Tag Archives: 2 Stars

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)

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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Movie Review: Noor (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Noor is almost a good movie. It looks nice, and the talented cast members make their characters relatable. The film just never comes together in a coherent way.

The challenge with Noor is condensing a book’s worth of material into a movie of less than two hours, a feat which director Sunhil Sippy and co-writers Althea Kaushal and Shikhaa Sharma can’t manage. The threads of the various subplots never tie together in a way I’m guessing they do in Saba Imtiaz’s well-regarded novel Karachi, You’re Killing Me, upon which the film is based.

Noor (Sonakshi Sinha) is a Mumbai journalist plagued in equal parts by self-loathing and a smug sense of superiority. She films human interest stories for an online news outlet, but she’d rather be reporting on more serious issues. Her disdain for her interview subjects is so obvious that any organization would be foolish to entrust her with any topics of import.

When Noor is not blaming her editor Shekhar (Manish Chaudhary) for consigning her to a Pulitzer-less fate, she’s complaining about how no one pays attention to her while simultaneously rebuffing everyone’s attempts to reach out to her. We have to trust that the patience shown by her buddies Zara (Shibani Dandekar) and Saad (Kanan Gill of Pretentious Movie Reviews) was earned during a time when Noor wasn’t such a self-pitying grump. She’s also obsessed with her weight, a hopelessly outdated gag used so often it seems malicious.

Things finally start going Noor’s way when she falls for Ayan (Purab Kohli), a handsome international photojournalist. Then she gets a lead on what could be a huge scandal.

“Could” is the operative word. All Noor has is an interview with one alleged crime victim, yet she wants Shekhar to publish it as proof of a widespread conspiracy. Shekhar insists that they wait, but not so that Noor can gather more evidence. He wants her to think about the potential negative impact publishing it would have on her interview subject.

That’s certainly one element to consider, but there’s a larger view of journalistic ethics that gets completely ignored. What Noor has is the first germ of a story, not a complete investigation. She has zero corroborating evidence, but none of the characters acknowledge that as a problem. Publishing what she has as unassailable proof of corruption is inviting a defamation lawsuit.

Movies about investigative journalism can be riveting — seeing how badly Noor handles it made me want to watch Spotlight again — but Noor never fully shifts into being the thriller it needs to be to deal with the can of worms it opens. Trying to integrate Noor’s low-stakes romantic troubles into the high-stakes crime narrative doesn’t work.

It’s a shame, because Sinha does a nice job humanizing a complicated character. Kohli is charming, and Gill is funny and adorable. Sadly, Zara is written as little more than a walking clothes rack, so we don’t get to see what Dandekar can do.

Sippy uses some clever techniques to depict Noor for the Millennial she is. When Noor speaks in hashtags, they appear written on screen next to her. Sippy positions his own camera over Noor’s shoulder and focuses on her iPhone screen so that we can see what she sees while she records her interviews.

While Noor is certainly watchable, the cloud of what-might-have-been always hovers over it.

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Movie Review: Naam Shabana (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Taapsee Pannu’s supporting character Shabana was the best part of the 2015 spy thriller Baby, so spinning off an origin story for her made perfect sense. However, Naam Shabana is dull, doing neither the character nor the actress who plays her justice.

Too much time is spent on the “origin” part of Shabana’s story. We know that she is being recruited by a spy agency thanks to a number of long-distance shots of her overlaid with the markings of a camera’s viewfinder. It’s the same view through which two Indian spies scope out notorious gangster Mikhail in Vienna, right before Mikhail kills both of them.

The long-shots of Shabana are interspersed with the events of her ordinary college life. She’s on the university judo team, she hangs out with her pals, and she takes an economics class with Jai (Taher Shabbir Mithaiwala), a hunk with a crush on Shabana. She shares the details of her tragic childhood with Jai, adding backstory on top of backstory.

By the time the inciting incident triggers Shabana’s first contact with the head of the spy agency, Ranvir (Manoj Bajpayee), the movie is a quarter of the way over. There’s so much build up just get the ball rolling. Even then, the ball rolls very slowly.

Shabana first has to prove herself to the agency, even though they’ve been following her for years. There’s the obligatory training montage. Right when we’re ready for her to take the field and kick butt, Shabana disappears from the narrative for a full twenty minutes while other agents track down a crook named Tony (Prithviraj Sukumaran), whom they hope can lead them to Mikhail. When Shabana finally rejoins the fray, the action is interrupted by a ridiculous item number featuring Elli Avram.

Naam Shabana has about ninety minutes of material stretched to fill two-and-a-half hours. When one example of something would suffice, we’re shown two, just to pad things out. Although Baby creator Neeraj Pandey didn’t direct Naam Shabana — that credit belongs to Shivam Nair — Pandey did write the screenplay, complete with his tendency toward overly long runtimes.

A further disappointment is the way Shabana’s character is fleshed out from her small role in Baby. She’s mostly robotic, with a brief moment of hysteria that is drowned out by composer Sanjoy Chowdhury’s over-the-top score. (Did anyone else find the film’s closing theme awfully similar to the opening of “Day Tripper” by The Beatles?)

Shabana’s primary relationship is with her supportive but concerned mother (played by Natasha Rastogi). Their relationship provides the perfect opportunity to explore the natural pulling away from parents by young adults as they leave school and start their own lives–only taken to the extreme when the young adult becomes a spy. Instead, Mom simply vanishes from the story once Shabana joins the agency. It’s a huge miss in that it would’ve given a talented actress like Pannu more to do than just look cool in fight scenes (which she definitely does).

Cameos by key Baby cast members like Akshay Kumar, Anupam Kher, and Danny Denzongpa are well-integrated, but they come too late to rescue Naam Shabana from its plodding pace.

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Movie Review: Running Shaadi (2017)

runningshaadi2 Stars (out of 4)

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Running Shaadi‘s problematic characters and convenient solutions hamper this romantic-comedy, at the expense of its likeable lead actors.

Amit Sadh plays Bharose, right-hand-man to a bridal shop owner in Amritsar. Bharose is in love with the boss’s daughter, Nimmi (Taapsee Pannu), who falls in love with him in return after he helps her out of trouble. The trouble is an unplanned pregnancy following a fling with a fellow student at her high school. Bharose takes Nimmi out of town to get an abortion, at her request.

This scene is important not only because it depicts abortion as a routine medical procedure, but because the filmmakers refrain from using it to define Nimmi’s character. Too often, movies and television shows insist on portraying female characters as torn by the decision to have an abortion, as if they’d never considered the possibility of an unplanned pregnancy before. Nimmi has the procedure and moves on with her life, and Bharose’s feelings for her don’t change because of it. Kudos to writer-director Amit Roy and his co-writer Navjot Gulati for their progressive handling of the subplot.

Throughout Running Shaadi, female characters assert control over their romantic and sexual lives. Nimmi does as well, and in doing so ditches Bharose in favor of her new, more sophisticated college classmates.

Disenchanted with romance, Bharose enlists his tech-savvy roommate Cyber (Arsh Bajwa) to create a website to assist couples wishing to elope: RunningShaadi.com. (Days before the movie’s release, a court order required the filmmaker to mute every utterance of the words “dot com,” which is hugely distracting.) They develop elaborate escape plans and enlist a lawyer to facilitate the paperwork for marriages across caste and religion.

Where RunningShaadi.com’s service falls apart is that it doesn’t handle the fallout from the marriages, which clearly wouldn’t require elopement if the couples’ families approved in the first place. Bharose knows that family disapproval is a huge, sometimes dangerous problem, but he’s possessed of naive confidence that he can smooth out any disagreements. Something tells me that parents willing to shoot their own children rather than see them marry partners of their own choosing aren’t interested in reconciliation.

Bharose’s naivete is tied to a personal belief that he doesn’t express to his clients: he doesn’t really approve of elopement, as evidenced by his reluctance to utilize his own company’s services when faced with his own romantic difficulties.

Most of Bharose’s romantic troubles are caused by Nimmi, who is not an easy woman to love. She repeatedly does stupid things to endanger herself, Bharose, and Cyber. She’s also not especially nice to Bharose, calling him “illiterate” to emphasize the class divide between the two of them. Pannu does what she can with Nimmi, but our sympathies always lie with Bharose, thanks to Sadh’s charming performance.

It’s hard to feel the romance between Nimmi and Bharose, because Cyber is with them all the time. Even during romantic song numbers, the couple gazes longingly into each other’s eyes as Cyber looks on in the background.

As the film progresses, the main characters take less and less of a role in solving their own problems, instead letting happenstance provide convenient solutions. In key regards like the main plot, the central romance, and the resolution, Running Shaadi is ultimately unsatisfying.

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Movie Review: Mostly Sunny (2016)

mostlysunny2 Stars (out of 4)

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Watching the documentary Most Sunny, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what felt off about the film. Only later did I read that the documentary’s subject, actress Sunny Leone, has all but disowned the movie, refusing to attend its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016. I can’t say I blame her, because the film is a mess.

During her interview segments, Sunny comes across as warm, funny, and smart. She’s candid about not just her history in the adult film industry but about money as well, celebrating the $100,000 signing bonus she demanded to appear on the Indian reality show Bigg Boss in 2008 as a life-changing sum.

Her killer curves and salacious past distract from her most admirable quality: her business acumen. With the help of her husband and business partner, Daniel Weber, she parlayed a lucrative career in porn into a production company and eventually success in mainstream Indian movies. Sunny herself says, “One thing I was good at was turning a quarter into a dollar.”

It’s difficult to tell Sunny’s story chronologically because her extended family cut ties with her when she became Penthouse “Pet of the Year” in 2003. No one from the Sikh community in her hometown of Sarnia, Ontario — where she was raised as Karenjit Kaur Vohra — would agree to talk about her on camera. Her parents died several years ago, so the only relative to speak on her behalf is her younger brother, Sunny (whose name she stole in a panic to invent a stage name). Even though the siblings maintain a close relationship, they never appear together in the documentary.

There are hardly any interviews with people who’ve worked with Sunny in India either. Director Mahesh Bhatt says some kind words about her potential, as does the CEO of the channel that airs Bigg Boss. Sunny’s Ek Paheli Leela costar Rajneesh Duggal mentions that other actors turned down his role before him because they didn’t want to work opposite Sunny, but he doesn’t mention what it’s like to actually work with her. Sunny’s costumer and close confidant Hitesh isn’t comfortable talking on camera.

Sunny Leone’s story is about her fame and acceptance in sexually conservative India following a career in porn, but filmmaker Dilip Mehta is hung up on Sunny’s racy past. Topless shots of the actress scroll across the screen multiple times, a choice that does nothing to inform the audience about the woman herself but to capitalize on a career she acknowledges but has left behind.

Mehta makes a bizarre choice during a segment about Sunny’s adult film production house, SunLust Pictures, where she directs movies but doesn’t appear in the them. There is a shot of a movie in production featuring a full-on sex scene between a man and a woman, their genitals blurred as they engage in intercourse. What is the narrative purpose of this shot? If the point is to titillate, why bother blurring the genitals? It’s not like we can’t tell what’s happening. Mostly Sunny has no MPAA rating, but this scene alone makes otherwise PG-13 content into a hard R.

The topless shots and the sex scene ensure that any people still reluctant to embrace Sunny will never watch the movie. What is the point of Mostly Sunny if not to showcase her as an interesting, normal person? Who does Mehta think his audience is?

It’s hard to decipher Mehta’s objectives for this movie. Scene transitions frequently consist of footage of poor people shot from inside a moving car. Sunny herself isn’t in the car, so this isn’t meant to show what she sees on he way to work at a Mumbai movie studio. It neither reinforces nor juxtaposes with anything else we’re hearing and seeing. It’s just poverty porn.

The footage that runs behind the ending credits is likewise inexplicable. As patrons exit a movie theater following a film showing, they notice Mehta’s camera pointed at them and start dancing or mugging for the camera. What purpose does this serve?

As is often the case in her Bollywood movies, Sunny’s charisma transcends the mediocre quality of this film. That a documentary specifically about her lets her down is disappointing.

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