Tag Archives: 2013

Movie Review: Katiyabaaz (2013)

Katiyabaaz3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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The insightful documentary Katiyabaaz (international title: “Powerless“) highlights the ingenious — and often illegal — methods residents of the northern Indian city of Kanpur use to cope with chronic power shortages.

As filmmakers Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa navigate their cameras through the city streets, one thought springs to mind: this is insane. Just overhead, electrical wires crisscross in a tangle that looks like the work of caffeinated spiders. The transformers supplying current regularly catch fire, prompting well-meaning passersby to climb on top of them with buckets of water. (So you need not watch the whole film in terror, I’ll spoil that no one gets electrocuted.)

There’s a method behind the crazy mess of wires hanging above Kanpur’s streets. Power outages are routine in the city, so residents utilize short, removable wires — katiyas — to connect their homes to live wires. It’s also a convenient way to get power without paying for it.

Families needing power often call a katiyabaaz — an expert in dealing with katiyas — before they call the power company. An opinionated katiyabaaz named Loha Singh serves as the movie’s guide to black market electricity, railing against the inept power company as he shorts out one of their transformers so that he can work safely.

The city’s power company, KESCO, is headed by a woman in a no-win situation. Ritu Mukeshwari is responsible for running a company deeply in debt, and with nowhere near enough power to meet the demands of the city’s five million residents. The only obvious source for revenue is unpaid bills.

But of course, Kanpur’s problems are interconnected. Many of the residents are poor because limited electricity limits economic opportunity, therefore they can’t pay their bills. But if they don’t pay their bills, KESCO can’t invest in better equipment that would make electric service more reliable. Mukeshwari is set up to fail.

Interestingly, no one raises the prospect of help from the federal government. Kanpur’s problems are too entrenched to be dealt with internally, but apparently Delhi has no interest in resurrecting a place that was once called the “Manchester of the East.”

The city’s ability to function in such conditions is remarkable. One nighttime shot features images from an intersection crowded with pedestrians, cars, and bicyclists. All of a sudden, all the streetlights and lights from food stalls go out, leaving the cars’ headlights as the only source of illumination. It’s a wonder that no one is run over, but the bicyclists pedal on as though nothing has happened.

It’s clear in Katiyabaaz that everyone is just doing the best he or she can. Singh has capitalized  on the rare opportunity in a city short on opportunities. Mukeshwari understands public frustration with KESCO, but she can’t do her job without her customers’ help.

Mukeshwari is the most fully developed character in Katiyabaaz, a real person set up as a scapegoat. Attempts to make Singh similarly sympathetic feel staged, particularly late scenes with his mother and a dismissive uncle.

Still, the whole film is fascinating. America has its share of cities with inadequate infrastructure, yet they look nothing like Kanpur. Katiyabaaz is — pardon the pun — illuminating.


Movie Review: Inkaar (2013)

Inkaarmovieposter0.5 Stars (out of 4)

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If director Sudhir Mishra’s goal with Inkaar (“Denial“) is to depict in painful detail the kind of gender discrimination women are confronted with every day, then mission accomplished. But Mishra doesn’t condemn such discrimination or suggest that change is possible. If anything, Inkaar is more about a sexual harasser’s redemption than justice for his victim.

One of Mishra’s many problems in telling the story that he co-wrote with Manoj Tyagi is that he thinks the black-and-white case of sexual harassment at the film’s center is a conflict with shades of grey. Hotshot advertising executive Rahul Verma (Arjun Rampal) propositions his former protegé and lover, Maya (Chitrangada Singh) for sex, and when she refuses, he threatens to destroy her career.

The framework for the plot is a series of interviews conducted by a social worker named Mrs. Kamdhar (Deepti Nawal), hired by the ad firm to determine who between Maya and Rahul is telling the truth. In a violation of any sort of professional protocol or victim’s rights, Maya and Rahul are deposed in front of their coworkers, some of whom are openly hostile to Maya. As the proceedings drag on, Mrs. Kamdhar brings Rahul into Maya’s session so they can “talk this out face to face,” as though this is a schoolyard tiff between children.

Mishra’s blindness to his own bias makes it impossible for him to tell a balanced story. He uses negative stereotypes of women to create Maya’s character without any narrative foundation. If there are to be any shades of grey in the case, then Maya must have some kind of agenda. She is routinely called “ambitious” — particularly by Rahul — a common slam against women deemed to be aiming above their station.

However, Maya doesn’t do anything aggressively ambitious other than perform her job well. At one point, she takes a dead-end job in Delhi just to get away from Rahul, but she’s so good that she gets reassigned to New York, where her stellar performance earns her a seat on the firm’s Board of Directors.

Rahul is the only one who claims that Maya is gunning for his job. She voices no such desire, and neither does anyone else in the firm believe that’s what she wants. Yet Mishra uses Rahul’s paranoia as sufficient evidence of Maya’s ambition.

Mishra further stacks the odds against Maya by routinely depicting her as a drunk. On the flip side, Rahul’s childhood is nostalgically shown in flashbacks, his father teaching him lessons about male pride. Cutaways in the present show Rahul tending to his ailing dad, affirming Rahul as a loyal family man.

Early in Maya’s career at the ad firm, she and Rahul — her mentor — become romantically involved. Much is made of the sexual relationship’s ramifications for Maya’s career, but no one questions whether it is appropriate for Rahul. He sleeps with an exec from another firm and a model working on an ad campaign, and no one raises concerns about how his behavior affects his company’s image. It’s taken for granted that a man can sleep with whomever he chooses, without consequence.

The real giveaway of Mishra’s bias is the different standard by which everyone in the film judges Maya’s and Rahul’s professional conduct. Her one professional transgression is that she pitches an idea that Rahul had originally conceived — and rejected — to a client without crediting Rahul. Everyone in the meeting flips out, as though this is the absolute worst thing one can do in a professional setting.

However, the characters barely react at all to Rahul’s much more detrimental conduct. First, he admits to deliberately withholding crucial client information from Maya in order to tarnish her image, resulting in the firm losing the client’s business. Rahul costs his company millions of dollars, and no one bats an eye.

Second, he admits in the hearing to propositioning Maya with sexual favors in exchange for a better working relationship. Adjourn the meeting, Mrs. Kamdhar! Prepare Rahul’s termination letter!

But that’s not what happens. Everyone in the meeting — including Mrs, Kamdhar — buys Rahul’s horrendous excuse: he only sexually harassed her to avoid doing what he really wanted to do, which was slap her.

Mishra could’ve let that comment hang, but instead, he tries to make violence against women sexy. He shows Rahul and Maya silhouetted against a blue background, Maya’s hair flying as her head snaps in response to Rahul’s slaps.

Inkaar depicts violence and harassment of women as titillating tabloid fodder in a world of unchallenged patriarchy. Rather than fire a male sexual predator who has cost his employer millions of dollars, the boss, KK (Kaizaad Kotwal) — who tells Maya that by filing the sexual harassment complaint, she proves that “women are too weak and emotional for senior management positions” — proposes not only terminating and counter-suing Maya, but making sure she can’t get a job at any other firm in India.

Maya’s only allies in the office aren’t in a position to help her. Even the supposedly neutral and experienced mediator Mrs. Kamdhar is susceptible to bribes and Rahul’s flirtatious flattery. She fails to render a verdict because Maya and Rahul “both seem to believe what they are saying.”

The resolution to the conflict is decided by Rahul, who gets the chance to redeem himself. Maya doesn’t determine her own fate, and nothing in the resolution suggests her co-workers feelings toward her have improved. Mishra’s message in Inkaar confirms entrenched patriarchy, warning women to be grateful that sexual harassment exists as an alternative to violence.


Movie Review: Jackpot (2013)

Jackpot_2013,_official_poster0.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Given how much I enjoyed director Kaizad Gustad’s incredibly stupid film Boom, I hoped that Jackpot would also be so-bad-it’s-good. Sadly, Jackpot is as inept as Boom, but nowhere near as fun.

I would describe the plot of Jackpot if I could. Even after watching the whole movie — which is a mercifully short ninety minutes — I still have no idea what happened. A group of people try to con a casino owner named Boss (Naseeruddin Shah) out of money. That’s the best I can do.

Gustad must have a grudge against context, because he provides none. We don’t know who the con artists are, what their relationships are to one another, and what their relationship is to Boss. There’s also no sense of when any scene is taking place. The action jumps back and forth in time with no clue as to how one scene relates to another chronologically.

The thieves’ plan is totally convoluted, with con layered on top of con, and it’s impossible to tell what money is stolen when and as a result of what con job. The thieves steal money to get into a poker tournament, steal the money from the poker tournament, and try to convince Boss to invest in Disneyland in Goa, all while they try to steal money from one another. It makes no sense.

The con artists are led by Francis (Sachiin Joshi, who exudes whatever the opposite of charisma is). He has a sexual, possibly romantic relationship with Maya (Sunny Leone), who works for and may have a sexual relationship with Boss. There’s also Kirti (Elvis Mascarenhas), who serves no purpose in the story, and Anthony (Bharath Nivas), who is a dumbass.

From an unintentional comedy standpoint, the best part of the film is the plan to have Anthony win the poker tournament. The whole plan hinges on his ability to count cards. However, not only does Anthony not know how to play poker, he doesn’t even know what the cards are. They have to explain to him that there are four suits in a deck of cards: two red and two black.

Ultimately, Anthony wins the tournament. While he stands on a stage to receive his briefcase full of money, Francis runs by and steals it. If Francis was just going to steal the briefcase anyway, why did Anthony have to win the tournament?!

As if Boom weren’t proof enough, Jackpot cements that Gustad is a terrible writer and director. Jackpot‘s plot makes no sense. Gustad handles his actors so clumsily that he makes Naseeruddin Shah look like a goof. Sunny Leone has a confused smile painted on her face most of the time, since she apparently doesn’t know any more about what’s happening in the movie than the audience does.

Gustad’s framing and scene execution is also idiotic. He routinely speeds up shots of characters walking and driving, rather than just having the characters walk shorter distances. There’s no dynamism in any of the scenes since the characters are almost always sitting down. The only person who isn’t is Leone, the bulk of whose screentime consists of shots of her torso while she mills about behind other characters having seated conversations.

I wish that this train wreck was funny enough for me to recommend, but it isn’t. If you have ninety minutes to waste, just stare at a wall. It will be more rewarding than watching Jackpot.


Streaming Video News: January 15, 2015

I updated my list of Bollywood films on Netflix with one new addition to the catalog. The 2013 comedy Sooper Se Ooper, starring Vir Das, is now available for streaming.

Movie Review: Siddharth (2013)

Siddharth4 Stars (out of 4)

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Practicalities are often omitted from movies in order to save time. Characters never end a phone call with, “Good-bye.” A character jumps in a car and says, “Just drive,” and the driver does it without demanding to know where they are going.

Siddharth isn’t like that. It takes a familiar setup — a child goes missing, and the parents have to find him — and delves into how it would really play out for a family of limited means. Writer-director Richie Mehta paints a gripping and emotional picture by avoiding movie conveniences and emphasizing the details.

The title’s Siddharth (Irfan Khan) is a 12-year-old boy, son of Suman (Tannishtha Chatterjee) and Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang), a Delhi zipper repairman. The family is so desperate for money that Siddharth leaves school to work in a factory for a month, hopeful that his earnings will start a dowry fund for his little sister, Pinky (Khushi Mathur).

When Siddharth doesn’t return for Diwali as planned, Mahendra and Suman struggle to discover what happened to their son.

Wealthy movie dads like Mel Gibson’s character in Ransom or Liam Neeson’s in Taken can stop everything in order to search for their kids, but Mahendra doesn’t have that luxury. Bus tickets cost money that he doesn’t have, and that his friends and neighbors don’t have. While he’s searching for his son, who’s earning money to feed his wife and daughter?

That’s the difference between Siddharth and other missing child movies: the villain isn’t a person. The villain is poverty. If Mahendra had money, he could hire investigators and bribe informants and flit from place to place on a moment’s notice to look for Siddharth. If Mahendra had money, Siddharth wouldn’t have had to go to work in the first place.

Without a villain, the tension in Siddharth doesn’t feel acute. There’s no ticking clock. Yet there’s a growing sense of frustration that builds as the movie progresses. Mahendra and Suman calculate how many weeks it will take them to save the money for bus fare. The policewoman explains how hard it is to find a missing kid in a nation of a billion people without so much as a photograph of the boy. Mahendra asks every client if they’ve heard of a place call Dongri, his only lead to Siddharth’s whereabouts.

It’s a powerful illustration of how hard it is to live in poverty, particularly in a time of crisis. There’s no margin for error. Siddharth leaves because his family is broke, and it ends up costing them more than he would have made.

Mehta makes the audience’s frustration personal by introducing Siddharth with only a couple of seconds of screentime at the very start of the film. We don’t get a good enough look at him to join Mahendra in his search. Scanning crowd scenes is worthless, because every boy could be Siddharth.

Another fascinating thread within Siddharth is the impact education has on whole families. Pinky is more educated than either of her parents, and she’s only about six years old. She writes a letter for her illiterate mother, and she’s the only one in the house who can operate their cell phone. Upon learning that the phone has a camera, Mahendra asks Pinky how to use it so that he can take a photo of her, lest she go missing, too.

Siddharth reminded me of a terrific novel on a totally unrelated subject: The Martian by Andy Weir. Weir’s book presents in minute detail what life would be like for an astronaut left behind on Mars with virtually no resources. There are no aliens or space vampires in the book, just an endless series of ordinary events that could be fatal if one thing goes wrong. It’s fascinating.

Mehta’s film is no less fascinating. It allows the audience to come as close as they can to walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and illustrates the frustrating, devastating consequences of poverty. Siddharth is a triumph of storytelling.


Streaming Video News: November 19, 2014

I updated my list of Bollywood films streaming on Netflix to include a new addition to the catalog: 2013’s Jackpot. The movie — which didn’t release theatrically in the U.S. — stars Sunny Leone and Naseeruddin Shah in a ridiculous wig. More importantly, Jackpot is made by Kaizad Gustad, director of the sublimely stupid film Boom. Needless to say, I’m excited to watch it.

Streaming Video News: October 21, 2014

I just updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix to include a new addition to the streaming service: 2013’s Chashme Baddoor starring Ali Zafar. Note that the title is misspelled on Netflix as Chashme Buddoor, which is the title of a film from 1981. I thought the remake was cute.

For everything else new on Netflix, check Instant Watcher.

Movie Review: Hit the Road: India (2013)

HitTheRoad3 Stars (out of 4)

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Perhaps the best part of watching Hit the Road: India — a documentary about an auto rickshaw race from Mumbai to Chennai — is knowing that I don’t have to run the race myself. The movie follows two North Americans as they pilot a tiny, unreliable vehicle across India for an adventure that is equal parts beautiful and terrifying.

The race is the Mumbai Xpress, part of a series of road races that make up The Rickshaw Challenge. All of the races require participants to drive auto rickshaws: the dinky, three-wheeled vehicles ubiquitous in Indian cities.

Auto rickshaws are designed for quick urban jaunts, not highway driving. The vehicles driven by the racers have no doors, seat belts, or windshield wipers, a barely functioning headlight, and an engine that puts out a whopping seven horsepower.

Our guides in Hit the Road: India are Canadian chef Keith King and Chicagoan Ric Gazarian, who works in real estate. They are the least organized of the six teams competing, eschewing maps and GPS in favor of, well, who knows?

The twelve-day, 1,900 km race starts with the simple-sounding yet nerve-wracking task of getting out of Mumbai. Overloaded motorcycles dart in between humongous trucks, nearly clipping the small, slow auto rickshaw driven by two guys who elected to pack a Spider-Man mask and an Elmo costume for a trip through rural India.

Ric and Keith and their auto rickshaw

Ric and Keith and their auto rickshaw

Once out of Mumbai traffic, it’s surprising how quickly the city fades and the scenery becomes lush and green. What’s delightful about seeing India from this perspective is realizing how much beauty exists in areas that Bollywood filmmakers tend to ignore.

Part of that has to do with when the race takes place. It’s run in August during monsoon season, a time when it doesn’t make financial sense to shoot a film outdoors. However, the overcast August skies make the greenery more vibrant and augment the power of the churning ocean waves.

Virtually all of the drama in Hit the Road: India is due to Ric & Keith’s decrepit vehicle. It burns through gas at a furious rate, and it needs a new engine after just a few days. The long drives up winding hills are as hard on the rickshaw as they are on the drivers.

As funny as some of the mishaps are — like when Ric loses a shoe while lifting the rickshaw out of a watery ditch — it’s impossible to ignore the real danger of the race. The men must navigate potholes while avoiding driving into the path of annoyed bus drivers. Rural roads are poorly lit at night, so one could hardly blame a bleary-eyed trucker for failing to notice the sputtering little auto rickshaw in time to avoid a collision.

Somehow, the guys make it to the finish line alive, enabling Ric to present Hit the Road: India at the 2014 Chicago South Asian Film Festival. Ric spoke of plans to turn Hit the Road into a series, filming other adventurous road rallies around the world. It’s a natural fit for The Travel Channel, PBS, or even Netflix.

With more corporate financial backing, future editions could add some neat features. Onscreen text in Hit the Road: India notes the day of the race and the remaining distance to Chennai, but a map graphic could give a sense of how far the racers travel each day.

A bigger budget could also enable the filmmakers to follow more than one team. Ric & Keith’s adventures are captured by a dash-mounted camera as well as a camera crew in a pace car that drives alongside them. By only following one team, it’s hard to get a sense of how the actual race is unfolding (especially since Ric & Keith are almost always in last place).

All of the other racers are introduced by name during the closing credits, and until then, I had no idea that so there were so many women participating. One team consists of three women from the United Kingdom and Australia. It would’ve been fascinating to see how they fared in a country with a troubled history of gender inequality and a well-known lack of public restrooms for women.

Hit the Road: India presents an interesting side of the country as well as a great first entry into what should be a series. I can’t wait to see where Ric & Keith Hit the Road next.

"Elmo" and "Cookie Monster" visit a school

“Elmo” and “Cookie Monster” visit a school


Streaming Video News: July 2, 2014

Two Hindi films were recently added to Netflix for streaming. The 2013 anthology Bombay Talkies celebrates 100 years of Hindi cinema. The second and third of the four short films are the best.

Also new to Netflix is the 2013 comedy Fukrey. It doesn’t translate well from Hindi to English, so much so that I couldn’t tell what lines of dialogue were supposed to be funny.

To view the rest of the massive collection of films just added to Netflix, check Instant Watcher.

Streaming Video News: June 2, 2014

New on Netflix streaming is the 2013 spy thriller D-Day, starring Irrfan Khan, Arjun Rampal, Rishi Kapoor, and Huma Qureshi. I think about D-Day more often than any other film from last year, and I look forward to watching it again.

Eros Now debuted Purani Jeans on its streaming service a couple of days ago. The coming-of-age film from last month didn’t open in North American theaters, so it’s great that fans over here finally have a way to watch it.