Tag Archives: 2012

Movie Review: Despite the Gods (2012)

DespiteTheGods3 Stars (out of 4)

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The story behind the Hindi horror flop Hisss is as much about the film that wasn’t made as the film that was. Documentarian Penny Vozniak recorded director Jennifer Lynch during the making of Hisss, resulting in Despite the Gods: an engrossing feature about a filmmaker pushed out of her own movie.

Lynch spent eight months filming Hisss in India, her first time working in the country. When we first see her settling in to her Chennai apartment, she observes that India is loud. Lulls in the concussive sounds of construction work outside her apartment are filled by chatter from the noisy street below. It makes concentration and relaxation difficult, to say the least.

Lynch is accompanied on her trip by her 12-year-old daughter, Sydney, who is the real star of Despite the Gods. Sydney is wise beyond her years, encouraging her mother to stop fretting about her weight and focus on her movie. The fact that Sydney endures this odyssey with a minimum of whining is a testament to her maturity.

Hisss is beset by a number of problems: rain, a jumbled schedule, a union strike that forces the production to move to Kerala. The funny, foul-mouthed Lynch stays positive throughout, insisting that adverse circumstances often result in a better finished product.

Little does Lynch know that she’s being sabotaged from within. The producer who brought her onto the project, Govind Menon, repeatedly tries to take control of the film away from Lynch, under the pretense of serving the greater good. Touting his past directorial experience and familiarity with the way things are done in India, Menon offers to shoot portions of the film himself in order to speed things up. Lynch doesn’t bend, insisting on doing things her way.

Only after shooting ends does Menon finally get control. A note at the end of Despite the Gods reads: “The producers reject Jennifer’s final cut of Hisss. The film is over schedule and over budget. They re-cut it without her. Jennifer has publicly distanced herself from the finished film.”

Having watched Hisss, Menon clearly overestimated his ability as a storyteller. The movie is awful, although the footage Lynch shot actually looks quite good.

One issue with Despite the Gods is that Vozniak is a friend of Menon. He initially brought her onto the set to babysit Sydney, and it was Lynch who invited her to stay and film the documentary. Lynch told Indie Outlook:

There were some incredibly painful moments that were kept in Penny’s cut and other things that didn’t end up in it because producers wouldn’t allow them to be shown. Sometimes I see myself upset onscreen and think, “I was sad because this happened, but nobody will ever get a chance to see it.” And yet, this is Penny’s film, not mine. She made the film that she wanted to make to the best of her ability, and I’m honored to have been seen through her eyes.

Even with an incomplete accounting of events, Menon’s desire to shoot the film himself is obvious. He also takes it upon himself to scold Sydney when Lynch is not around. A confused Sydney seeks out her mother and asks, “Did I do something wrong?”

Besides Menon, the rest of the Indian crew is devoted and professional. The second assistant director, Yogi Dixit, is particularly charming. The caterer, Krishna, fills in as a sound effects artist and on-set masseur.

Hisss star Mallika Sherawat is smart and self-aware. She’s cognizant of the boldness of her career choices in conservative India, and she and Lynch spend much of their downtime discussing social issues.

Lynch explains the theme of her film (originally titled Nagin: The Snake Goddess): “It’s an admiration of sensual, sexual female bravery.” Sherawat wryly replies, “Oh yeah? In India?”

There’s no guarantee that Lynch’s version of Hisss would have been a success. It’s hard to imagine the scene of Sherawat making out with a snake puppet looking anything other than silly, no matter who edited it.

Still, Despite the Gods highlights that Lynch was using her film to make a point about female sexuality, and that aspect was eliminated from the version ultimately released. Maybe someday we’ll get a director’s cut of Hisss. I’m very curious to see it.

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Movie Review: Meena (2012)

Meena2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Meena is available to watch for free at the film’s website.

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Actress Lucy Liu chose an important subject for her directorial debut, a short film about sex slavery called Meena. However, the film’s abbreviated length forces the omission of critical contextual information.

For starters, the title is misleading. Meena (Tannishtha Chatterjee) isn’t really the main character; her daughter, Naina (Sparsh Khanchandani), is.

Meena Haseena is a real person whose story features in the wonderful book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Sold into prostitution at age eight, Meena eventually escaped, leaving behind a daughter who also grew up in a life of sex slavery. After more than a decade, Meena rescued her daughter with the help of a non-governmental organization (NGO) working to liberate victims of human trafficking.

Elements of Meena’s tortured childhood are shown in flashbacks, but much of the action in the twenty-minute-long movie focuses on Naina’s present circumstances. Not yet a teenager, Naina has already developed the survival skills necessary to endure a life of brutalization. She counsels another young prostitute to accept that this is their reality.

Naina’s only clue that someone on the outside is plotting her rescue is a strange woman — whom she doesn’t know is Meena, her mother — who twice storms into the brothel, shouting Naina’s name. On both occasions, Meena leaves after being beaten by the madam’s strongman, Manooj (Vikas Shrivastav).

It’s disappointing to see Chatterjee’s immense talent wasted in such a small role. All she does is scream and get beaten up. When Meena finally succeeds in liberating Naina, we are given no context for how she accomplished the feat. How did she contact the NGO? What planning went into the rescue? Is her life in danger?

As frustrating as the lack of context is, the rescue’s suddenness forces the audience to empathize with Naina. Every adult she’s ever known has abused her. Manooj follows his mock-sympathetic encouragement with a slap. So when a stranger arrives to take her from the only home she’s ever known — as awful as it is — Naina is confused at best, terrified at worst.

Liu spends a lot of time visually emphasizing the horrors of sexual slavery. However, it’s fair to assume that most of the audience already believes it to be horrible. We don’t need to see a flashback of Manooj zipping his fly as gets out of bed after raping eight-year-old Meena.

The scene that most effectively illustrates the gulf between regular folks and the aberrant sexuality of a pedophile is a scene in which Naina and some other girls are trotted out to dance for the customers. The girls wear midriff-baring tops and such garish make-up that they look ridiculous, but the urge to laugh quickly disappears when one realizes that there are real-life perverts who find a child in such attire arousing. The scene hits home without being in any way salacious.

Meena is at its best when it explores the psychology of the women forced into slavery and the conditions that make it hard for them to escape, but the movie simply isn’t long enough to look deeply into such matters. If only Liu had been able to make a feature-length film about the same subject.

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Movie Review: Miss Lovely (2012)

Miss_Lovely_(2012_film)2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Miss Lovely is undoubtedly stylish, but to what end? An emphasis on visual aesthetics at the expense of story leaves the viewer adrift in this drama set in the Indian porn industry in the 1980s.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui — who gives another fantastic performance in Miss Lovely — narrates the film. He plays Sonu, the younger of a pair of brothers specializing in C-grade horror-porn. His elder brother, Vicky (Anil George), runs their operation, treating Sonu like a glorified gopher.

Director Ashim Ahluwalia doesn’t explain the structural organization of the illegal porn industry and how the characters fit into it. Vicky and Sonu “make” the movies, though they don’t direct them themselves. They peddle their films through a distributor named Heera (Manoj Bakshi), though they also deal with a bigwig named PK (Ragesh Asthana) who represents some foreign investors. There’s also a little person named Tiku (Zaheer Khan), who is some sort of casting agent.

Things go south when Vicky tries to cut Heera out of the business and distribute their films to theaters directly. Sonu — who’s sick of being bossed around by Vicky — falls in love with a woman he sees on a train, Pinky (Niharika Singh), vowing to make his own movie and turn her into a star. To do so, he steals from his brother.

It’s unclear how Vicky and Sonu actually plan to achieve their ambitions, just that they shouldn’t have them. Fate and everyone else in the industry make the brothers pay for aspiring above their station.

There are a lot of great-looking scenes and shots in Miss Lovely. Wide shots of the brothers’ movie sets are charmingly lowbrow. Party scenes are tacky and vibrant. A shot of Sonu holding a pair of drinks while standing in the middle of a smoky dance floor is beautifully composed.

However, the surfeit of establishing shots just seem like showing off. A dingy exterior shot of factory lasts for ten seconds, only to cut to another dingy shot of the same factory from a different angle. There’s a lot of visual setup with no payoff.

Characters aren’t developed enough to seem like more than representations of character types. Pinky is a woman with a mysterious past, but the revelation of her true nature is glossed over. Even Sonu is so lightly drawn that it’s hard to invest in his success or failure.

The most fleshed out of the characters is sleazy wannabe Vicky. His motivations are obvious, especially in his clumsy attempts to become a power player. He exerts his sexual dominance over women because they’re even less powerful than he is. George is perfectly scummy in the role.

Miss Lovely is a fine showcase of Ahluwalia’s potential, and it’s worth watching to see a director whose career is on the way up. However, as a self-contained story, Miss Lovely is only a partial success.

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Movie Review: Filmistaan (2012)

Filmistaan3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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There’s a great line in Filmistaan that sums up the frustrating nature of the tension that has persisted between India and Pakistan since Partition in 1947. The film’s kidnapped Indian protagonist, Sunny (Sharib Hashmi), is surprised at being told he’s been secretly brought to Pakistan: “The food, the people all look the same. How would I know?”

That theme of commonality runs throughout Filmistaan. The movie beautifully makes its point that manufactured borders can’t erase the cultural similarities that unite the people of India and Pakistan, and that it’s the average citizens of both countries who pay the price for ongoing hostility.

Sunny is the consummate regular guy. He’s an out-of-shape, out-of-work wannabe actor who admits he doesn’t have the chops to make it in Bollywood. But he persists, taking the job of Assistant Director as a way into the industry.

On assignment with an American film crew, Sunny is kidnapped near the Pakistan border in Rajasthan. The militants leave him with a pair of guards in a small village across the border, hoping to nab the more valuable Americans on a second try.

Sunny endears himself to the village children with his impressions of Bollywood stars. His love for film sparks a friendship with Aftaab (Inaamulhaq), a movie buff and DVD pirate. And Sunny’s sheer ordinariness leads the younger of his two captors, Jawaad (Gopal Dutt), to question why they’re holding him in the first place.

Jawaad’s willingness to question orders — in stark contrast to his devout compatriot, Mehmood (Kumud Mishra) — gets at one of the movie’s other themes: the crippling effect of a lack of opportunities in Pakistan. The only reason Jawaad joined the militants and the only reason Aftaab is a film pirate and not a filmmaker is because of a lack of opportunity, caused primarily by the closed border with India and the zealots like Mehmood who want to keep it closed.

Filmistaan is hopeful about the prospects that young people from both countries will someday cast aside national hostilities in exchange for a future built on shared goals and cultural history. The subtlety with which it conveys this message through its story and characters heightens its impact.

Since Filmistaan is also a celebration of the movies, it excels in all the necessary ways. The acting is top-notch. Sets are stark and evocative, thanks to writer-director Nitin Kakkar and cinematographer Subhransu. The soundtrack is terrific.

The story builds to a cinematic climax that sadly doesn’t allow for the emotional payoff one would hope for. Given the effort that went into making the audience care deeply about the characters, the ending needed to be more cathartic.

Still, that doesn’t negate the great journey that Filmistaan takes the audience on. This is a unique and enjoyable film worth seeing.

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Movie Review: Ship of Theseus (2012)

Ship_of_Theseus3 Stars (out of 4)

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In Ship of Theseus, writer-director Anand Gandhi explores what distinguishes us as individuals through three vignettes about organ donation. It’s a thought-provoking piece of work that periodically veers into self-indulgence.

The film begins with a written description of Theseus’ paradox. If one were to replace every component of a ship, would the end product still be the same ship? Gandhi asks that question of the human body: how many parts can be replaced and still be considered the same person?

That conundrum is explored the most directly in the first vignette, about a blind photographer. Aliya (Aida El-Kashef) took up photography after losing her eyesight, and she relies upon her boyfriend, Vinay (Faraz Khan) to describe to her the pictures she takes. A cornea transplant restores her sight but alters her instincts as a photographer, to Aliya’s detriment.

The most interesting aspect of Aliya’s story is the way Gandhi uses sound to tell it. Before the surgery, Aliya listens to the noises on the street to alert her to potential subjects. Her camera’s digital voice tells her the aperture size, and her computer’s voice helps her navigate her editing software.

After her surgery, the digital voices disappear. On the street, the cacophony surrounding Aliya hampers her creative sight instead of enhancing it. Credit to sound designer Gábor ifj. Erdélyi for making the same settings feel so different, even though nothing has changed visually for the audience.

Ship of Theseus‘ biggest shortcomings are most apparent in Aliya’s story. There’s an excess of dialogue in the movie, most of it consisting of characters philosophizing about the meaning of life. The pseudo-intellectual dialogue doesn’t sound realistic, and characters aren’t given distinct voices. Aliya talks the same as Vinay, who talks the same as Charvaka (Vinay Shukla) from the second vignette.

Charvaka is a legal apprentice working on an animal rights case on behalf of a monk, Maitreya (Neeraj Kabi). When Maitreya is diagnosed with cirrhosis, the monk must decide whether to have a liver transplant, even thought it would require him to violate his principles by using medicines tested on animals.

The progression of Maitreya’s disease is horrifying and visceral, and Kabi’s physical transformation is startling. Yet it’s most difficult to watch the suffering monk endure Charvaka’s myopic, self-assured musings, apparently generated without an attempt to understand Maitreya’s point of view.

The final vignette concerns a young stockbroker, Navin (Sohum Shah), whose own kidney transplant alerts him to the practice of illegal organ trading. Navin’s attempt to recover the stolen kidney of an impoverished bricklayer (Yashwant Wasnik) shakes him out of his shallow, materialistic lifestyle.

Navin’s story is the most conventional and is the most entertaining to watch (perhaps because of that conventional structure). Shah’s performance is thoughtful, as Navin attempts to discover answers, begrudgingly realizing that his way is not the only way.

However, Navin’s story highlights Ship of Theseus‘ need of editing. Scenes throughout the movie stretch on without providing insight into characters or plot. There’s far too much time devoted to Navin and his friend trying to park their car in a narrow lane as they search for the bricklayer, and even more time wasted as they are repeatedly sent in the wrong direction looking for the man’s house. The poor state of the neighborhood and Navin’s outsider status within it could’ve been established in half the time.

Even the film’s final shots seem less like essential story elements than a chance for Gandhi to show off some neat footage he had on hand. It’s easy to see where Ship of Theseus is going, and much of the ride is quite enjoyable. It just needed to take a more efficient route to get there.

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Movie Review: Shahid (2012)

Shahid4 Stars (out of 4)

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The best and worst aspects of humanity are on display in Shahid, a biographical film based on the life of the lawyer Shahid Azmi. Azmi’s assassination while defending an innocent man against terrorism charges embodies the personal and social costs of choosing quick, easy solutions at the expense of the truth.

Rajkummar Rao plays Shahid, whose own past mirrors the lives of the men he defends in court. As a teen, Shahid witnesses the gruesome murders of his neighbors in a religious riot in his Muslim neighborhood. Feeling powerless, he joins a militant Islamist training camp, only to flee after a few months.

Upon his return home, Shahid is arrested when his name is found in a terrorist’s diary. Torture and coercion at the hands of the police result in Shahid’s imprisonment for seven years.

In jail, Shahid finds his calling. Two fellow prisoners — a kindly professor and a reformed militant — recognize Shahid’s intelligence and steer him away from the terror recruiters in the jail. Professor Saxena (Yusuf Hussain) tutors Shahid and War Saab (Kay Kay Menon, who is delightful in every scene) finances Shahid’s studies.

On the outside, Shahid finishes his law degree and discovers how easy it is to manipulate the legal system. Shahid’s first case of note involves a computer repair man named Zaheer who lends his laptop to a friend. Unbeknownst to Zaheer, the friend uses the laptop to plan a terror attack, and Zaheer is implicated in the crime.

Despite having no direct evidence tying Zaheer to the crime, the prosecutor, More (Vipin Sharma), drags the trial on for years. Shahid’s persistence results in Zaheer’s eventual release and earns Shahid a reputation as a defender of unjustly persecuted Muslims. Shahid himself is violently targeted while defending a man wrongly accused of participating in the Mumbai terror attacks of November 26, 2008.

What stands out in the two trials depicted in the film — the real Shahid earned seventeen acquittals in his brief career — is how weak the state’s cases are. More’s stalling tactics are outrageous. In the second case, the prosecutor’s arguments are easily disproved.

Why would a government spend so much time and money to convict innocent men when those resources could’ve been spent trying to catch the real perpetrators? The prosecutor in the second case, Tambe (Shalini Vaste), reveals the answer when she says that even citizens who weren’t personally endangered during the attacks now feel scared in their own homes. The government needs to convict someone — anyone — so that the people will feel safe again.

As flawed as the justice system is, its agents aren’t depicted as monsters. Prosecutor More has one of the sweetest moments in the film. Following an intense argument with Shahid, More spies a sandwich in Shahid’s briefcase and tries to goad the young lawyer into splitting it with him, dissolving Shahid into giggles.

Shahid himself is far from perfect. He’s a lousy husband to his wife, Mariam (Prabhleen Sandhu), a former client. He refuses to address the persistent threats made against him, keeping his family in the dark even though their lives are in danger, too.

The character closest to perfect is Shahid’s devoted brother, Arif (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who’s great in the film). Arif covers for Shahid when he joins the militants and encourages him to study law, even if it means Arif must support the family financially by himself. When Arif finally blows up at Shahid, it seems deserved.

Director Hansal Mehta uses the camera to emphasize how the justice system can diminish an individual. During Shahid’s initial interrogation, he huddles on the floor naked, the camera positioned at the ceiling to make him appear tiny compared to the police officer towering above him. In his first difficult days in prison, Shahid tells Arif to stop coming to visit him. Arif is fully in focus while Shahid stands behind a screen, the camera partially fulfilling Shahid’s wish to fade into obscurity.

Rao navigates skillfully through all the ups and downs in Shahid’s life. Rao’s infectious smile comes to Shahid’s face easily and often during the character’s first trial and initial courtship of Maryam. As the story progresses and the cycle of unjust imprisonment of innocent men persists, Shahid’s smile all but disappears.

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Movie Review: The World Before Her (2012)

TWBH3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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The documentary The World Before Her is a fascinating examination of India’s struggle to figure out what to do with its young women as the country forges greater economic ties with the outside world. Filmmaker Nisha Pahuja follows the lives of young women training for their futures through very different means: a beauty pageant and a militant religious training camp.

The beauty pageant in question is Femina Miss India 2011. Pahuja’s camera follows a pair of contestants: Ankita Shorey and Ruhi Singh, whose parents also feature prominently in the narrative. The filmmaker interviews Miss India World 2009, Pooja Chopra, and her mother, who tells a moving story of divorcing her husband when he suggested ending newborn Pooja’s life because of her gender.

The other half of the narrative takes place at a Hindu nationalist boot camp for girls ages 15-25. One of the drill sergeants is 24-year-old Prachi, who feels most at home while training other girls how to fight and die for their religion. She accepts the paradox that she’s working for a movement that believes — in her zealous father’s words — “a woman is only complete after she becomes a mother,” even though Prachi herself wants no children. A female speaker at the camp says that women should be married by age eighteen, before they become too “strong-willed.”

All three of the young women are thoughtful and articulate, though Ankita and Ruhi are more hopeful for their future prospects. As odd as some aspects of pageant life (e.g. Botox and bikini contests) seem, the women choose to participate because pageants are a proven route to careers in film or modeling. Within two years of winning Miss India World in 2009, Chopra landed a lead role in a Tamil film, and shortly thereafter starred in the excellent Hindi action flick Commando: A One Man Army.

One wonders what life for a spitfire like Prachi would’ve been like had she been raised in a different city or by different parents — how her drive and determination might have been put to better use than training bubbly teens to want to shoot Pakistanis.

What stands out most in the film is how much happier the parents of the pageant contestants are with their daughters than Prachi’s father is with her, and how much freer they are in expressing their love for their children.

Both Ruhi’s parents and Pooja’s mother beam with pride at their daughters’ achievements. Their pride doesn’t stem from the place the young women finish in the contest but from the fact that their daughters are living their dreams. Ruhi’s mom mentions that her daughter’s happiness is a sign of her own success as a parent.

Contrast those parent-child relationships with that of Prachi and her father, Hemantji. Prachi knows that her father wishes he’d had a son. She’s so grateful to him for not having murdered her as an infant that she forgives him when he punches her for disobedience or when he burns her with an iron rod for lying.

From the footage shown in the film, Hemantji appears to derive no joy from his only child. The best Prachi can do is not screw up. That includes obeying her father’s orders to get married and have children, even though Prachi herself would rather teach at the camp full-time. Hemantji says that the only thing Prachi could do to make him happy is to die a martyr.

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