Though we may not consciously be aware of it, legal dramas often rely on shorthand that is readily understood by people who live within the legal system depicted, but which may not be so accessible to people who live outside it. That’s not a flaw of these works of fiction, but an acknowledgement that they may work better for some audiences than others.
That’s my issue with Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai (referred to by its nickname Bandaa henceforth). Manoj Bajpayee gives another sterling performance, but the story is a little confusing to those who don’t understand the legal terms and references used in the film.
Set in 2013 in Jodhpur, the courtroom drama focuses on a case in which a powerful spiritual leader is accused of molesting a 16-year-old girl. The date of the crime is significant because it happens a year after the passing of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act, commonly known by the acronym POCSO. The Act widened the ranged of prosecutable offenses that could fall under the umbrella of abuse from a previously narrow definition with lots of loopholes.
With the law being relatively new — and with such an influential, well-funded defendant — the girl’s family needs an attorney who understands POCSO law and is impervious to bribery. That man is P. C. Solanki (Manoj Bajpayee). Despite threats to him and his family and devious legal tactics from the opposition, Solanki persists in pursuing justice for the wronged girl.
Bandaa is a straightforward courtroom drama that focuses on the procedural details of the case. It’s an interesting introduction to the Indian legal system. But without full context, the stakes don’t feel as high as they might to someone more familiar with the system. There is a lot of wrangling over properly-filed paperwork and charges that, while effective in showing Solanki’s ability to think on the fly, isn’t in itself especially riveting.
Most problematic is the fact that the characters use the acronym POCSO from very early in the story, but it’s not explained until almost 45 minutes in. Thanks to Bandaa being a streaming-exclusive release, I was able to pause the film and look up the acronym on Wikipedia. It was convenient, but not conducive to getting immersed in the flow of the story.
Again, this will likely not be a problem for the majority of the intended audience, who are already familiar with the Indian legal system. However, based on my own level of familiarity, it prevented an obstacle to my full investment.
Manoj Bajpayee is wonderful as Solanki. The easy way in which he thwarts his opponents inside the courtroom is offset by the vigilance he must maintain outside of it due to the defendant’s dangerous followers.
As much fun as it is to watch Bajpayee command the screen, the girl at the center of the case — Nu (Adrija Sinha) — deserves a more prominent place in the story. Little time is spent on her struggles, not just with the dangers of pursuing the court case but the emotional fallout from the assault. She shows up periodically so that Solanki can tell her to be strong — which is a harder task than the film makes it seem.
A young police inspector in a small town navigates challenges in her professional and personal life in the comedy Kathal: A Jackfruit Mystery. Writer-director Yashowardhan Mishra gets a lot right in his feature debut, even though the story loses focus as it goes on.
Sanya Malhotra plays Mahima Basor, a police inspector in the small town of Moba. She’s achieved a lot in her short career and her superiors are pleased with her work, but some of the male constables who work under her quietly resent taking orders from a woman.
Further complicating matters is that one of those constables is her boyfriend, Saurabh Dwivedi (Anant Joshi). He supports Mahima’s career success, but his dad refuses to let them marry until Saurabh is promoted to inspector, too.
Fresh off Mahima’s arrest of a notorious gangster, she is assigned an even more important case — find the thief who stole two jackfruits off the tree in politician Munnalal Pateria’s (Vijay Raaz) garden. These aren’t just any jackfruits. They’re a special Uncle Hong variety that pickles exceptionally well.
Everyone except Pateria realizes what a ridiculous misuse of police resources this endeavor is. It’s funny to watch Mahima roll her eyes in the background as the investigation stirs up lingering resentments between Pateria and his son-in-law, which gets everyone else in the family involved.
This is when the story is at its best — as an interpersonal comedy that happens at an intimate scale, in a town small enough where everyone knows each other’s business. For example, no detail of the theft is too small for enthusiastic local reporter Anuj (Rajpal Yadav), who has little other news to cover.
Kathal loses its way when it expands the story beyond Moba’s borders into other villages, and the investigation uncovers more serious crimes. Pateria’s family recedes in importance, which is a shame because the characters and their influence over the town make the movie a lot of fun.
The plot gets diluted as the scope broadens. While the crime at the heart of the jackfruit case is trivial, what it reveals about power and police accountability is not. Same goes for the conflict that arises within Mahima’s relationship with Saurabh.
The introduction of weightier material doesn’t make Kathal any more important of a film. It was important already. Kathal is very close to being a very good movie. But the escalation in its latter stages overextends the runtime and distracts from the characters and a location that made up such an enjoyable, well-defined world.
I’m skeptical about any Luv Ranjan project. The filmmaker owes his career to the unfortunate box office success of sexist comedies like 2015’s deplorable Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2. So I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar.
Ranjan’s objective with Tu Jhoothi Main Makkar (TJMM, henceforth) is simple: show sexy people having a good time in exotic locations accompanied by a catchy soundtrack with some big dance numbers. To that end, it’s mission accomplished.
Ranbir Kapoor plays Mickey Arora, son of a wealthy, tight-knit family. In addition to helping run one of the family’s businesses — how his periodic strolling through an auto showroom helps is anyone’s guess — Mickey runs a secret side operation orchestrating breakups. He and his buddy Manu (Anubhav Singh Bassi) stage elaborate schemes on behalf of lovers who want to ditch their partners with minimal hard feelings or reputational damage.
While accompanying Manu on a trip to Spain to celebrate his engagement to Kinchi (Monica Chaudhary), Mickey falls for Kinchi’s gorgeous best friend Tinni (Shraddha Kapoor). Despite her reservations about dating a guy who’s never had to work for a boss who isn’t also his dad, Tinni and Mickey grow closer while frolicking in swimwear and cavorting about town. Both Kapoors look incredibly fit in this film, and their dance numbers are a lot of fun.
Mickey and Tinni return to Delhi and make things official, first by introducing Tinni to Mickey’s family. The Arora’s have no chill and quickly monopolize all of the couple’s time. This isn’t a problem for Mickey, but it is for Tinni. She places a call to the breakup expert — who uses a modulator to disguise his voice — and asks for help ending her relationship with Mickey.
Only in the movies would Mickey not immediately recognize his own girlfriend’s voice. More movie cliches follow once Mickey figures things out, including his professional instructions for Tinni to make Mickey jealous with a fake ex-boyfriend and to try to make Mickey cheat with her fake beautiful friend. (The fake ex and the fake friend are played by Kartik Aaryan and Nushrratt Bharuccha, respectively, who both starred in Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2).
Much of the conflict in TJMM could have been avoided had the characters simply talked to one another, but at least they are motivated by doing what they believe the other one wants. That fits with Mickey’s business ethos of trying to minimize the emotional fallout from breakups, but the couple is slow to realize that they are really only punishing themselves by not addressing their issues directly. The film is thoughtful about the way the borders of a romantic relationship extend out to encompass the families of the two people involved.
That said, TJMM is inherently conservative and too centered on Mickey. We see details of Tinni’s life only as they relate to Mickey. His family gets ample screentime, but we only get brief glimpses of Tinni’s family. While the two male friends regularly talk about their romantic relationships with one another, Tinni and Kinchi never do.
In the course of running his breakup business, Mickey spouts off a bunch of simplistic maxims about the behavior patterns of men and women that sound old-fashioned and a bit sexist. There’s also a moment where Mickey vows to get revenge on Tinni for lying to him — an unfortunate callback to the cruel revenge plots that make up the second half of Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2.
Yet despite it faults, TJMM mostly has its heart in the right place. The characters really do try to do right by one another, even when their efforts are misguided. And the film hits all the right notes for the kind of upbeat, escapist fantasy it aspires to be.
Amazon’s newest spy series Citadel is fun and totally watchable, thanks to a great cast and a fun, high-concept plot setup.
Citadel is the name of an international spy organization that works for the global good, independent of any single nation. Their efforts are thwarted by an evil spy ring called Manticore that has its tendrils in governments around the world.
Citadel agents Nadia Sinh (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) and Mason Kane (Richard Madden) — who was destined from birth to be a spy with a name like that — are doing reconnaissance on a train in Italy when they realize they’ve been set up. Manticore blows up the train as part of a coordinated worldwide effort to destroy Citadel once and for all.
Mason survives but has total amnesia, except for visions of a beautiful woman in a red dress: Nadia, wearing the outfit she was wearing on the train. His American passport has an alias, so he doesn’t even know his real name.
Eight years later, Mason has a wife and a daughter, but he’s still troubled by the void of information from his past. When he sends a DNA sample to an ancestry company, it alerts one of Citadel’s surviving operators, Bernard Orlick (Stanley Tucci), who tracks down the missing agent and upends his life.
Of course, Nadia survived the train explosion as well, but she doesn’t play a major part again until Episode 2.
The series does a nice job balancing its action, drama, and humor. Tucci’s role is dryly comical and everything one would hope from from Stanley Tucci, The Spy. Madden does a lot of the heavy lifting in the first episode, and he does a very solid job.
From what I’ve seen of Chopra Jonas’s forays in Hollywood to date, they haven’t fully captured what a good actor she is. Citadel does. She gets to showcase a wide emotional range and an impressive set of fighting skills, demonstrating why she is a global star.
The series — which is intended to eventually spin off into global versions set in India, Italy, Spain, and Mexico in languages native to each country — does enough in its early episodes to set up a compelling first season. Bernard gets Mason up to speed while forcing him to resurrect his old career, thereby uncovering the remaining threats to Citadel, its personnel, and the world. It’s a fun setup that balances the personal consequences for the agents with wider, more nebulous dangers that hooked me right away.
Polite Society is a raucous good time. Stories about sisterhood should always have this much martial arts action.
British high school student Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) knows what she wants to be in life: a stuntwoman. She records her moves for her YouTube channel, shouting, “I am the fury!” in her garden while her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) holds the camera.
Lena’s future isn’t so clear. She dropped out of art school, and now she mopes around in bed until Ria literally drags her out of it.
The girls’ parents Fatima (Shobu Kapoor) and Raff (Jeff Mirza) are supportive of their oddball daughters, but the pressure from their Pakistani-British social circle is mounting. There are only so many ways to deflect thinly-veiled insults.
It’s a surprise when the middle class Khans are invited to an Eid celebration at the mansion of one of the wealthiest women in the group, Raheela Shah (Nimra Bucha). It’s even more of a surprise to Ria when Lena chats with Raheela’s handsome doctor son Salim (Akshay Khanna) and actually appears to be enjoying herself.
Ria is convinced that there’s something suspicious about the Shahs. Why else would Salim and his mom take an interest in artsy Lena? Ria enlists her hilarious friends/sidekicks Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) and Clara (Seraphina Beh) to find dirt on Salim, but their spying only drives a wedge between the sisters. Is it so wrong for Lena to be happy receiving attention from a rich hunk who’s looking to settle down?
Polite Society has so much going for it that it’s hard to know where to begin. What is undeniable is Priya Kansara’s magnetism as Ria. Her performance commands attention and rewards it with an absolute star-making turn. She’s funny, snarky, and charismatic, and a total pro at the action sequences as well.
The martial arts fight scenes in Polite Society are terrific, smoothly integrated into the plot but surprising all the same. Though the fights are used for comic effect, they are totally hardcore — a delightful subversion of gender tropes given that the fights take place mostly between women in women’s spaces (a girls high school, a widow’s mansion, Ria’s bedroom, etc.).
Ritu Arya’s Lena is quite the fighter, too, as is Nimra Bucha as Raheela. Fresh off her turn as the villain in the Disney+ series Ms. Marvel, Bucha is proving to be the go-to intimidating South Asian mom of the moment. Arya plays off of Kansara beautifully, making the sisters’ relationship feel familiar and believable.
The Khan parents provide the moral center of the film in a subtle way. In contrast with Raheela’s eagerness to find a bride for Salim, the Khans are content to let their girls find their own way. While they are aware that marriage and family are a potential path to stability (and one that would make it easier for Fatima to socialize with the other moms), they aren’t pushy about it. Fatima encourages Lena to date Salim because it seems to make Lena happy. As long as the girls aren’t getting into serious trouble, their happiness is all that matters to their parents.
Filmmaker Nida Manzoor’s fresh screenplay and direction deftly mix social commentary with a lot of laughs — and plenty of flying kicks. Polite Society is a top-class effort from a young filmmaker to watch.
The action comedy Mrs Undercover is agenda-driven, not story-driven or character-driven. It’s not even clear who the intended audience is for this film that wants to promote women’s empowerment but doesn’t treat the issue with any sophistication.
Instead of first introducing its main character, Durga (Radhika Apte) — a seemingly ordinary housewife — Mrs Undercover opens with the villain, Ajay (Sumeet Vyas): a serial killer who preys on strong, independent women. We hear him beat the feminist lawyer he has tricked into having a date with him before we watch him run over her repeatedly with his car.
This misstep immediately puts the focus on the man committing violence against women, and not the woman who will (ultimately) stand up to him. The very first woman we meet is a victim, and we witness her brutal death.
Ajay goes by the alias “The Common Man,” and he records his victims confessing their crimes against masculinity before murdering them. For some reason, literally everyone in India has their phone set to alert them when The Common Man posts a new video. Why? Who knows?
The special task force assigned to find The Common Man has one last chance to learn his identity. Turns out an undercover agent whose contact information was misplaced happens to live in Kolkata, The Common Man’s new hunting ground. That secret agent is Durga.
Durga married sexist, conservative Dev (Saheb Chatterjee) to establish her cover. But with no word from the special force in a decade, Durga went ahead and started a family. When task force chief Rangeela (Rajesh Sharma) assigns her to the case, she’s not willing to disrupt her family’s routine to do so.
Rangeela’s attempts to bring Durga back into the fold are the funniest part of Mrs Undercover. He surprises her by showing up in odd places wearing disguises that don’t fool anyone.
Sadly, that’s it as far as the laughs go. The dialogue is uninspired, as far as I could tell. Only the Hindi words are subtitled, with the rest reading “???Bengali.” The action scenes are forgettable, too.
That’s because the point of Mrs Undercover isn’t to entertain, but to educate. Somber piano music plays whenever characters launch into heavy-handed speeches about how housewives are special and should be treated with respect. Religious references abound, such as naming the main character Durga and lauding women for managing their households as though they have ten hands.
I’m not sure who writer-director Anushree Mehta is trying to persuade. It’s not like men who look down on women don’t realize they do so. Durga’s husband Dev isn’t a controlling jerk by accident. When Dev’s mother (played by Laboni Sarkar) tries to convince him to allow Durga more freedom, it’s as though Mom has only just realized that her married adult son with whom she lives is sexist.
The characters feel like they came into being just before the events of the film, to serve the purposes of the screenplay. This is especially true in the case of a woman who is one of The Common Man’s accomplices. Why would she agree to help a man who is literally murdering women for refusing to be subservient? We’ll never know, because Durga shoots her before she can explain herself.
Mrs Undercover opens the door to all kinds of feminist issues, only to abandon them or treat them in a simplistic way. Durga joins a Women’s Empowerment group at a local college, and most of the attendees express a desire to start their own businesses. The men running the group instead teach them a choreographed dance routine.
Because the film addresses issues at such a surface level, it doesn’t even realize that movie’s the ultimate message to women is that it isn’t enough to be “just a housewife.” Durga saves the day using skills she learned as a special agent, not abilities she picked up once she started her family. Were she to have succeeded using those skills, the movie might have made a point about all women’s work deserving respect.
The ending assumes that justice is best served via eye-for-an-eye physical retribution meted out individually. Even then, it’s up to women to do the dirty work themselves while men stand and watch. That’s not catharsis. It’s more forced labor for women that absolves men of the work of holding other men accountable. Who does Mrs Undercover think will find this satisfying?