’s more to Savi’s mission than simply saving Satya’s life — Savi has to stop hurting herself and others and reengage with society in a productive way — but the film doesn’t do the early work to establish why we should care whether Savi and Satya succeed. It’s taken for granted that we will because they’re the main characters and because Savi is pregnant (something she’s not happy about).

That said, when the film finally establishes what Savi’s real goal is, the story is quite enjoyable. Pannu does a nice job switching from a woman angry with the world to one with a purpose. Her subplot with Jacob the cabbie is pretty fun.

Yet the movie would’ve been better if it were quite a bit shorter. Bhatia’s remake is 50 minutes longer than the original, and without good reason. The script relies on repetition for humor, to its detriment. Characters repeat the phrase “pachaas laakh” (“five million”) to each other over and over in a scene that repeats itself multiple times throughout the film. It’s not amusing.

Worse still is the time devoted to the bumbling brothers Appu and Gappu, sons of a jewelry store owner who feel unappreciated by their dad. They plan to rob the jewelry store at the same time Satya is trying to rob the same store. The brothers are irritating and repetitive, subtracting more than they add to the story.

Director Bhatia’s first feature film shows some promise, but he missed a crucial lesson from his source material: less is more.

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Movie Review: Gehraiyaan (2022)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Gehraiyaan on Amazon Prime

Gehraiyaan is writer-director Shakun Batra’s third film, after his brilliant sophomore effort, Kapoor & Sons. Unfortunately, Gehraiyaan repeats some of the same missteps from Batra’s enjoyable but frustrating debut — Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu — including problems with pacing and a muddled thematic conclusion.

Deepika Padukone stars as Alisha, a woman plagued by fears of succumbing to the same fate as her mother, who died by suicide when Alisha was a little girl. Now an adult, Alisha is dating her childhood best friend Karan (Dhairya Karwa), working overtime as a yoga instructor to support his floundering dreams of being a novelist. She feels stuck — a sentiment her mother expressed before her death.

Then Alisha’s cousin Tia (Ananya Panday) re-enters the picture. Tia is rich, the sole beneficiary of her dad’s real estate empire, which he once shared with Alisha’s father. The parents split on bad terms shortly before Alisha’s mother’s death, separating the cousins and sending their financial fortunes in opposite directions. Now Tia is living the high life with her handsome fiance Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi), her father’s former protege who aspires to be a big-time developer himself.

On the night they first meet, Zain flirts with Alisha. That should be a red flag to Alisha, but she’s desperate for a change. When opportunity presents itself, she and Zain begin an affair. This exacerbates tensions in her relationship with Karan, leading them to break up. Zain promises to end things with Tia in six months, after he returns an investment she made in his company. Then, he promises, he and Alisha can be together.

Alisha and Zain make a sexy pair, and the thrill of their relationship is apparent. There’s always the danger of what would happen if Tia found out — especially since Tia repeatedly hints in conversations with her mother that there’s something important that Alisha doesn’t know.

About halfway through Gehraiyaan, the relationship drama takes a backseat, as the movie pivots to focus for way too long on financial shenanigans at Zain’s company. The details aren’t particularly interesting in and of themselves, and are even less so because they don’t prompt Zain to undergo any character growth. It’s established early on that Zain’s only priority is himself, and the time spent on his subplot feels like it comes at Alisha’s expense. She’s the only character in the film on a personal growth journey.

Part of Alisha’s journey is deciding what kind of relationship to have with her estranged father Vinod (Naseeruddin Shah), whom she blames for her mother’s death. Given their immense talents, it’s little surprise that the scenes between Padukone and Shah are highlights. Panday is also really good in her supporting role, playing Tia as both canny and vulnerable. The film could have used more scenes between her and Padukone as well.

Even when Alisha’s character growth is foregrounded in the plot, the ways the film’s themes are applied to her story feel off. One theme is about moving beyond the past and choosing the direction of one’s life, but it’s hard for Alisha to choose wisely, since every person she knows is hiding something from her. And the theme of moving forward is at odds with a contradictory theme that you can’t really escape the past anyway.

At best, Batra is trying to too hard to avoid a predictable ending. At worst, his theming is just a mess. Either way, the story ends on what feels like a pointless twist. Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu suffered from a similarly disappointing fate. Kapoor & Sons didn’t have that problem, so here’s hoping Batra nails it next time.

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Movie Review: Tribhanga (2021)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Tribhanga on Netflix

A matriarch’s serious illness gives her family occasion to examine their troubled relationships in Tribhanga: Tedhi Medhi Crazy. One big structural flaw hampers this otherwise insightful and well-acted depiction of complicated family dynamics.

Nayan (Tanvi Azmi) is a celebrated author and head of the Apte family. She has a stroke and falls into a coma while dictating her autobiography to her ghost writer, Milan (Kunaal Roy Kapur). Nayan’s daughter Anu (Kajol), a famous and temperamental actress, rushes to Nayan’s bedside with her own adult daughter, Masha (Milthila Palkar).

One of Anu’s first reactions is to joke that at least she won’t have to listen to Nayan talk for a change. Anu and her brother Robindro (Vaibhav Tatwawaadi) don’t try to hide their disdain for their mother just because she’s ill. Nayan made some radical, progressive choices in her life, such as giving her children her own surname following her divorce from their father. However, she never considered the potential negative impacts those choices could have on her kids, nor the price they would pay for her devotion to her writing.

Those hard early years forged an unshakeable alliance between Anu and Robindro and influenced Anu’s own parenting style. Anu and Masha are joined at the hip, but there’s still space for Masha to have her own separate, affectionate relationship with Nayan. Masha seizes upon the opportunity presented by her grandmother’s hospitalization to learn more about the men who were once important in Nayan’s life.

The key man in Nayan’s life at present is Milan, who is the biggest problem in Tribhanga. He’s not a real character so much as a human plot device created to stoke drama and move the story forward. His interactions with the other characters are unnatural, as though Milan has no understanding of human emotions. His awkwardness stands out, given how authentic all of the other characters feel and how well-performed they are, especially by Kajol and Palkar.

Milan — who spends almost as much time in Nayan’s hospital room as Anu — cannot understand why Anu hates her mother. When Anu finally tells him why, her anger seems perfectly justifiable. Milan responds by showing her a video of Nayan addressing the subject matter directly. So Milan already knew the reason, yet still could not understand Anu’s feelings.

Tribhanga is only writer-director Renuka Shahane’s second feature film (her first in Hindi), so maybe relying so heavily on Milan for plot progress is a matter of inexperience. It might also be a matter of not trusting other characters and their actors to more the story forward organically. Instead, Milan interrupts scenes that promise to reveal family history in a more natural, light-hearted way — such as when Anu and Robindro reminisce over their aunt’s delicious ladoos — just to say something dumb that makes Anu mad and cuts the scene short.

In a film about how parental choices affect children, having Milan lurk around the hospital feels like another unwanted choice imposed upon Anu via Nayan and director Shahane. In reality, would anyone want a non-family member whom no one but the comatose patient even likes hanging around in a small hospital room? Other characters could have given Anu insight into her mother’s thoughts just as easily as Milan, especially since the film relies on flashbacks and not just Milan’s interview footage to present Nayan’s side of the story.

The film also stumbles a bit when making comparisons between Anu’s parenting style and Nayan’s, treating some actions as equivalent when they aren’t. Same for comparing Anu’s reaction to her childhood with Masha’s. The film suggests that Masha’s decision to marry into a conservative, patriarchal family as the logical response to being raised by a single mother, as though families only exist in those two forms with nothing in between.

Director Shahane is onto something with Tribhanga. She knows how to write complex women characters and build interesting relationships for them. Trusting in the audience to follow those characters through a story that develops organically is the next step.

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Movie Review: Chhalaang (2020)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Chhalaang on Amazon Prime

A character archetype Bollywood screenwriters return to time and again is the “loafer with a heart of gold”: a leading man with limited career prospects and few likeable qualities (other than being handsome) who is nevertheless beloved in his small town and allowed to boss around whomever he wants. His only acknowledged flaw is that he doesn’t have a girlfriend — though he will by the end of the movie.

As someone who didn’t grow up watching films with this archetype, it’s a character I’ve never warmed to. The presumed inherent perfection of the main character — whom the audience is supposed to like because of their affinity for the actor playing him — precludes meaningful character growth.

Chhalaang turns the trope on its head, introducing a typical “loafer with a heart of gold,” exposing his shortcomings, and forcing him to fix them — especially if he wants to get the girl.

Montu (Rajkummar Rao) works as a gym teacher at his old high school in Haryana, even though he’s not interested in teaching. Principal Gehlot (Ila Arun) doesn’t care about the subject either, which is why she hired Montu to fill the job.

The school’s beautiful new computer teacher Neelu (Nushrat Bharucha) piques Montu’s interest. They get off on the wrong foot when Montu publicly embarrasses her parents while he and his boys are out harassing couples celebrating Valentine’s Day. More importantly, Neelu recognizes Montu as a guy who only does things that are easy, avoiding challenges.

Things change with the sudden arrival of a new gym teacher, I. M. Singh (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub). A new state law makes physical education compulsory, forcing Principal Gehlot to hire someone with actual teaching credentials. She tells Montu he can stay on as Singh’s assistant, but Montu’s pride won’t allow it. He throws down the gauntlet: he and Singh will train two teams of students for a sports tournament, and the winner gets to keep the job.

It’s a silly premise, but this is a comedy after all — and a pretty good one at that. There are lots of well-written jokes that are carefully translated in English subtitles by Laxminarayan Singh. Rao is always good, and he plays Montu with sincerity. Rao and Bharucha have a nice chemistry as well. Even better is the relationship between Rao and Saurab Shukla, who plays Montu’s former teacher and best friend, Mr. Shukla.

Coaching the kids in preparation for the tournament — which features funny play-by-play announcing by Mr. Shukla and Principal Gehlot — helps Montu learn the importance of seeing a task through to its completion, regardless of the outcome. However, it’s a little morally questionable that the kids are forced to partake in the competition over their parents’ objections and at the expense of their academics. And Montu’s training methods — which include siccing dogs on them to make them run faster — aren’t exactly orthodox.

A preponderance of moral inconsistencies keep Chhalaang from  being the family-friendly classic it could have been. Neelu — who is established as a dedicated and compassionate educator — suffers for the sake of Montu’s character growth. When parents pull their children from the competition, Neelu threatens to fail the students in retaliation. Montu’s lawyer father Kamlesh (Satish Kaushik) joins her, threatening legal action against the parents unless the kids participate. It’s not funny and seems out of character for both Neelu and Kamlesh.

Neelu is part of another insensitive scene that errs while trying to make a valid point. She brings Montu to a school for students with special needs where she volunteers in her off-hours. The purpose is to show Montu — whose team for the competition is made up of kids who’d rather be studying math, while Singh’s is all jocks — that every student can flourish with the help of a dedicated teacher. Neelu tells Montu, “Any teacher can take a student from 90 to 100, but only a good teacher can take a student from 10 to 40.” It’s a clever line, but there had to be a better way to make this point than calling specials needs students a bunch of 10s out of 100.

Chhalaang‘s writing is its best and worst feature. The dialogue is top notch. Director Hansal Mehta does what he can to make the film enjoyable and to make Montu’s evolution feel earned. But the screenplay, by writers Luv Ranjan, Aseem Arrora, and Zeishan Quadriis, needed more  moral consistency.

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