Tag Archives: 2015

Movie Review: For Here or to Go? (2015)

3 Stars (out of 4)

For Here or to Go? opens in these theaters Friday, March 31, 2017.

Even though For Here or to Go? made its festival debut in 2015, its 2017 theatrical release could not be more timely. The film examines America’s complicated immigration system not from a policy level, but from a personal one.

Ali Fazal — known to Bollywood fans from movies like Fukrey and Bobby Jasoos and to Hollywood fans from his role in Furious 7 — plays Vivek, a programmer on an H-1B visa working for a big corporation in Silicon Valley. He’d love a job at a startup, where he’d have a better opportunity to put his ideas to work, but his visa status effectively prevents it. Most small startups lack the resources to sponsor visa employees, and he has less than a year left on his visa anyway.

This puts Vivek and countless other foreign employees in a kind of holding pattern, stuck in jobs they don’t want and unable to get new ones. With low odds for getting a green card that would enable him to live and work in the United States permanently — it takes ten months just to get in the line to wait for a green card! — Vivek and his roommates haven’t even bothered to buy furniture. What’s the point, when they’ll have to leave it behind when their visas run out and they’re forced to return to India?

This limbo state is bad for Vivek’s social life as well. It’s impossible to find a lasting relationship when he doesn’t know where he’ll be next year, or even sooner than that if his company should unexpectedly fold, which would give him just days to leave the country.

Vivek’s romantic problems are strictly theoretical until he meets Shveta (Melanie Chandra, nee Kannokada, the pride of Park Ridge, Illinois) at a yoga class. She’s the first American-born Desi woman to give him the time of day. They have fun together, taking center stage during a Bollywood-style flash mob.

While Shveta is an all-American girl, her rich dad, Vishwanath (Rajit Kapur), is trying to convince Desi tech workers to return to India as a sort of penance for his role in the “brain drain” phenomenon, which was the subject of Swades back in 2004. One of the most disheartening aspects of For Here or to Go? is the sense that problems like “brain drain” and the unwelcome feeling experienced by many immigrants have been around for a long time and have only gotten worse since the film was completed, even before the ascent of the Trump administration. Under Vishwanath’s tutelage, Vivek starts to wonder if maybe India is the best place for him after all.

The story is rounded out by Vivek’s roommates, Lakshmi (Omi Vaidya) and Amit (Amitosh Nagpal). Lakshmi is determined to become an American citizen, believing that the US offers him a better chance at happiness as a gay man than India does. Amit has his own visa issues, and his glibness regarding immigration laws worries Vivek.

The pacing of For Here or to Go? — directed by Rucha Humnabadkar and written by Rishi Bhilawadikar — is slow in spots. There are also some logical problems, such as why Vivek never learns that his mentor, Vishwanath, is Shveta’s father.

The film also loses focus as the plot progresses. Instead of sticking with Vivek’s story, For Here or to Go? tries to cover the whole Indian immigrant experience in America. The issue of racist violence against Sikhs and how that impacts their desire to live in the US — a rich enough topic for an entire film of its own — gets wedged into a scene that’s only a few minutes long and has no bearing on the central plot.

Thankfully, some nice performances make up for screenplay scope creep. Fazal is always reliable, whether he’s acting in English or Hindi films, and he’s quite sexy in the movie’s sole romantic scene. Chandra is totally adorable. Vaidya and Nagpal are both charming as well.

For Here or to Go?‘s best selling point is that it’s a really good tutorial on the US immigration system. That’s equal parts praise for a film that makes a dull-seeming topic interesting, and condemnation for a system that’s so complicated it needs a fictional medium to make it comprehensible to the general public.

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Bollywood Box Office: February 10-12, 2017

There’s something fascinating going on with Akshay Kumar’s box office returns in North America, and I’m not sure how to make sense of it. His latest film — Jolly LLB 2 — earned $743,719 from 197 theaters ($3,775 average) in the United States and Canada during its opening weekend of February 10-12, 2017. (Box Office Mojo lists the film as opening in 173 total theaters, making for an average of $4,299 per theater.) This total is consistent with the opening weekend returns of Kumar’s three 2016 releases — Airlift, Housefull 3, and Rustom — which ranged from $674,890 for Housefull 3 on the low-end and $815,933 for Airlift on the high-end. The only difference is that Jolly LLB 2 opened in sixty more theaters than Housefull 3, Kumar’s biggest release of last year, so one would’ve expected larger returns with Jolly LLB 2‘s wider release.

Here’s where things get weird. Kumar released four films in 2015: Baby, Gabbar is Back, Brothers, and Singh Is Bliing. Those four films opened in an average of 140 theaters — ranging from 99 for Baby to 181 for Brothers — so their opening weekend theatrical footprint was slightly larger than the average opening weekend theater count of 122 for his three 2016 releases (though still smaller than Jolly LLB 2‘s 197 theaters). The average total earnings for Kumar’s four 2015 releases was $721,024. Yet, Kumar’s three 2016 releases plus Jolly LLB 2 earned an average of $747,887 in their opening weekends! In the span of a year, Kumar became popular enough in North America than his films now earn the same amount in one weekend as they earned over their entire theatrical lifespan in 2015! How the heck does that happen?!

Those earnings aren’t just front-loaded, either. Kumar’s films have seen their box office longevity increase as well. In 2015, the average Kumar movie finished its theatrical run with a total that was 1.91 times the amount it earned in its opening weekend. In 2016, that average multiplier jumped to 2.26.

The other impressive anomaly at the North American box office this weekend is Dangal‘s performance in its eighth weekend in theaters. It earned $11,441 from six theaters ($1,907 average), bringing its total to $12,329,706. This is notable because Bollywood movies don’t earn more than $10,000 in a weekend by this point in their life-cycles. Even though Kapoor & Sons hung around theaters for ten weeks last spring, it stopped earning five figures after its sixth weekend.

Other Hindi movies showing in US and Canadian theaters:

  • Raees: Week 3; $105,069 from 63 theaters; $1,668 average; $3,508,519 total
  • Kaabil: Week 3; $40,343 from 34 theaters; $1,187 average; $1,373,722 total

Sources: Box Office Mojo and Rentrak, via Bollywood Hungama

Movie Review: Growing Up Smith (2015)

growingupsmith3 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the movie at Amazon or iTunes

Growing Up Smith is a funny, relatable coming-of-age story about an Indian boy’s attempt to adapt to American small-town life.

Smith Bhatnagar (Roni Akurati) is ten years old, living somewhere in Oklahoma with his family in 1979. Smith’s father, Bhaaskhar (Anjul Nigam, who co-wrote the screenplay), longed so much to come to the United States that he chose the most American name he could think of for his only son. Unfortunately, Bhaaskhar didn’t realize that “Smith” is a last name, not a first name.

The members of the family — father, son, mother Nalini (Delhi Belly‘s Poorna Jagannathan), and teenage sister Asha (Shoba Narayan) — enjoy life in their new country. Bhaaskhar loves his money-saving vegetable garden, and Asha likes the handsome boys, especially her classmate, Patrick (Paul Castro, Jr.).

Of all the things Smith likes about America — Star Wars, disco, John Travolta — his favorite is his pretty next-door-neighbor, Amy (Brighton Sharbino). Amy happens to be one of the few townsfolk interested in the Bhatnagar’s Indian heritage. She doesn’t flinch when the family offers her a vegetarian meal (flinching being the standard Midwestern response to vegetarianism until approximately 2008, as I can attest).

Amy’s friendship helps Smith navigate the usual pitfalls of adolescence like bullies, but also culture-specific problems, such as his parents’ inability to appreciate the importance of Halloween for kids in the States. Amy’s working-class dad, Butch (Jason Lee), takes it upon himself to teach Smith how to be an American man.

Growing Up Smith is humorous yet tender in the way it deals with Smith’s problems. A clever and occasionally bombastic score by Michael Lira guides the tone of the film, hearkening back to earlier Hollywood coming-of-age comedies like A Christmas Story.

The story poses interesting questions about raising children in a foreign country. Bhaaskhar regularly threatens to send his kids back to India when they act up, but how much of their misbehavior is due to their increasing Americanization, and how much is typical kid stuff they’d do no matter where they lived? Asha is skilled at getting away with mischief, simply shouting “Bye” on her way out the door to trick her folks into believing they already gave her permission to leave.

The time period in which the story is set also plays an important part. This is well before the age of cell phones and GPS, a time when parents had to hop in the car to track down their missing offspring. Not only are the Bhatnagars the only Indian family around, they aren’t even in regular contact with their own relatives. Smith describes a phone call to India as “an expensive and rare event.” Do Bhaaskhar and Nalini feel compelled to enforce a stricter set of culturally appropriate rules than if they had other Indian parents around to talk to? Smith and Asha are also deprived of peers who really understand their issues, such as their prearranged marriages.

These issues are only an undercurrent to a story that focuses on the antics of its charming junior protagonist. Akurati makes Smith impossible to dislike, barrelling down the street on his bicycle, wearing a helmet several sizes too big. The rest of the family is endearing, too, as is Sharbino as Amy. Lee’s performance is the only one that sometimes feels out of sync with the rest of the cast.

Just like its main character, Growing Up Smith is hard not to like. Here’s where to meet Roni Akurati and Anjul Nigam at one of the special screenings they are hosting around the country:

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Movie Review: Parched (2015)

parched4 Stars (out of 4)

Buy or rent the movie at Amazon or iTunes
Buy the soundtrack at iTunes
Parched is also available for streaming on Netflix in the US.

Writer-director Leena Yadav’s Parched thoughtfully examines the sorry state of gender equality in rural India. Brave performances by a talented cast give context to a complex, entrenched culture that dehumanizes women.

The culture is explored through the experiences of four very different women: an infertile wife named Lajjo (Radhika Apte), a 15-year-old newlywed named Janaki (Lehar Khan), a dancer and prostitute named Bijli (Surveen Chawla), and a 32-year-old widow named Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee). Rani is the link between the other women: a longtime friend to Bijli, a neighbor and buddy to Lajjo, and Janaki’s mother-in-law.

Rani is a difficult and unconventional lead, for sure. One is conditioned to expect a pivotal character like Rani to be an agent for change, especially when she’s being played by an immense talent like Chatterjee, but that’s not who she is. Rani is surprisingly ordinary.

Take her first scenes in the film. On a visit to a neighboring town to arrange a bride for her drunken waste of a son, Gulab (Riddhi Sen), Rani coos over young Janaki’s beauty, deliberately ignoring the terrified expression on the girl’s face and offering her no comfort.

When Rani returns from her trip, she and Lajjo sit passively through a disheartening town meeting. Another young bride, Champa (Sayani Gupta), fled to her parents’ home after enduring repeated rapes by her brother- and father-in-law, but the male heads of the village insist on sending her back to her husband, even if it means her death. The leader of the village women offers to pool the money they earn selling handicrafts to buy a communal TV, giving the women something to do while their husbands are away, working as long-haul truckers. The men laugh, jokingly wondering if the women will start wanting to wear jeans next. Rani and Lajjo laugh, too.

With each successive horrible thing that happens to a woman in Parched because of her gender, one wonders what will be the final straw. When will Rani and her friends finally make a stand? This isn’t that kind of movie.

Millions of women live in these kind of conditions, and Parched explores how they do that when there’s no one to appeal to, where there’s literally nowhere to run. Even Kishan (Sumeet Vyas) — the man who brokers sales of the women’s handicrafts — can only do so much when the rest of the men resent him. Among the women, Lajjo personifies resilience, her bright eyes shining at the prospect of a day of hooky, regardless of the hell it will cost her at the hands of her abusive husband, Manoj (Mahesh Balraj).

Yadav emphasizes that there is more to lives of her characters than just suffering. There is room for joy and friendship, along with unmet sexual desires. All four female leads have suffered sexual abuse, yet the desire for sexual gratification remains, even if hope for an attentive, caring partner is dim. When Bijli vividly describes an encounter with a man exclusively concerned with satisfying her needs, Rani and Lajjo dismiss her story as fantasy.

One of the courageous choices Yadav and Chatterjee make with Rani is using her to show how women in an oppressive patriarchy can help perpetuate it. Janaki’s marriage to Gulab awakens a cruel side of Rani, the role of mother-in-law giving her license to haze her new daughter-in-law in the same way she once was. The morning after Gulab violently consummates his marriage with Janaki, Rani shows no sympathy toward the girl, who shuffles about in obvious pain. Rani scolds her for sleeping late: “Get to work! This isn’t your mother’s house.”

Yet Rani struggles with the fact that she raised an awful misogynist for a son. With time, her acceptance of culpability in creating a monster softens her stance toward Janaki. As grim as their lives are, the film ends on a hopeful note for all four of the women. Great writing and mesmerizing performances make Parched extraordinary.

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Movie Review: Angry Indian Goddesses (2015)

AngryIndianGoddesses3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the soundtrack (or score) at Amazon or iTunes

A great opening sequence, compelling characters, and an unexpected climax make Angry Indian Goddesses a treat from start to finish.

Director Pan Nalin finds an inventive way to introduce the film’s six main characters, showing each woman encountering some form of sexism. Lakshmi (Rajshri Deshpande), a maid, is catcalled on her way to work. Housewife Pammy (Pavleen Gujral) overhears men commenting about her physique at the gym. Singer Mad (Anushka Manchanda) gets heckled during a performance. Jo (Amrit Maghera), an actress, is chided by her male director for not acting sexy enough as a damsel in distress.

Some of the sexism the characters experience has to do with traditional concepts of femininity rather than sexual harassment. A client mansplains how to shoot an ad for fairness cream to experienced photographer Frieda (Sarah-Jane Dias). CEO Su’s (Sandhya Mridul) employees expect her to show more compassion to her opponents in a land dispute.

As the background music builds to a crescendo, the women reach their boiling points, the camera cutting from woman to woman as each explodes in rage. It’s fun and satisfying, calling out to the desires of women to get really angry in a society that often demands that we repress those urges, lest we be viewed as unladylike.

Particularly satisfying are the responses of the women who are sexually harassed. Pammy tells off the muscly bro ogling her and drops a weight on his foot. Mad leaps off the stage to attack her heckler. Lakshmi grabs her harasser’s testicles and squeezes. The catharsis of the opening sequence alone makes Angry Indian Goddesses a worthwhile watch.

The characters are a group of old friends who gather at Frieda’s house in Goa, where Lakshmi works as a maid. Frieda is getting married, though she won’t say to whom. Her refusal to disclose the identity of her betrothed and the group’s patience with her deflections are the only unbelievable parts of the film.

As the pals reconnect, it becomes clear that their friendships aren’t as close as they once were. Frieda’s relocation to Goa is itself a surprise, as is Mad’s depression over her stagnant music career. Lakshmi’s legal troubles also affect the dynamic in the house.

After several days, the group is joined by Nargis (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a friend of Frieda’s who also happens to be the source of the land dispute troubling Su. Nargis’ integration into the group is awkward, though perhaps that’s to be expected given her enmity with Su and lack of connection to the other women.

If Angry Indian Goddesses were to just be a movie about a group of women reevaluating their lives and relationships while on vacation, that would be enough. The performances are that good. But that’s not where the story goes. Nalin steers the narrative toward a thrilling climax, providing a novel payoff that enables the characters to fulfill a wish expressed by Nargis: that women be allowed to author their own stories.

Narrative focus is nicely balanced between the characters, giving opportunities for all of the performers to shine. There are no duds in the bunch, and it’s nice to discover actresses who — unlike Chatterjee — don’t have many lead roles to their credit.

The one who steals the show is Pavleen Gujral as Pammy. Pammy is the most traditional of the friends, wearing a sari to a beach vacation, and Gujral portrays her as funny, challenging, and relatable. Gujral doesn’t even have her own Wikipedia page yet, but I’m hoping that changes as offers flow her way following her winsome performance in Angry Indian Goddesses.

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Movie Review: Song of Lahore (2015)

songoflahore4 Stars (out of 4)

Buy or rent the movie at Amazon or iTunes
Buy the soundtrack at Amazon or iTunes

The documentary Song of Lahore chronicles the surprising journey of an ensemble of classically trained Pakistani musicians to their performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The film is as touching as it is educational.

Since the Mughal era, Lahore had been internationally renowned for its music. Movie studios employed orchestras to record film scores during the golden age of Pakistani cinema, until a military coup in 1977 shuttered the studios and banned most public musical performances.

Even when restrictions eased in the 1990s, young people turned toward rock ‘n roll and away from traditional music. The Taliban’s rise in influence again drove musicians out of the public sphere.

Fearing the loss of his culture, Izzat Majeed established Sachal Studios in Lahore as a place for musicians — not just players of traditional instruments like tablas and sitars, but guitarists and violinists as well — to jam together. Ignored by local audiences, Majeed made a bold suggestion: “Let’s try to understand jazz.”

What makes the suggestion especially audacious is that the membership of the Sachal Ensemble skews old, as evident by the high number of white-haired members. The notion of ditching fifty years worth of training in a particular style in order to learn a new one is remarkable and inspiring.

Majeed himself was introduced to jazz in 1958, when his father took him to a performance by Dave Brubeck as part of the US State Department’s Jazz Ambassadors program. One theme that’s repeated throughout Song of Lahore is the way politics can shape culture. During the Cold War, the United States used jazz as a weapon against communism.

Famed trumpeter Wynton Marsalis appreciates the historical connections between American jazz and traditional music in Pakistan. Jazz was born out of the persecution of African-Americans, he explains, just as the Sachal Ensemble perseveres in a country where musicians face violence from Islamic extremists.

A YouTube video of their infectious rendition of Brubeck’s iconic hit “Take Five” garners the Sachal Ensemble international interest and an invitation to perform with Marsalis’ big band at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The second half of the film focuses on that performance and the rehearsals leading up to it.

Even though the performance is assured to happen, the rehearsal scenes are tense. The Ensemble seems unsure whether to look to Marsalis for cues or to their own arranger and conductor, Nijat Ali. When they ultimately take the stage in front of a packed house, their performance provokes tears of both pride and relief.

Directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken keep their story focused, giving some social context but prioritizing this particular moment in the lives of these musicians. Showing the rough patches during rehearsal with Marsalis’ band highlights the practical difficulties of their mission.

Of course, all of the music in the film is tremendous.

Song of Lahore is a wonderful example of not only the power of perseverance but of adaptability. When passion compels you to do something, find a way to get it done.

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New York Indian Film Festival 2016

The 2016 New York Indian Film Festival is underway. This year’s NYIFF slate has some crossover with the slates of the 2015 Chicago South Asian Film Festival and 2016 Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, so I’ve previously reviewed several of the movies showing in New York. Click on the title below to read my review, and click the showtime for NYIFF ticket info: