Tag Archives: 2 Stars

Movie Review: Tumhari Sulu (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Actors Vidya Balan and Manav Kaul carry Tumhari Sulu, a task made more difficult by the story’s lack of perspective. It’s hard to tell how first-time feature filmmaker Suresh Triveni expects the audience to feel about his characters and their journey.

Balan plays Sulu, a bored housewife who entertains herself by entering radio contests. Her husband, Ashok (Kaul), ekes out a meager paycheck managing a dysfunctional tailoring shop. Their eleven-year-old son Pranav (Abhishek Sharma) earns money on the side by selling dirty DVDs and magazines to his classmates.

Sulu’s more successful sisters delight in their sibling’s lower-middle-class status, chiding Sulu for not having a job while reminding her that her lack of a degree precludes her from getting a reputable gig, anyway.

When Sulu goes to the radio station to collect her latest prize — a pressure cooker — she notices an ad for a late-night radio show host. She finagles a meeting with the station manager, Maria (Neha Dhupia), who gives Sulu a shot, if only for the chance to laugh at the frumpy, naive housewife. However, Sulu’s sultry delivery is just what Maria is looking for, and a new radio star is born.

Triveni’s story — which he wrote and directed — takes a long time to get to this point without advancing the characters’ development. The plot meanders, never lingering long enough to develop any of the potential themes — topics like Sulu’s self-worth, women’s financial independence, or the challenges of a two-income household — beyond a surface level examination.

Even if one assumes that Triveni is leaving it to the audience to draw their own conclusions, he doesn’t give them enough information to do so, chiefly because the characters don’t have meaningful conversations. Sulu doesn’t take her husband seriously, and she has no friends to confide in. Without substantive dialogues — or even internal monologues — it’s hard to infer what is important to the characters, and there’s only so much meaning we can derive from their actions alone.

Triveni also takes for granted the notion that a family’s ability to function is ultimately a woman’s responsibility. When complications arise concurrent with Sulu’s new job, it’s implied that, even if the problem’s aren’t specifically Sulu’s fault, they are her responsibility to fix. Nevermind that Ashok’s work situation was hardly ideal or that Pranav was already a junior pornographer before Sulu started her radio gig.

As is the case with every movie starting Vidya Balan, she is Tumhari Sulu‘s greatest asset, always fun and engaging. Yet, Kaul’s performance enables Balan to be her best. During Sulu’s and Ashok’s happier moments, the pair are adorable together — an unexpected delight, given that Kaul usually plays villains. Dhupia is a great choice to play a hip radio station manager, but her character is too easygoing to be convincing, given the competitive nature of that industry.

Songs are weirdly integrated into Tumhari Sulu, and the inclusion of random parkour stunts into one of them almost hints at an insecurity about whether the film itself is exciting and cool enough to grab the audience’s attention. Perhaps a co-writer for Triveni would have mitigated some of the burden on Balan’s and Kaul’s shoulders.

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Movie Review: Judwaa 2 (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Even with a new cast, Judwaa 2 feels dated.

Judwaa 2 is less of a true sequel to 1997’s Judwaa than a reboot, switching out Salman Khan in the lead role for Varun Dhawan (son of the director of both films, David Dhawan). Unlike a lore-heavy fantasy or superhero flick, watching the original Judwaa isn’t a prerequisite for watching Judwaa 2.

The reboot opens with Mr. Malhotra (Sachin Khedekar) flying home for the birth of his twin sons. A seemingly friendly fellow passenger named Charles (Zakir Hussain) slips some contraband into Malhotra’s bag, but Malhotra has already alerted the police, who attempt to apprehend Charles when he shows up at the hospital to collect his goods.

Charles escapes with one of the newborn baby boys as a hostage, accidentally dropping him on some train tracks. Charles blows up a building, lying that the boy was inside and vowing to come back some day for Malhotra’s other son. This seems like a disproportionate revenge response given that the police were already on to Charles and Malhotra just made their job a little easier.

As the cops haul Charles away and Malhotra grieves for the son he believes to be dead, a train bears down on the dropped baby. The boy — who will shortly be named Raja by the lady who discovers him — gets a metaphysical assist from his brother, Prem. The doctor who delivered the boys explained to the Malhotras that, because the boys were born attached at the arm (separated by a surgery that doesn’t even leave a scar, LOL), they share a connection that occurs “one in eight million” times. When the boys are within even a few miles of one another, they will feel each other’s emotions and physical sensations.

Sensing Raja’s fear at the oncoming train, Prem — displaying remarkable muscle control for a newborn — rolls to his side in his crib, causing Raja to roll safely off the tracks as the train passes by. The sequence is exactly as stupid as it sounds, made stupider by cheap-looking CGI.

The Malhotras flee to safety in London, where Prem grows up to be a wimpy nerd who is nevertheless built like a Mr. Universe contestant. Raja is a brash street urchin with a heart of gold who gets into trouble when he beats up rich guy Alex (Vivan Bhatena) for being a jerk. Raja and his adopted brother Nandu (Rajpal Yadav) flee to London to escape Alex’s wrath. Nandu is excited at the opportunity to sexually harass the air hostesses on the flight, and Raja hits on Alishka (Jacqueline Fernandez), the beautiful woman sitting next to him.

With the long-lost brothers finally in the same city, their metaphysical link reactivates. Raja feels the pain when a bully grabs Prem’s junk, and Prem slaps people when Raja gets into a fight. Prem also kisses his cute classmate Samaira (Taapsee Pannu) and her mother (Upasana Singh) when Raja smooches Alishka in an attempt to hide his face from the police.

While multiple Baahubali references root the story in the modern day, elements such as lazy plotting and the normalization of sexual harassment make Judwaa 2 feel out-of-date. There’s no reason why the gags involving the female love interests couldn’t have been updated to reflect the progressive direction many Hindi films have adopted regarding gender politics.

It’s a missed opportunity, considering the caliber of Judwaa 2‘s two leading ladies. Jacqueline Fernandez is perhaps Bollywood’s best female physical comedian. She sells every scene she’s in, no matter how silly she’s asked to be. If you can take your eyes off of her impressive dance moves, watch her expressive face during her song performances. She’s a total pro.

Taapsee Pannu’s performance is a reminder of her incredible versatility. She proved her dramatic chops in Pink and her action skills in Baby and its follow-up Naam Shabana, a spin-off created just for her. Judwaa 2 is a return to her roots in Hindi cinema; her debut film was the 2013 comedy Chashme Baddoor, also directed by David Dhawan. Judwaa 2 not only finds Pannu playing for laughs again, but dancing up a storm and flaunting a physique as impressive as any of her Bollywood contemporaries.

Varun Dhawan is charismatic in his double role, but there’s not much that we haven’t seen from him before. His resume is already heavy on comedies, and this isn’t one of the better ones. It’s not just the poor treatment of the female leads at his characters’ hands that makes Judwaa 2 feel like a throwback. There’s an offensive fight sequence involving a group of black men whom Raja refers to as “the West Indies team.” Raja repeatedly taunts them, ending his sentences with a Caribbean-accented “mon,” even though the men themselves say the word “man” with British accents.

Other than those issues, Judwaa 2 isn’t as morally problematic as it could have been (faint praise, indeed). The dance numbers are fun, and Fernandez and Pannu make more out of their roles than they’re given to work with. Judwaa 2 is a watchable movie, but not a memorable one.

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Movie Review: Simran (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Simran is unfairly stacked against its main character, putting her in a no-win situation while expecting her to sustain the film’s humorous tone.

Kangana Ranaut plays Praful Patel, a housekeeper at an Atlanta hotel. She lives with shop-owner parents, and she’s been saving money for seven years in order to buy her own condominium. Few Bollywood films feature working-class Indian-Americans, so it’s gratifying to see such characters onscreen for a change.

On a bachelorette weekend in Las Vegas with her cousin Amber (Aneesha Joshi), Praful gets lucky playing Baccarat, winning enough to indulge in some high-end shopping and dining. Her second round doesn’t go as well, forcing Praful to keep gambling in order to try to win her money back. She mistakes a cash infusion from loan shark Mr. Bugs (Jason Louder) for a gift, endangering not just her future plans but her very life.

The tone of Simran is generally comical, especially as Praful explores Vegas before and after her big win. As in Queen, Ranaut is delightful to watch as a fish-out-of-water, goofy and awestruck. The difference between her character in Queen and Praful is that Praful has greater self-confidence (though it’s not always warranted). When it comes to romance, she says: “Having boyfriends isn’t a character flaw. Having boyfriends is a talent.”

In the grand tradition of Bollywood movie parents, Praful’s folks’ only desire is for her to get married — again. Her first marriage didn’t work out, and she’s now happily independent. While her parents’ latest target — MBA student Sameer (Talvar‘s Sohum Shah) — is a nice guy, Praful isn’t keen to settle down.

The rift between Praful and her parents goes beyond her unwillingness to wed. It’s so deep that it undermines the whole tone of the film. There isn’t a single moment of affection between Praful and her domineering father. He says that he wishes he never brought her to America from Gujarat, castigating Praful for being worthless in the same breath that he asks her for money to pay the electric bill. Praful’s mother is of no help.

When Praful’s efforts to pay off Mr. Bugs get her into further trouble, there’s no one she can turn to. Her parents don’t like her. Sameer doesn’t believe her. Praful’s housekeeping co-workers help in what limited ways they can, but they’re just as broke as she is. Cousin Amber is rich, but for some reason she disappears in the second half of the film. Praful is utterly alone.

From a narrative standpoint, it’s unfair to ask Praful — the film’s only multi-dimensional character — to supply all the laughs when the audience can see how hopeless her situation is. Ranaut’s compelling performance fosters so much empathy for Praful that it becomes impossible to laugh at her plight. As Simran progresses, it becomes depressing and surprisingly violent. It’s as though director Hansal Mehta failed to consider how the audience would feel while watching the movie. I’m not sure if Simran is the story he thought he was telling.

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Movie Review: Viceroy’s House (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Viceroy’s House isn’t wholly successful, but maybe trying to depict the fraught months leading up to India’s Partition in a movie less than two hours long was never a venture that could succeed.

The biggest hurdle director Gurinder Chadha and her screenwriter husband Paul Mayeda Berges set for themselves is in trying to portray events in a way that is, if not objective, then at least fair. Most of the key players — fictional and historical — are shown as having good intentions and understandable motivations (except for the Muslims who work for the viceroy, who all agitate for an independent Pakistan). Yet knowing now of the refugee crisis that immediately followed Partition and the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, is the focus on good intentions even desirable?

Viceroy’s House begins with the installation of Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) as the last viceroy, tasked with turning over the subcontinent to Indian rule. Even with independence on the horizon, Mountbatten maintains his aristocratic lifestyle, timing his servants to make sure they can dress him quickly enough for his satisfaction.

Mountbatten’s wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson), and their teenage daughter Pamela (Lily Travers), are more aware of the value of softening the image of the British as rulers in favor of something more democratic. Edwina invites Indian guests to parties at the estate, asking the all-Indian kitchen staff to adjust the menu to cater to local tastes. When the sous chef complains in Hindi that all of his training is in English-style cooking, the Lady’s assistant Aalia (Huma Qureshi) translates his comments as polite assent to the request. It’s as though the movie itself doesn’t want its British characters to have to deal with the mess that their predecessors left, and as if the present viceroy’s family’s good intentions have wiped the slate clean.

In an effort to put the larger events in a more personal context, Viceroy’s House features a love story between Aalia and Jeet (Manish Dayal), one of Lord Mountbatten’s grooms. They love each other, but he is Hindu and she is Muslim, in addition to being betrothed to a nice man, Asif (Arunoday Singh), as fulfillment of her mother’s dying wish. Jeet wants Aalia to follow her heart, but she has not only Asif’s feelings to consider but the well-being of her blind father (played by Om Puri). Would they really be safe in a Hindu-majority India? Jeet’s naive faith in both a united India and in the power of love to conquer all lead him to dismiss Aalia’s concerns as a lack of courage.

Casting Hugh Bonneville as an aristocrat invites comparisons to his role as the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey. Where the two stories differ is in their ability to entwine the lives of characters of different classes, thus providing a more complete picture of society at the time. Downton Abbey did so successfully through subplots like Lady Sybil helping Gwen the maid find a job as a secretary.

In Viceroy’s House, the Mountbatten’s lack such intimate connections to their staff. The wealthy Brits have ideas as to what might be troubling their servants, but they don’t know details. The whole feel of the film would have changed with better integration between the class-specific plots, such as Pamela learning of Aalia’s romantic problems and using her position to find a way for Aalia and Jeet to be together.

Where Viceroy’s House does succeed is showing the scope of the problems complicating the British departure from India. There are no easy solutions, and blood was already being shed when Mountbatten arrived. However, asking the audience to feel bad for Mountbatten — a representative of a white, foreign power that had been exploiting India for centuries — just because he personally didn’t create the problems he was asked to solve is a bit much.

The accomplished cast — which also includes Michael Gambon, Darshan Jariwala, Denzil Smith, and Neeraj Kabi — give laudable performances all around. Huma Qureshi is charming, and Arunoday Singh stands out in his few scenes. If the two of them can’t find quality parts in Bollywood, come to Hollywood, please!

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Movie Review: Toilet — Ek Prem Katha (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (“Toilet: A Love Story“) has its heart in the right place, using humor and romance to address a social problem often deemed too private for public discussion. It falls short in a number of ways, with some issues that are particularly problematic for non-Hindi speakers.

Akshay Kumar plays Keshav, a small-town guy whose love life is held hostage by his extremely religious father, Panditji (Sudhir Pandey), who sees all kinds of problems in his son’s astrological chart. Keshav’s desire to marry takes on a new urgency when he meets Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar), a feisty and principled college student.

(I was prepared to give major kudos to the movie for acknowledging that the character played by 49-year-old Kumar is not only old for a bachelor but significantly older than his lady-love. Then it’s revealed that Keshav is 36, making the age difference between him and college gal Jaya less than the twenty-one years separating Kumar and Pednekar in real life.)

The lovebirds trick Panditji into allowing them to marry, only to discover an even bigger problem: Keshav’s house doesn’t have a bathroom. Jaya discovers this when a group of ladies rap on her window in the pre-dawn hours following her wedding night, urging her to follow them into the fields, lest she miss her only opportunity to relieve herself all day.

Toilet‘s most laudable quality is that it forces viewers who are used to readily accessible bathroom facilities to confront the practicalities of how life works without such access. For those of us who don’t leave the house without knowing the location of the nearest public loo, Toilet depicts a nightmare scenario that is a daily reality for hundreds of millions of people in India.

Jaya’s demand that Keshav install a toilet in their home is met with resistance on multiple fronts, from Keshav’s “what’s the big deal?” indifference to anger from neighbors who see her demand as an attack upon their culture. This is where Toilet‘s ability to connect with an international audience falters.

For everyone like Jaya who grew up with a full bathroom in the home — whether in India or abroad — the benefits are obvious. Not only do bathrooms improve cleanliness and provide privacy, they are safer for women. Jaya’s father (played by Atul Srivastava) mentions instances of women being raped and killed while relieving themselves in fields, and having a toilet in the home is a simple way to protect his daughter.

The case against having an in-home toilet is harder to explain to Western viewers, and Toilet doesn’t do a particularly good job in doing so. Some of the resistance — particularly from the village women — is a matter of pride, Jaya’s demand taken as evidence of snobbishness born from too much education. There are also religious considerations cited by the village elders that may be well-known within India but aren’t explained sufficiently for those unfamiliar with the precedent.

In fact, when one of the village elders quotes scripture as evidence, his words are subtitled as “[Sanskrit chant].” The same subtitle is applied when Keshav counters with his own verse. This problem occurs again during a song whose lyrics are translated as just “[folk song],” and written Hindi isn’t transcribed at all. These omissions put up barriers for non-Hindi speakers.

It’s hard to get a sense of who the intended audience for Toilet is. If it’s middle-class city dwellers, Toilet does little to foster empathy for rural folk resistant to the idea of public or private toilets. If it’s those same rural folk, Toilet feels like more of a protracted scolding than a persuasive case for modernization. Even in the film, the villagers violently reject Keshav’s efforts to build a loo for Jaya — until they suddenly don’t.

Keshav is an interesting character when considered in terms of the present political climate in India and in democracies in the West. He doesn’t initially have strong convictions; he just wants everyone to stop fighting so things can return to the way they were. It takes Jaya moving back in with her parents for Keshav to realize that this issue is non-negotiable for her, regardless of her affection for him. Only through suffering consequences of his own is he able to understand the injustice that the status quo forces upon women.

Kumar and Pednekar are both terrific in Toilet, adorable during the story’s romantic phase and heartbreaking as their situation grows more desperate. Divyendu Sharma is also very good as Keshav’s brother, Naru. Too bad the movie overall can’t match the strength of its cast.

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Movie Review: Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Jab Harry Met Sejal (“When Harry Met Sejal“) feels like a movie constructed in reverse, only concerned with where the characters wind up, but not how or why they reach their destination. A lack of motivating factors makes it hard to invest in the characters, regardless of our affection for the actors playing them.

Harry (Shah Rukh Khan) finances his itinerant womanizing as a tour guide in Europe, bouncing from city to city on the run from memories that ultimately aren’t traumatic enough to warrant their blue-filtered flashbacks.

Before Harry can leave the airport after waving farewell to his latest batch of tourists, one member of the group flags him down, in need of help. Sejal (Anushka Sharma) lost her engagement ring, and she won’t return to India until she finds it. She’s sure she lost it in Amsterdam. Or was it Prague?

The first red flag in Jab Harry Met Sejal is that, despite having spent the last month leading Sejal, her fiance, and their families across Europe, Harry has to ask her name. Did he not learn it during the previous thirty days they spent in each other’s proximity? Not even by accident?

It’s suspicious that Sejal appears to have made no impression whatsoever on Harry, in spite of her undeniable beauty and his reputation as a guy who notices beautiful women. There is an uncomfortable subplot about Sejal’s insecurity about her sex appeal and her specific desire for Harry to find her sexy — a desire that manifests early in their ring-hunting adventure, well before Sejal develops any attraction to Harry (who evidently made as little an impression on her during her family vacation as she did on him).

If the point of Sejal’s engagement-ring-wild-goose-chase isn’t for her to create an opportunity to act upon a preexisting attraction to Harry, then what the hell is she doing? She blackmails Harry into working for her, threatening to falsely report him for sexual misconduct if he doesn’t. Sejal is sort of trying to live it up before her marriage to a guy named Rupen, but we don’t know enough about Sejal, Rupen, or their relationship to understand what’s really driving her actions.

During the course of her journey with Harry, Sejal declares herself his temporary girlfriend, complete with spooning benefits — but only until she finds her ring, she warns, cautioning him not to fall for her. The fake molestation threat plus her (kind of) leading him on gives the whole story an icky Men’s Rights vibe, made worse by Sejal’s classist assumption that she can buy an infinite amount of Harry’s time for the right price.

The temporary girlfriend idea is too stupid a conceit for people of the characters’ ages and intelligence levels — Sejal is a lawyer, for Pete’s sake — to concoct on their own. Writer-director Imtiaz Ali doesn’t seem to care why the characters get together, just that they do. He trusts that the audience’s desire to see characters played by Khan and Sharma get together — as they did in the delightful Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi — will trump their desire for narrative authenticity.

Khan looks amazing, smouldering and magnetic as ever. Sharma is goofy and adorable, especially during an awkward dance scene in a night club. Their performances are darned good, even while playing characters who don’t feel like real people. Ali is a much more talented filmmaker than this. Relying on his actors to shoulder the weight of an entire movie without a solid story to support them isn’t fair.

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Movie Review: Jagga Jasoos (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Jagga Jasoos is an ambitious movie that I’d love to rate more highly. There were portions of the film that I liked very much, and I appreciate the world director Anurag Basu built and the way he told his story. Yet Jagga Jasoos is bloated with material and far too long.

Jagga Jasoos opens with a framing device featuring Katrina Kaif’s character Shruti as a children’s entertainer and author of a comic book series about her friend Jagga, a teenage detective. A troop of kids under her direction reenact scenes from the comics, before the action transitions to the world of the books, starting with Jagga’s childhood and his adoption by a man he calls TutiFuti (Saswata Chatterjee, best known to Bollywood fans for playing the unassuming assassin Bob Biswas in Kahaani).

TutiFuti coaches young Jagga to sing as a way to overcome the boy’s stutter, a device that enables Jagga Jasoos to be a traditional musical, with much of the plot and dialogue sung rather than spoken. The movie is punctuated by standalone tunes to accompany dance numbers and montages, with the best of those songs being the forlorn “Phir Wahi.”

TutiFuti is called away on a secret mission by a man known as Blackmail Sinha (Shaurab Shukla), leaving Jagga to grow up alone in a boarding school. By the time he reaches his teenage years, Jagga (now played by Ranbir Kapoor) has developed a knack for solving mysteries.

He stumbles onto an arms-smuggling caper with international implications, involving a journalist — Shruti — and possibly even TutiFuti. Shruti and Jagga travel to Africa to find TutiFuti and uncover the secret mission he’s been on for so many years.

The whimsy factor is high in Jagga Jasoos, not only because of all the singing but because of a visual style reminiscent of director Wes Anderson (whom Jagga Jasoos cinematographer Ravi Varman praises in the Scroll.in interview linked to below). Basu incorporates a number of comparatively low-tech special effects — such as deliberately using obvious stock footage of African animals or showing a plane flying over a map instead of actual land — for a fresh take on retro movie-making. The modern CGI effects that aim for realism and fall short draw more attention to themselves than effects that are intentionally outmoded.

Jagga Jasoos is at its best when Jagga and Shruti are together in his hometown along the border with Myanmar. The town and school have their own charms that help to create an immersive environment. When the duo leave town, they leave that quaintness behind for a plot that is grander in scale but less engrossing.

Removing geographical boundaries frees Basu to inject untold (and unnecessary) amounts of quirkiness into the film, particularly regarding the unseen criminal mastermind Bashir Alexander. By the time Jagga and Shruti board Bashir Alexander’s personal circus train, I had reached my limit.

Disney India would’ve been better off splitting its swan song into two films, a la Baahubali, rather than making one film to serve as both a setup for a hopeful sequel and a catch-all in case box office numbers deem a sequel unwarranted. Forcing Basu to cram as many ideas as possible into one film not only inflates the runtime beyond a reasonable limit, but it cuts short plot development in favor of visual spectacle. I’m still not sure what Blackmail Sinha’s goal was or who he was working for, and the framing device isn’t well explained either. Shruti’s students sing a song about not caring about the world’s troubles because they are protected by a “sign on the door,” but it’s unclear to what they refer.

For all its ambition and innovative ideas, Jagga Jasoos isn’t the movie — or movies — it could have been.

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