Tag Archives: 3.5 Stars

Movie Review: Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Gangubai Kathiawadi on Netflix

Alia Bhatt sparkles in filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi. Bhansali’s visuals are mesmerizing as ever, but the characters are the real stars.

Gangubai (Bhatt) was born Ganga, the educated daughter of a barrister. At 16, a man she loved tricked her into running away to Mumbai to pursue a movie career. There, he sold her to Sheela Mausi (Seema Pahwa), the owner of a brothel.

With her only choices being life as a sex worker or death, Ganga chose to live. Her first client nicknamed her Gangu, a moniker she adopted to mark this new phase of her life. When she became the madam of the brothel following Sheela Mausi’s death, the other women christened her Gangubai as a sign of respect.

Gangubai’s great strength is her empathy for the women around her. Her first act of defiance under Sheela Mausi is to take a handful of other women out to see a movie — hardly a radical act, but one that affirms their humanity. Gangubai knows that the only way to achieve her goals of securing safety and dignity for her fellow sex workers and education for their children is to put herself in a position of power, even if it means sacrificing her own personal happiness.

Gangubai succeeds because she’s great at understanding what motivates people. Bhansali drives that home by making sure that, in every scene, it is perfectly clear what every character wants. That goes for main characters and those in supporting roles. It’s so consistent throughout the film that it’s clearly something that Bhansali and co-writer Utkarshini Vashishtha put a lot of thought into.

Bhansali also pays a ton of attention to the way characters move. Choreography is obvious in the film’s two large-scale dance numbers, but it’s present in simpler gestures, too: the way someone tilts their head dismissively or the way Gangubai’s rival Raziabai (Vijay Raaz) sidles up behind her in an attempt to intimidate.

The focus on movement is most thrilling in the two love songs between Gangubai and Afshan (Shantanu Maheshwari), an apprentice tailor. Afshan leans back timidly as Gangubai leans in, tricking him into thinking she’s going to kiss him as she reaches for a bottle. Both songs “Jab Saiyaan” and “Meri Jaan” are super sexy, as Gangubai and Afshan move teasingly around each other. Maheshwari got his start in entertainment as a member of the Desi Hoppers dance crew, and his expert body control infuses every part of his performance. Casting him was an inspired choice.

Songs integrate into the story seamlessly — so much so that Gangubai Kathiawadi could make for a good starter “Bollywood-style” movie for someone who thinks they don’t like musicals. The song numbers fit perfectly within the flow of the story.

The only weak point in the film comes from another typical Bollywood element: a character giving a climactic speech in front of a crowd. The scene doesn’t have the same impact as it would have in real life, and it slows down the momentum. The movie also ends with a narrated outro that sounds like the closing paragraph from an elementary school social studies report.

Alia Bhatt’s charismatic performance can’t be praised enough. It’s a swaggering role, but it’s always clear why Gangubai is the way she is. Her brash persona is a necessary part of her plan to improve the lives of the women around her.

She’s surrounded by some colorful characters brought to life by even more great performances. Pahwa is appropriately loathsome as Sheela Mausi, and Raaz’s Raziabai is chilling. Ajay Devgn is terrific in his extended cameo as the helpful gangster Rahim Lala.

Best of all are those closest to Gangubai. Maheshwari’s Afshan is adorable, and Indra Tiwari is sensational as Gangubai’s best friend and sidekick Kamli. Bhatt’s lead performance deservedly gets most of the attention, but the ensemble around her is terrific as well.

Links

Movie Review: Dasvi (2022)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Dasvi on Netflix

Comedies made for an audience of all ages aren’t often considered prestige viewing, but they’re no less difficult to get right. Dasvi does just that, telling a story with broad appeal that never feels dumbed-down, thanks to solid performances and terrific story structure.

Abhishek Bachchan stars as Ganga Ram Chaudhary, Chief Minister (CM) of the state of Harit Pradesh. He’s used to getting his way, flaunting his power by transferring a local police officer he deems too strict and shutting down a proposal to build a school in favor of building a mall.

When he’s thrown into jail pending a bribery investigation, his life doesn’t change that much. Suck-up prison guard Satpal (Manu Rishi Chadha) gives Chaudhary special accommodations, and Chaudhary’s timid wife Bimla Devi (Nimrat Kaur) fills in as CM, taking direction from her husband over the phone.

All that changes when the prison gets a tough new warden, Jyoti Deshwal (Yami Gautam Dhar). Wouldn’t you know, she’s the same strict cop Chaudhary had transferred before he went to jail. She axes Chaudhary’s special privileges, including his daily calls to Bimla Devi, who’s left to govern on her own. Jyoti mocks Chaudhary’s eighth-grade education, calling him an “uncouth bumpkin.”

This hit to his pride — and his desire to avoid manual labor — inspires Chaudhary to take on the challenge of earning his high school diploma while behind bars. If he fails, he promises to drop out of politics.

Chaudhary is a fun comic hero because his flaws are obvious to the audience, but not to him. We know his dismissive attitude toward education needs to change, but why should it while he’s living the life he wants? When he finally gets on the right path, it’s a fun twist that his biggest obstacle is not the warden but his own wife, who’s come to enjoy the power that comes with being the CM.

A lot of the jokes in Dasvi stem from verbal faux pas committed by Chaudhary and Bimla Devi. Not all of the wordplay humor translates, but Laxminarayan Singh does a good job of nailing most of the jokes via the English subtitles (as when Bimla Devi insists that they build an “effigy” of her, when she means “statue”).

But Dasvi isn’t so much a laugh-out-loud comedy as it is one that lets the powerful make fools of themselves. The film doesn’t rely on tacky jokes or goofy sound effects, instead letting well-drawn characters highlight what’s funny about a perverse situation. This is all possible thanks to a carefully constructed screenplay by Suresh Nair and Ritesh Shah and some ace direction by Tushar Jalota, who helms his first feature film.

The cast does exactly what it needs to do to set the right tone, giving characters the right mix of silliness and sentiment. Abhishek Bachchan, Yami Gautam Dhar, and Nimrat Kaur carry most of the load, but supporting actors like Manu Rishi Chadha and Arun Kushwaha — who plays the math wiz bicycle thief Ghanti — complete the world-building.

Dasvi feels a lot like a Hollywood comedy in its structure, but it still makes room for a Bollywood-style dance number and a closing speech about the importance of education (for better or worse). It fits that such a widely accessible film would debut on Netflix, a platform always looking to reach a global audience. Making an all-ages film that families around the world can enjoy watching together is a worthy goal and no mean feat.

Links

[Disclaimer: my Amazon links include an affiliate tag, and I may earn a commission on purchases made via those links. Thanks for helping to support this website!]

Movie Review: Bhoot Police (2021)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Bhoot Police on Hulu

Bhoot Police (“Ghost Police“) is a really satisfying, high-concept horror comedy.

Brothers Vibhooti (Saif Ali Khan) and Chiraunji (Arjun Kapoor) are exorcists for hire, carrying on the legacy inherited from their father, the renowned spiritual healer Ullat Babu (Saurabh Sachdeva, in flashbacks). However, the brothers’ business is a grift. Non-believer Vibhooti rationalizes their work as harmless since their sham spells put peoples’ minds at ease, but Chiraunji isn’t so sure. He’s convinced that their father’s encoded spellbook holds some key to the spirit realm, if only he could figure out how to read it.

Chiraunji asks his dearly-departed father for a sign, and Dad delivers. Chiraunji drops the spellbook, and a hidden scroll unlocking the book’s code pops out. The book lands at the feet of a woman named Maya (Yami Gautam) who needs the brothers’ help. Decades ago, Ullat Babu banished a ghost from her family’s tea estate, but the ghost seems to have returned. Now that Chiraunji can decipher his father’s book, perhaps he can perform a real exorcism and save Maya’s business.

The performances in Bhoot Police are a lot of fun. Khan’s opportunistic cad Vibhooti is contrasted against Kapoor’s earnest, sentimental Chiraunji. Gautam’s warmhearted Maya is balanced by her party girl sister Kanu (Jacqueline Fernandez, whose energetic performance is slightly over the top). Amit Mistry and Javed Jaffrey do exactly what needs doing in their supporting roles.

Because Bhoot Police feels silly and fun, it’s easy to miss how much thought went into its construction. Making the brother’s disparate personalities the main driver of conflict and then doubling it by adding two sisters with a similar dynamic adds depth to the story. There’s a goofy subplot with Jaffrey as a police inspector who’s hunting the brothers that has an unexpected payoff. The story behind the ghost haunting the estate is surprisingly emotional. All these layers give the actors a lot to work with and keep the plot moving along.

None of this should be a surprise given the team behind Bhoot Police. Director Pavan Kirpalani previously directed the excellent psychological thriller Phobia, starring Radhika Apte. That film required a great understanding of character, which is present in the characters in Bhoot Police as well. Both of the brothers suffered from the trauma of their father’s death but found different ways of coping with it. Revisiting the scene of their dad’s most famous exorcism forces the brothers to finally confront their feelings about him.

Kirpalani wrote both Phobia and Bhoot Police with Pooja Ladha Surti, who also edited both movies. She’s Sriram Raghavan’s go-to co-writer and editor, too, having worked with him in those capacities on Andhadhun and Badlapur (among other films).

Bhoot Police‘s other co-writer and assistant director — Sumit Batheja — wrote the dialogue for the hilarious action comedy A Gentleman.

With such talented people behind the camera, it’s no wonder that Bhoot Police is as enjoyable and well thought out as it is. The cast in front of the camera brings the story to life with a seeming effortlessness. If only every comedy could be made with this much care and deliberation.

Links

Movie Review: India Sweets and Spices (2021)

India Sweets and Spices poster3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Find tickets for India Sweets and Spices here

A chance meeting with a hot guy in a grocery store leads to shocking family revelations in the delightful American comedy India Sweets and Spices.

Alia Kapur (Sophia Ali) returns home from college for another boring summer at home. Life with her family in their wealthy New Jersey suburb is the same as ever: her younger brother and sister constantly fight, mom Sheila (Manisha Koirala) is obsessed with keeping up appearances, and dad Ranjit (Adil Hussain) is always golfing. Their lives are structured around a rotation of weekly parties thrown by the local Desi elite in order to show off new designer sarees, brag about their children, and judge one another. The movie’s plot is structured around these events, too, with onscreen titles announcing which family party is about to spark the latest drama.

On a trip to the grocery store, Alia meets Varun Dutta (Rish Shah), the handsome son of the new owners of the shop, India Sweets and Spices. Breaking with protocol, Alia invites working class Varun and his family — including his mom Bhairavi (Deepti Gupta) and dad Kamlesh (Kamran Shaikh) — to her family’s house for the weekly party.

Having grown up insulated from from the realities of class distinctions, Alia is surprised when her parents and their friends won’t even feign kindness toward the Duttas — but bigger surprises await. Varun, Alia, and her friend Rahul (Ved Sapru) catch Alia’s dad making out with Rahul’s mom. And it turns out Bhairavi is an old college friend of Sheila’s, though Sheila tries to downplay the relationship. Alia’s only ever considered her parents as “her parents.” Who are they really?

Writer-director Geeta Malik is excellent at world building, populating the posh suburb of Ruby Hill with well-defined characters. Alia is a product of her environment, and her struggle as a young adult to figure out who she’s supposed to be plays out within that context. Should Alia have been shocked that the Duttas were ostracized by the wealthy doctors and engineers her parents hobnob with? Probably not, but hers is a world where scrutiny stops at surface level.

For example, Alia is impressed by the number of books Varun has in his room. When he points out that her house has a look of books, too, she says that they aren’t even real. They’re just a color coordinated set of Swedish novels with uncut pages meant to match the decor. Later, Alia points out the same set of Swedish books on the shelves in Rahul’s house, and Rahul is stunned to learn that they’re fake. He’d never even looked at them.

Even though Alia’s younger siblings don’t feature prominently in the story, they help establish a world that is bigger than just Alia, her parents, and the guy she likes. Same for childhood friends like Rahul and Neha (Anita Kalathara). The rapport between Neha and Alia is especially charming.

India Sweets and Spices is a great showcase for Ali, who has mostly worked in TV to this point (including multiple seasons of Grey’s Anatomy). She’s poised for a major profile boost when she plays the love interest to Tom Holland’s character in the long-awaited adventure movie Uncharted, which releases next year.

Hussain and Koirala are terrific as Alia’s parents, though that’s no surprise. Koirala puts a funny spin on an item number, as Sheila saunters into a room holding a plate of samosas, accompanied by the party anthem “Sheila Ki Jawani.” There are other amusing uses of popular Bollywood tunes and fun glimpses of movies as characters flip channels on the TV.

India Sweets and Spices is really well made. It’ll be fun to see what Geeta Malik does next.

Links

  • India Sweets and Spices at IMDb

Movie Review: Ludo (2020)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Ludo on Netflix

The movie Ludo uses its namesake board game as a metaphor for life, its characters one dice roll away from fortune or ruin. Writer-director Anurag Basu’s black comedy is beautifully made and laugh-out-loud funny.

Anyone who has played the games Aggravation, Sorry!, or Trouble is familiar with how Ludo works. Players from four different colored corners of the game board roll dice, moving their pieces around the board in the hopes of being the first to get all their pieces safely “home.” Basu assigns different characters to the colored corners, and they meet up with one another throughout the story. Right at the center is Sattu Bhaiya (Pankaj Tripathi), a hard-to-kill gangster with ties to all of them.

In the red corner is Sattu’s former right-hand man Bittu (Abhishek Bachchan), fresh out of prison and eager confront his old boss. Bittu charges in after a meeting between Sattu and the yellow corner’s Akash (Aditya Roy Kapur), who needs Sattu’s help removing a sex tape from the internet. The blue corner’s Rahul (Rohit Suresh Saraf) is at Sattu’s hideout as well, having been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

An explosion sets the characters off in different directions. Rahul drives off with some of Sattu’s stolen cash and a cute, opportunistic nurse named Sheeja (Pearle Maaney). Akash also hits the road, joined by Shruti (Sanya Malhotra) the woman from the sex tape who’s due to marry someone else in a matter of days. Bittu’s plan to find a way back into the life of the wife who left him while he was in jail and the young daughter who doesn’t remember him is derailed when he meets another precocious little girl, Mini (Inayat Verma), who needs help faking her own kidnapping in order to get her distracted parents’ attention.

While all this is happening, the characters from the green corner are trying to get out of their own mess. Alu (Rajkummar Rao) has been in love with Pinky (Fatima Sana Shaikh) since childhood, although she never reciprocated his feelings. Pinky turns up with her baby to ask for Alu’s help getting her husband Manohar (Paritosh Tripathi) out of jail, where he languishes, wrongly accused of a murder committed by Sattu.

Director Basu doesn’t judge his characters for wanting what they want, even if what they want isn’t exactly good for them. Alu is the best example of this. He knows his one-sided devotion to Pinky gets him into trouble and keeps him perpetually single, but he’s miserable when she’s not around. Is it so bad for him to not want to feel awful?

Bittu’s story is the most complicated and emotional. He spent six years waiting to get back to his daughter — who was an infant when he went to prison — but she doesn’t know he exists. She thinks Bittu’s ex-wife’s new husband is her father. Spending time with Mini gives Bittu a chance to act in a fatherly role, making him question whether what he wants for himself is really what’s best for his daughter.

Bachchan’s performance when he’s playing Bittu the Gangster comes off as more pouty than menacing, but he’s terrific as Bittu the Dad. Little Inayat Verma is impossibly adorable, and she and Bachchan are so much fun together. Yet we know their relationship is only temporary. Almost all of Bittu’s options will leave him brokenhearted.

Given Pankaj Tripathi’s recent track record of stealing virtually every movie he’s in, Basu wisely put Tripathi in the middle of things from the start. His character’s introduction — dramatically exposing his inner thigh to pull a gun from a leg holster — is perfection. After the cute pairing of Bittu and Mini, Sattu is part of the film’s second best partnership. While he’s bedridden, Sattu forms a friendship with no-nonsense nurse Lata Kutty (Shalini Vatsa), one of the few people he can’t intimidate. It’s unexpected and delightful.

To keep his dark comedy from becoming too dark, Basu amplifies its other elements. Bright colors differentiate the storylines, but they also cheer up even violent scenes. Character closeups feel a little closer than normal. The excellent soundtrack and score by Pritam are prominent in the mix, setting the tone overtly. Ludo is loud, both aurally and visually, but it feels just right.

Links

Movie Review: AK vs AK (2020)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch AK vs AK on Netflix
Buy the soundtrack at Amazon

AK vs AK is the most novel Hindi film to release in 2020, but novelty is just part of its appeal. Director Vikramaditya Motwane’s meta take on the Indian film industry — and two members of it in particular — is smart, insightful, and a lot of fun.

The AKs of the title are Anil Kapoor and Anurag Kashyap, who play outlandish versions of themselves, as do other members of the Kapoor family. The story is fictional but trades on the participants’ real-life reputations and circumstances. AK vs AK‘s Anurag is a temperamental and self-important arthouse director who feels he deserves more acclaim, while Anil is an aging star who’s slow to accept that his biggest films are behind him.

Anil’s character seems further removed from the real person (no offense to Anurag), but he serves to highlight both the importance of the Bollywood star system and the refusal of many of the men within it to acknowledge the passage of time, insisting on playing college students into their fifties. The fact that Kapoor chose to play the character as he does in AK vs AK shows why he’s the model for aging gracefully in Bollywood.

The story opens with Anurag and Anil onstage for a question and answer session with film students. They trade barbs, bringing to the surface a simmering resentment from when Anurag was a young filmmaker and Anil turned down a role in one of his movies. Anil accidentally spills water on Anurag’s expensive shoes, and Anurag retaliates by throwing water in Anil’s face.

All of this is captured by a video camera operated by Yogita (Yogita Bihani), a filmmaker shadowing Anurag for a documentary project. Yogita helps Anurag concoct an audacious revenge plan to kidnap Anil’s daughter Sonam (playing herself) and film Anil’s search for her. Anurag believes this will cement his directorial genius by capturing Anil’s most realistic performance ever.

What follows is a nighttime chase, as Anil tries to find Sonam before sunrise, at which time the kidnappers who’ve nabbed Sonam have promised to kill her. A video of a tearful Sonam bound and gagged convinces Anil that Anurag is not joking. The two cruise around in Anil’s SUV along with Yogita, who documents the search.

The chase involves a stop at Anil’s house to put in a cursory appearance at his own birthday party to placate his suspicious family, who don’t know about the kidnapping. Anil and Anurag get in a fistfight and destroy a Christmas tree, but it’s somehow not even the funniest part of the sequence at the house. That honor goes to Anil’s son Harsh (playing himself), who is desperate to work with a director of Anurag’s caliber. Harsh acts out his pitch to play an action figure while Anil tries to get him to leave, ending with Harsh screaming about AK vs AK director Vikramaditya Motwane ruining his career when their movie Bhavesh Joshi Superhero flopped. It’s insidery, but hilarious.

Those familiar with the Hindi film industry will get more out of AK vs AK than those who aren’t. I’m sure I missed some references to films from earlier in Kapoor’s career. That said, the overall story is totally comprehensible for those who aren’t Bollywood fans. The way it’s shot — with long takes and clever camera angles that keep Yogita out of frame except for when she’s part of the story — is reason enough to watch it.

There’s also a great examination of the price of stardom. In his most vulnerable moments, Anil can’t get anyone to help him without first taking a selfie with them. Years of entertaining people onscreen isn’t enough for a cop or taxi driver to give Anil information without demanding an additional toll. Not only does he not get special treatment in his hour of need, he doesn’t even get the same courtesy one would afford a complete stranger.

Motwane walks a fine line, making sure the audience always knows how to react to a given scene. AK vs AK is funny when it’s supposed to funny and sad when it’s supposed to be sad. Even the uncomfortable moments where the audience is forced to consider whether something is funny or not clearly feel intentional. Motwane always makes great movies, and AK vs AK is no exception.

Links

[Disclaimer: my Amazon links include an affiliate tag, and I may earn a commission on purchases made via those links. Thanks for helping to support this website!]

Movie Review: Cargo (2019)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Cargo on Netflix

Some movies win you over on charm alone. That’s not the only thing that Cargo has going for it, but it’s more than enough to make this an endearing film.

Cargo is set in the year 2027, in an alternate timeline where a truce between demons and humans governs the world. As part of the truce, for the last seventy-five years, demons have handled humans’ transitions after death from a number of large spaceships orbiting Earth.

One of those ships is Pushpak 634-A, piloted by the demon Prahastha (Vikrant Massey). As one of the six original astronauts sent to space to handle Post Death Transition Services, Prahastha has been happily alone for seventy-five years. (Although they look like humans, demons age more slowly, apparently.) He’s not pleased when Ground Control sends him an assistant: an eager young astronaut named Yuvishka (Shweta Tripathi).

All demons have a magical ability, and Yuvishka’s is the ability to heal injuries. This is a particularly useful skill, since one of the steps in prepping dead humans for reincarnation is repairing injuries and ailments, and all of the equipment Prahastha has on-hand is outdated and falling apart. His main control center is a desk with a bunch of knobs, a printing calculator, and a CRT TV monitor.

The low-tech equipment that went into its design makes sense within the context of the story — the ship is almost eight decades old, after all — but it’s also a reminder that Cargo was made on a minimal budget. Props are used so thoughtfully that the film has a distinct, pleasing visual style. One may notice the absence of high-tech effects and CGI, but Cargo is so well designed that it never feels like it’s missing anything.

The staging and props evoke nostalgia for science fiction films and shows of the 20th century, which is appropriate since Cargo hews more closely to the tone of the original Star Trek series than to contemporary sci-fi. There’s nothing grim or dark about Cargo. It’s about the exploration of the human condition, not a battle against an existential threat. The focused story muses on life, death, and what comes after through the experiences of its two leads. Prahastha writes letters to a woman he used to love, but he never sends them. Yuvishka thought that becoming an astronaut would finally make her feel like she mattered.

Greeting and processing dead people as they arrive on the ship just reminds Prahastha and Yuvishka of what’s at stake, both for mortals with short lifespans but for themselves as well. Many of the dead ask if they can speak with a loved one for a final time. Others wonder what the point of their life really was. Prahstha and Yuvishka collect the belongings from each person, waiting until after they’ve moved on to launch those belongings into space. As the saying goes, “You can’t take it with you.”

Cargo‘s plot is tertiary to its atmosphere and characters, moving at an unhurried pace that allows the audience to get to know the crew of Pushpak 634-A and enjoy spending time with them. Massey and Tripathi work beautifully together and are so comfortable to be around. Writer-director Arati Kadav achieved something really special with her debut feature. Cargo didn’t overstay its welcome, but it also left me wanting more.

Links

Movie Review: Gunjan Saxena — The Kargil Girl (2020)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Gunjan Saxena on Netflix

Gunjan Saxena didn’t set out to be the Indian Air Force’s first woman combat pilot. She just wanted to fly. While the movie based on her life — Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl — shows some of the key events in her pathbreaking career, it focuses more on how her extraordinary willpower and the support of her devoted father helped her make history.

Gunjan grew up in the 1980s wanting to be a pilot. A clever song sequence shows young Gunjan (played by cute Riva Arora) wearing aviator sunglasses and playing with toy planes to the tune of “Mann Ki Dori.” Lyrics like, “From the moment I saw you, I just can’t get you out of my head,” describe first love, but it’s love between a girl and an airplane.

Her father, Anup (Pankaj Tripathi), believes his daughter can accomplish anything she puts her mind to. He’s determined to help her, even over the objections of Gunjan’s mother Kirti (Ayesha Raza Mishra) and Gunjan’s older brother Anshuman (played by Aaryan Arora as a kid and Angad Bedi as an adult.) Mom and brother claim to want to save Gunjan from heartbreak in a world that limits the options for girls and women, but their attitudes just reinforce those limitations.

As she grows up, Gunjan (played as an adult by Janhvi Kapoor) proves herself an overachiever, topping her classes and doing whatever is required to reach her goal. Joining the Air Force’s first class of women pilots turns out to be the quickest way for her to get in the air. When Gunjan fails the Air Force fitness exam by being seven kilograms overweight, she and Anup train using a diet and exercise routine movie superstar Rekha mentioned in a magazine.

The relationship between father and daughter is the heart of Gunjan Saxena. First-time writer-director Sharan Sharma took the advice of his co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra, who previously wrote great family-oriented films like Dangal, Panga, and Chhichhore. Sharma told First Post that, given the volume of excellent source material, “the biggest difficulty in a film of this nature is deciding what should not go into it.” Given how delightful Tripathi and Kapoor are together, focusing the story on their bond was clearly the right move.

Gunjan Saxena is only Kapoor’s third lead role, and she proves herself completely capable of carrying a feature film. She makes it looks easy, whether the challenges facing Gunjan are physical or emotional.

Whatever Anshuman’s motivations were for warning Gunjan against being a pilot, he was right that not everyone would be pleased about her choice. She realizes that after she becomes the first woman at her assigned Air Force base. From petty annoyances like not having a dedicated restroom to outright hostility from some of her fellow soldiers, she faces the extent to which some men will go to exclude women from certain spaces. A scene in which Gunjan’s commanding officer Dileep Singh (Viineet Kumar) finally tells her why he doesn’t think she belongs is heartbreaking. Kapoor handles the scene with grace and finesse.

The film’s action sequences when Gunjan is called into service during the Kargil War are well-executed and thrilling. The cinematic license Sharma takes with events ramps up the excitement and emotional resonance.

There’s a lovely scene in which Gunjan discusses the meaning of patriotism with her father, asking whether the desire to fly is sufficient reason to join the Air Force. Anup — a career military man himself — replies that patriotism isn’t measured by who shouts slogans the loudest, but by whether one does their duty to the best of their ability. It’s a fitting way to distill the real Gunjan Saxena’s approach to her life and a fine way to describe Janhvi Kapoor’s portrayal of her.

Links

Movie Review: Virus (2019)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Virus on Amazon Prime
Buy the DVD at Amazon

Watching the 2019 Malayalam movie Virus a year after its release and several months into a new, unrelated global pandemic, the film seems like an unheeded warning. Had I watched when it released last summer, I’d have known what the initials PPE stood for, well before the first American reports of shortages of Personal Protective Equipment for healthcare providers.

Virus is a fictionalized account of a 2018 outbreak of Nipah virus in Kerala. The film was conceived and completed quickly, releasing almost exactly one year after the month-long outbreak was formally declared over. Though names and circumstances have been changed for the film, details of how the virus was transmitted and how many people became infected track closely to the facts of the actual outbreak.

The movie opens with a doctor receiving a now chillingly familiar call that the hospital has run out of ventilators. The action then rewinds a mere three days, when medical professionals encounter the first patients exhibiting alarming symptoms: vomiting, delirium, fever, headache, seizures, trouble breathing, and sky-high blood pressure readings.

Doctors at the hospitals in Kerala’s Kozhikode district are stumped. None of the standard treatments help, and cases quickly turn fatal. Finally, a neurologist hits upon the rare Nipah virus as a possible cause, and tests prove him right. This starts a massive operation to discover where the virus came from and who came in contact with the first known patient, all in the hopes of stopping the spread before it gets out of control.

The first half of Virus is almost overwhelming with the number of characters it introduces across multiple locations. One must surrender to the flood of doctors, hospital staff, their families, patients, relatives, experts, politicians, and bureaucrats introduced as the outbreak takes hold. Director Aashiq Abu never allows the audience to get totally lost, but rather gives us a sense of what the characters feel like, being bombarded with patient after patient before they have even figured out what’s going on.

All the information from the first half is organized into a clear picture in the second half of the film via the character Dr. Annu (Parvathy Thiruvothu), the junior member of the government’s team of contact tracers. She uses some lateral thinking and ace detective work to connect all of the cases back to one index patient. As she and the other contact tracers piece together the puzzle, everything that seemed overwhelming in the first half becomes easy to understand. It’s terrific storytelling by director Abu and writers Muhsin Parari, Sharfu, and Suhas.

They also add in enough personal information about key characters to put the outbreak in context of everyday life, supported by uniformly strong performances by the cast. Dr. Abid (Sreenath Bhasi) is distracted while working in the emergency room that first morning because his girlfriend (Madonna Sebastian) is going to marry someone else. The hospital’s hourly workers — led by Babu (Joju George) — threaten to strike over unpaid wages. Patient’s families worry about being stigmatized because of the virus. The story highlights that we don’t get to choose the timing of such natural disasters.

Yet the film does give hope that such disasters can be contained. Granted, such containment depends on functioning government entities like those shown in the movie, but which are in short supply in the United States at the moment. Watching the officials of various departments work together to solve problems in Virus has almost a fantastical quality to it for someone watching in the US right now. But, just like the actual Nipah outbreak, Virus shows us that victory is possible.

Note: The English subtitles on both the DVD and the Amazon Prime version feature some closed captioning, including notes on ambient noises, the emotional quality of the musical score, and even an indication when a character says something “mockingly.” I quite liked it.

Links

Movie Review: Panga (2020)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the soundtrack at Amazon or iTunes

Even with only a few feature films under her belt, writer-director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari has proven herself one of the most skilled makers of feel-good films out there. Her latest, Panga, follows the everyday struggles of a sweet family whose matriarch returns to the athletic career she left to raise her child.

Retiring from India’s national kabbadi team at age twenty-five wasn’t Jaya’s (Kangana Ranaut) plan when she found out she was pregnant. She had the full support of her husband Prashant (Jassi Gill) to resume her captaincy as soon as she was fit to do so. But when their son Adi was born premature and with a number of ailments, Jaya put all of her focus on raising her little boy.

Seven years later, Adi (Yagya Bhasin) is mostly fit and increasingly independent. Prashant tells his son about the life Jaya had before she became a mom — a history that Jaya has evidently never shared with the boy. Understanding what Jaya sacrificed for the family and excited by the prospect of having a professional athlete for a mother, Adi convinces Jaya to try and make a comeback.

Rather than manufacture a bunch of obstacles to put in Jaya’s way, Tiwari and her co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra keep Jaya’s journey realistic while mining the scenario for as much drama as possible. Doing so allows for an insightful examination of gendered divisions of labor within a household. Jaya threw herself fully into being a mom and a homemaker when Adi was born, but she still has a job outside of the house. Kabbadi teams in India are often sponsored by companies like railways, and Jaya kept her job selling train tickets even after her playing career ended.

As capable and helpful as both Prashant and Adi are, the house is still Jaya’s domain. How is she supposed to transfer seven years of accumulated knowledge to Prashant in the days before she heads to training camp? While their lives obviously won’t fall apart if the beds go unmade, it goes to show how we undervalue the effort it takes to make homemaking seem automatic.

Prashant’s promotion to household manager also highlights how removed many fathers are from the social networks that make child-rearing easier. He learns to rely on his neighbor and his cranky mother-in-law (played by Neena Gupta). He asks to be invited into the WhatsApp group for moms at Adi’s school.

A theme Tiwari introduced in her first feature, Nil Battey Sannata, and revisits in Panga is that of children coming to view their parents as individuals, not just their caretakers. Adi is mature enough to understand that playing kabbadi makes his mother happy, and that her happiness will require some inconvenience on his part. Yet he’s not so mature that he’s above throwing a tantrum when his dad screws up his makeup for the talent show or sulking when his mom has to sit on the bench during a game. It’s solid character writing.

What the story wants us to appreciate more than anything is that this family is nice. They are helpful, quick with a joke, and willing to make sacrifices for each other. They have supportive friends, especially Jaya’s former teammate Meenu (Richa Chadda) and her new teammate Nisha (Megha Burman). These strong bonds reinforce the feeling that this is a family that deserves happiness. The acting across the board is very good, with little Yagya Bhasin providing some great laughs.

Panga‘s kabbadi scenes are quite fun, emphasizing the teamwork required for success without feeling preachy. Selfishly, I would have appreciated a scene where Jaya explains the sport’s rules to Adi, but there’s more than enough context provided for kabbadi newbies like myself to understand the tension during the matches. This is a decent starter movie for Bollywood newcomers — and anyone in need of a cinematic pick-me-up.

Links