Tag Archives: 3.5 Stars

Movie Review: Article 15 (2019)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A big city bureaucrat appointed to oversee a small town police department gets tangled in a web of politics, caste, and greed in the dynamite thriller Article 15.

Ayan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is the ideal audience avatar. He rolls into the town of Laalgaon, telling his girlfriend Aditi (Isha Talwar) over the phone that the place looks like something out of an ’80s movie. He notes the freshness of the country air. It’s a world apart from the large cities — domestic and international — that Ayan is used to.

Besides the predictable culture shock, there’s something strange about the town. Despite what Ayan said about the fresh air, there’s a pall over the town that bathes it and its inhabitants in sickly yellow or gray tones (per cinematographer Ewan Mulligan). Ayan meets a former classmate, Satyendra (Aakash Dabhade), who is evasive and twitchy instead of the cheerful friend Ayan remembers. The rest of the cops — led by Ayan’s second-in-command, Bhramadatt (Manoj Pahwa) — are eager to close the case of two Dalit (lower caste) girls who were reported missing days earlier and found murdered. Only Ayan seems interested in the whereabouts of a third girl reported missing with them.

At first, Ayan is too smug to see what’s really going on, buoyed his sense of worldliness and the power accorded his position. He accepts Bhramadatt’s assessment of the murders as “honor killings” committed by the girls’ fathers, and he’s dismissive of Gaura (Sayani Gupta), the sister of the third missing girl. Only when he discovers that Bhramadatt is stalling him on the results of the postmortem and when his own men are attacked by Dalit activists does Ayan realize that he’s missing crucial pieces of the puzzle.

Laalgaon is governed by a rigid, complicated interpretation of the caste system. There are layers within layers, so that everyone ranks slightly above or below someone else. It reinforces social systems governing occupations, food handling, even whose shadow is allowed to fall on whom.

Money perpetuates the caste system in town, even though using it to discriminate against certain groups is officially prohibited by Article 15 of the Indian Constitution. By marginalizing the lowest castes, the people at the top ensure a steady supply of what is essentially slave labor. American audiences will notice similarities to how the white power structure here replaced lost laborers following the abolition of slavery, as explained in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th. The activist group in the Article 15 is in part a sort of militant labor union, and when they strike, the film shows in disgusting detail how dependent the town is on the workers who do the “dirty” jobs no one else wants.

Some people in Laalgaon have transcended certain aspects of their caste, such as Jatav (Kumud Mishra), who became a police officer with Bhramadatt’s help, even though his father was a school janitor. The status elevation turned Jatav into one of the most vocal critics of those below him, and his fear of falling back down the ladder keeps him subservient to those above. His eventual realization that turning his back on his people only made things worse is hard-earned and painful.

The scene that best captures the all-encompassing nature of Laalgaon’s power dynamics involves Bhramadatt and Jatav. As both men sob, Bhramadatt shakes Jatav, accusing him of ingratitude and endangering their very lives by aiding Ayan’s investigation. (More than one character states that the worst that will happen to Ayan is he’ll be transferred, while the locals who help him will be killed.) Though Bhramdatt ranks higher socially than Jatav, both serve the rich and politically connected at the top. Seeing these gray-haired men so terrified drives home how precarious their lives have always been in a place governed by something other than the rule of law.

Pahwa and Mishra are the standouts in a film full of amazing performances. Gupta is resolute in the face of a system designed not to help people like her. Same for Ronjini Chakraborty as the junior Medical Examiner who knows the truth of what happened to the murdered girls. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub’s portrayal of the Dalit revolutionary leader is terrific.

Aditi tells Ayan at one point that she doesn’t want him to be a hero, she wants him to be the man who doesn’t wait for the hero to arrive. That sentiment governs the way Khurrana plays Ayan. There’s a problem to solve, and Ayan does it without a lot of flash, using the skills he has at his disposal. Khurrana’s understated performance suits the movie perfectly.

Article 15 has a few moments that feel a little preachy, but they’re born of director Anubhav Sinha’s and writer Gaurav Solanki’s passion for the film’s message of justice. Their movie is thoughtful and relevant, with jaw-dropping surprises. Article 15 is a must-see.

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Movie Review: Gully Boy (2019)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Aspiring filmmakers should study Gully Boy as a masterclass in character creation. Every character has a place in the story’s social fabric, and we see how they fit into the wider world — not just how they relate to the protagonist.

Murad (Ranveer Singh) is the spoke around which the rest of the characters in Gully Boy turn, but there’s always a sense that they have lives that continue when he’s not around. Murad suspects his criminal friend Moeen (Vijay Varma) is up to something dangerous, but he isn’t sure, since they’re not together all the time. The parents of their buddy Salman (Nakul Roshan Sahdev) are looking for a bride for him — something Murad’s fiery girlfriend Safeena (Alia Bhatt) uses to her advantage when the couple are on the outs.

Too often, Hindi movies with a male protagonist played by a big star consider the hero’s love interest only in terms of how she relates to him. Director Zoya Akhtar and writer Reema Kagti make sure that Safeena’s character is fully developed, showing her relationships with her parents and Murad’s friends. This doesn’t take away from Murad’s importance to the story, but instead emphasizes how he fits into his world. Giving all the characters agency adds to the movie’s realism and reinforces the notion that Murad’s actions have consequences for other people.

He and Safeena have kept their relationship secret from their parents for years, assuming that they’ll announce their intention to married when she finishes medical school and he earns a business degree. When Murad begins participating in the local rap scene, it changes the trajectory of his life and Safeena’s. Even though she supports his new endeavor, it means adjusting the plans for their future, since rapper isn’t an occupation that any of their conservative parents would approve of. A powerful scene in which Safeena asks her parents for the freedom to go places other than school highlights what she and Murad are up against, if he strays from the safe path to follow his dream.

Murad’s lyrics are born out of anger at the injustice that defines his world and limits his opportunities. His father, Aftab (Vijay Raaz in a chilling performance), accepts the limits imposed on poor Muslims and views educating Murad as a waste of money, since he’ll likely just end up a driver like his father anyway. Quashing Murad’s aspirations is a way of protecting himself from the truth that his own life might be better had he allowed himself to dream, instead of accepting what was forced upon him.

Gully Boy doesn’t pretend that Murad can succeed on desire alone, given the enormous societal forces he has to contend with at both the top and bottom of India’s economic ladder. He hones his craft under the tutelage of MC Sher (star-in-the-making Siddhant Chaturvedi), an established local rapper who understands Murad’s frustration and sees him as a voice for the underdogs in their neighborhood.

Ranveer Singh did his own rapping in the film, and the music overall is really good. (It would have been nice if the lyrics of the incidental music had been subtitled, and not just the lyrics from Murad’s scenes.) The lone weak points in Gully Boy are rap battle scenes — insult contests that have little in common with Murad’s introspective lyric-writing. I don’t know if one must be adept at rap battles to be considered a good rapper — or how one even wins a rap battle — but the sequences are dull.

Although Gully Boy isn’t an ensemble picture like Akhtar’s two most recent feature films — 2015’s Dil Dhadakne Do and 2011’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara — it almost feels as though it is, given how much care went into fleshing out the characters in orbit around the protagonist. Akhtar’s fascination with the connections between people sets her apart from her contemporaries and makes her one of India’s most compelling filmmakers.

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Movie Review: Period. End of Sentence. (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Netflix’s Oscar-winning short documentary Period. End of Sentence. (PEoS hereafter) is a feel-good story about a group of Indian women empowering themselves and their community through better access to menstrual hygiene products.

Feminine hygiene has been a popular film subject in India for several years, starting with Menstrual Man, the 2013 documentary about Arunchalam Muruganatham, inventor of a low-cost machine for making sanitary pads. Muruganatham then inspired two fictional Hindi films: 2017’s Phullu and 2018’s Pad Man, starring Akshay Kumar. (Kumar’s 2017 movie Toilet: Ek Prem Katha also addressed the related need for clean, safe bathroom facilities for women in rural India.)

American-produced PEoS is a succinct primer on the subject of feminine hygiene in India — an ideal entry point for those new to the topic, particularly in the West. Director Rayka Zehtabchi and editor Sam Davis had to be choosy about what elements to include, given the film’s 25-minute runtime, so the film focuses less on the dangers faced by rural women and more on the positive outcomes for one village when they receive one of Muruganatham’s pad-making machines.

Thankfully, the village where PEoS filmed is populated by a bunch of funny, smart, and eager women who make great documentary subjects. Kathikhera in Hapur district is only 60 kilometers from Delhi, but local women find their opportunities limited without ready access to feminine hygiene products. Rekha dropped out of school because there was nowhere to change the old cloths she uses during her cycle. Shabana is tired of the taboos surrounding menstruation. Sneha wants to be able to work during her period so she can become a police officer.

When they receive one of Muruganatham’s machines — and instructions from the man himself on how to use it — the women of Kathikhera get more than just a reliable supply of sanitary pads for themselves. The machine spawns a new business, with the women selling their products under the name “Fly” — the name chosen to inspire women to soar on their newfound freedom.

Money generated by the business is the most obvious benefit, but the soft skills it teaches the women may be of more importance in the long run. One elderly woman says that making pads is her first paying job. Sneha’s novice saleswoman duties will make her a better communicator as a police officer. Shabana is in her element leading the feminine hygiene version of a Tupperware party, demonstrating the quality of their products while humorously comparing sanitary pads to husbands.

The reason this works best as a starter film is that it simply isn’t long enough to cover the topic in depth, though it does allude to many of the challenges. Overcoming embarrassment about discussing the topic is the first step, which enables the correction of misinformation (some young men in Kathikhera think menstruation is an illness). Safe toilet facilities for women and reliable electricity infrastructure are critical elements, too.

Another reason for PEoS‘s positive tone is its affiliation with the charitable endeavor The Pad Project, which aims to provide more rural women with pad-making machines. Donors — such as the Los Angeles private school students who financed both the film and Kathikhera’s machine — are more incentivized to contribute to immediately successful endeavors, as the one in the movie is shown to be.

When faced with a large problem with multiple, entrenched causes, one must ultimately choose a starting point and go from there. In the case of access to feminine hygiene products in rural India, Period. End of Sentence. shows that women’s human capital is there to be utilized if given the means to do so, and pad-making machines are as good a place to start as any. Click here to support The Pad Project.

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Movie Review: The Price of Free (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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The fantastic 2013 drama Siddharth follows a poor family’s search for their son, a victim of child trafficking. 12-year-old Siddharth takes a factory job in a distant city for a month to earn money for his younger sister’s dowry. When the boy doesn’t return, his parents have to search for him with scant information of his whereabouts, extremely limited funds, and no picture of their son to show to the authorities.

For parents facing a similar crisis to the family in Siddharth, Delhi’s Bachpan Bachao Andolan (“BBA”) is there to help. The documentary The Price of Free gives a look at the organization and its devoted leader, Kailash Satyarthi, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his part in freeing more than 87,000 Indian children from slavery. (The film debuted at the Sundance film festival under the title Kailash and was renamed before its streaming video release on YouTube.)

The keys to Satyarthi’s success are his complete commitment to the principle that every child should have a childhood and his optimism that this is an achievable goal — albeit an incredibly difficult one. The Price of Free explains just how complex the problem really is, with Satyarthi himself admitting to underestimating the scope the first time he tried to free a man’s daughter from sex slavery and failed.

Actually rescuing a child from forced labor is somewhere in the middle of a process that begins with trying to stop trafficking from happening in the first place, through a combination of laws and corporate pressure to poverty eradication efforts. After a child is trafficked, the BBA team attempts to locate and release the child — and any other children present — hopefully arresting their captors in the process.

What to do with the children they rescue is a whole other problem, one that Satyarthi and his wife Sumedha discovered early in their activism as their apartment filled with traumatized children far from home. The solution was Mukti Ashram, a temporary boarding school run by Sumedha as a place where recently freed kids could live, play, and learn while BBA workers track down their parents.

The Price of Free opens with footage of a harrowing factory raid that liberates sixty-three boys, the most frightened of whom is little Karim. Given the presence of police alongside BBA activists, the boys assume they are in trouble, and Karim won’t stop crying. In a surprisingly intimate gesture, Satyarthi sits with Karim and has the boy touch his beard, joking with Karim that he’s missing a beard of his own. It pays off days later, when Satyarthi hears that Karim is still nervous at the ashram. He asks, “Is this the friend who touched my beard? Show me how you did it.” Little Karim beams as he reaches up to give Satyarthi’s cheek a familiar pet.

A heartbreaking problem BBA addresses is the reality that some of the children they reunite with their families will just wind up in forced labor again, such is the depth of their poverty. One father admits to accepting a bribe from a trafficker of as little as 2000 rupees — less than $30.

The challenges and rewards of BBA’s activism are presented fairly by filmmaker Derek Doneen, without being manipulative or melodramatic, as befitting Satyarthi’s own can-do attitude. BBA’s work requires a great deal of bravery — one never knows if the police assigned to accompany them on raids have been bribed by traffickers — and Doneen and crew deserve credit for following the activists into potentially dangerous situations for the sake of documenting their work.

If there’s one complaint about The Price of Free, it’s the inconsistency of the English subtitles. Most of the banter and other background chatter like police radios isn’t subtitled at all. If multiple people are speaking at once, only one person’s dialogued is subbed. I know documentaries don’t have lavish budgets, but the film feels incomplete without full subs.

Even with over 150 million kids worldwide still engaged in child labor, The Price of Free and Kailash Satyarthi’s work with BBA give hope that this really is a problem we can tackle. If you’d like to get involved in the movement to end child labor, check out The Price of Free‘s website, Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, or 100Million.org.

You can watch The Price of Free in its entirety below:

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Movie Review: Stree (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A female ghost teaches the men of a small town to respect women in the hilarious horror comedy Stree, from the filmmaking duo Raj & DK.

Legend has it that, every night during a four-day holy festival, a ghost known only as “stree” — which translates as “woman” — steals any man wandering the town of Chanderi alone at night, leaving only his clothes behind. Residents write “Oh stree, come back tomorrow” on the walls of their homes, hoping to deter the ghost until the festival ends and she disappears until the next year.

Some of Chanderi’s young men doubt the story’s truth, none more so than Vicky (Rajkummar Rao), a gifted tailor of ladies’ clothing. He and his cronies Bittu (Aparshakti Khurana) and Janna (Abhishek Banerjee) attend a raucous guys-only house party where one of guests is snatched — right after Vicky pees on the outside wall, washing away the protective writing.

Earlier that day, Vicky met a beautiful woman (Shraddha Kapoor) in need of a new dress, falling in love “at first eyesight,” he brags in English. The woman — who never gives her name — says she’s only in town for the festival, so she needs the dress completed quickly. After the disappearance at the party, Bittu and Janna assume that this mystery woman is “stree”, driving a wedge between the friends right when their survival depends on them sticking together.

My chief complaint about one of Raj & DK’s earlier horror comedies — the 2013 zombie flick Go Goa Gone — is that the jokes dragged on too long, but Stree‘s jokes are crisp and well-timed (as was the humor in the duo’s 2017 action comedy A Gentleman). Perhaps it helped that the duo ceded directorial duties to Amar Kaushik, who does a wonderful job interpreting their screenplay in his feature debut.

The superb cast deserves a ton of credit as well. Rao is charming as a lovestruck dope, and Kapoor gets her character’s befuddlement at Vicky’s naiveté just right. Banerjee primarily works in films as a casting director, but he’s hysterical as Janna. Khurana is great as well, as is the always reliable Pankaj Tripathy as the town’s ghost expert, Rudra. Atul Srivastava — who plays Vicky’s father —  gets a stand-out scene opposite Rao. Dad tries to talk to his son about sexual responsibility, but Dad is so uncomfortable he resorts to euphemisms for everything. Sensing the discomfort, Vicky plays dumb, goading his father to explain exactly what he means by the advice: “Be self-reliant.”

The real surprise of Stree is how deftly it conveys its message of respect for women within such a funny movie. The men of Chanderi — young and old — are all losers in love, too immature to be able to form the kinds of romantic relationships with women that might actually lead to sex (without having to pay for it). It’s a legacy that’s haunted the town for centuries, when “stree” was murdered before her wedding night. Though Stree doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, there’s a narrative justification for it, since this is a story of men learning from one another how to stop objectifying women.

Two of the film’s song numbers help illustrate the men’s progress. “Kamariya” features Nora Fatehi in a more traditional item number, dancing at the house party just before the first man is snatched. The camera focuses on specific features and body parts as she performs in the living room among all the rowdy men. This kind of item number in which a woman dances at the center of a group of male audience members — as opposed to out of reach on a stage — is intimidating, yet the number ends with Fatehi escorted from the party by two bodyguards, letting the movie’s audience know that she was never in any danger. It’s an important cue that most other filmmakers neglect to include in similar numbers.

Contrast “Kamariya” with the closing credits song “Milegi Milegi”. The men in the audience are along the sides of the room while Kapoor dances in the middle of a group of female backup dancers. There are no closeups of specific parts of Kapoor’s body. When Rao joins in, Kapoor first manipulates his body to dance the moves she wants him to before he starts dancing alongside her. It’s a clever way to show the characters’ moral development while also making sure there are enough catchy tunes to fill out the soundtrack.

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Movie Review: Puzzle (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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An innocuous gift makes a homemaker question her life in the insightful drama Puzzle.

We meet Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) as she’s fulfilling all of the duties of a party host: serving drinks, picking up the pieces of a broken plate, even taking the time to glue the pieces back together. It’s when she lights the candles on a birthday cake only to blow them out do we understand that this is her party, and she’s not able to enjoy it.

Agnes’s husband Louie (David Denman) and their young adult sons Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams) take her efforts for granted, in part because she’s so good at running a household. She’s detail oriented and attuned to how long each task takes, starting the laundry before she runs to the grocery store so that it’s ready to go in the dryer as soon as she gets home, leaving just enough time to prepare dinner before the men in the family get home from work or school.

She finally loses track of time when she opens one of her birthday presents: a puzzle depicting a map of the world. Agnes flies through it, assembling the 1000-piece puzzle in hours (minutes, maybe) instead of the days it would take most people. She enjoys herself so much that she breaks up the puzzle and does it again, not realizing she’s forgotten to make dinner until Louie and Ziggy walk through the door.

Louie’s dismissal of puzzles as “childish” forces Agnes to pursue her hobby secretly. At a specialty shop in the city, she meets a man in search of a “puzzle partner”: Robert (Irrfan Khan), a wealthy divorcee who is as worldly and intelligent as Louie is parochial and incurious. Robert’s fascination with Agnes and his encouragement of her independence makes her realize how little attention she’s given to her own wants and needs since she became a wife and mother.

Even as a more equitable division of household chores has become normalized, women are still responsible for the majority of housework (even when they are the primary breadwinner). As such, the depiction of Agnes’s plight will resonate with a lot of women. In the immediate term, it’s easier for Agnes to do everything herself rather than ask Louie and Gabe to help (Ziggy sometimes offers), especially since they’d just feign ignorance rather than try. Clean clothes are made dirty again and dinner needs to be cooked every night — an endless loop of mundane tasks that allows precious little time to question one’s purpose in life.

Louie isn’t abusive or mean, but his vision of how life is supposed to be hinges on a wife who accepts her role in it. When Agnes does start to question her part, her rebellion is staged on a small scale. There’s little in Puzzle that could be described as explosive, but the film’s message is impactful nonetheless.

Driving that is a well-constructed script, written by Oren Moverman and Natalia Smirnoff, who wrote and directed the Argentine film of the same name upon which Puzzle is based. The dialogue is direct and memorable, particularly Robert’s explanation for why Agnes finds solving puzzles so satisfying: “When you complete a puzzle, when you finish it, you know that you have made all the right choices.”

The film’s performances are likewise strong, though Macdonald’s precise dialogue delivery comes off as bit affected and takes some getting used to. Khan at first seems to channel Jeff Goldblum, but quickly makes the role his own. Weiler’s turn as Agnes’s unexpected ally Ziggy is sweet.

Keeping a tight focus on one woman’s evolution helps Puzzle to illuminate a particular aspect of modern gender dynamics. It’s as thought-provoking as it is enjoyable to watch.

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Movie Review: Veere Di Wedding (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Veere Di Wedding (“Friend’s Wedding“) released to higher expectations than usually precede Bollywood buddy comedies, yet its four female leads rose to the challenge, turning out a warm, relatable, and very funny movie.

Well, relatable if you overlook how obscenely rich the characters are, driving around in cars that cost as much as a house (at least here in the Midwest). The only speaking character who isn’t wealthy is a maid who appears in one scene, crying after being beaten by her abusive husband. Her wounds are addressed in a couple of lines before she’s forced to participate in the excitement of one of the rich friends’ upcoming nuptials. It’s one of the film’s few off moments.

The friend getting married is Kalindi (Kareena Kapoor Khan), one of a quartet of lifelong buds that includes stuffy lawyer Avni (Sonam Kapoor Ahuja), stay-at-home mom Meera (Shikha Talsania), and drunkard Sakshi (Swara Bhaskar). Reuniting in Delhi for the wedding gives the women a chance to cut loose, but also resurfaces buried conflicts, primarily between the adult children and their parents.

There isn’t really a villain in Veere Di Wedding. The conflict is driven by complicated family dynamics, a boundless well that keeps the plot moving and gives everyone in the audience something to identify with. Kalindi became estranged from her father (Anjum Rajabali) following her mother’s death. Avni’s mom (Neena Gupta) is desperate for her daughter to wed. Meera married a white man named John (Edward Sonnenblick) against her dad’s wishes. There’s tension in Sakshi’s household over demise of her short-lived marriage.

The family of Kalindi’s fiance, Rishabh Malhotra (Sumeet Vyas), is the most colorful source of drama, often literally so. Eager to fill the void left by Kalindi’s mother, Rishabh’s dad (Manoj Pahwa), mom (Ayesha Raza), and aunt (Alka Kaushal) take over the wedding planning, their tacky, kaleidoscopic taste in decor and attire sending Kalindi into a daze. Kapoor Khan’s glazed expressions as they parade garish garment choices in front of her are hilarious.

Yet Veere Di Wedding is careful not to make too much fun of the Malhotra family. Kalindi herself says that she knows how important the pomp and circumstance are to Rishabh’s family, rejecting Rishabh’s offer to tell his family to back off.

That’s what’s amazing about this movie: the characters are so nice. The four friends will do anything for one another. Rishabh and Meera’s husband John are loyal and supportive partners, as are Kalindi’s uncle Cookie (Vivek Mushran) and his boyfriend Keshav (Sukesh Arora). Conflict is borne from hurt feelings and stubborn grudges, not from any inherent malice. The resolution to a subplot involving Kalindi’s well-intentioned stepmother Paromita (Ekavali Khanna) is especially touching.

That good nature makes Veere Di Wedding a joy to watch. Hype over the film’s bawdy language and (tame) masturbation scene is overblown. It’s important that female movie characters be given as wide a range to inhabit as male characters, and Veere Di Wedding does so in an uplifting, unthreatening way. It’s a welcome change to see topics such as sexual compatibility and the changes that happen to a woman’s body following childbirth discussed from a female perspective in a mainstream Bollywood film. Farah Khan’s choreography of the song “Tareefan” — in which white men are treated as eye candy instead of white women — is noteworthy, too.

What gives Veere Di Wedding lasting appeal beyond its present cultural significance is that it really is charming, thanks to the performances by the lead quartet. Kalindi’s bewilderment in the face of her in-laws stands in contrast to Avni’s stuffiness, which is at odds with Sakshi’s constant insobriety. Even maternal Meera goes wild on the dance floor. Kapoor Khan, Kapoor Ahuja, Bhaskar, and Talsania each bring something different to the table, and their efforts combine to make a movie that’s a real treat.

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Movie Review: Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Hindi cinema loves a vigilante, that one good man who fights against a corrupt system. Bhavesh Joshi Superhero takes that template in a fresh, contemporary direction, addressing problems that are uniquely Indian but tie in with struggles being fought around the world.

After the government crushes their political opposition group, young activists Bhavesh (Priyanshu Painyali) and Siku (Harshvardhan Kapoor) take their fight for justice to YouTube. Wearing paper bags over their heads, they confront lawbreakers for infractions like public urination and traffic violations, while their videographer buddy Rajat (Ashish Verma) records the encounters.

Years of small-scale victories but no systemic change take their toll on the trio, emotionally and also physically when the occasional video subject decides to fight back. Siku and Rajat are ready to move on, accepting a broken social contract as an annoying inconvenience in their otherwise comfortable middle class lives. Unemployed Bhavesh resents his friends for quitting before the fight is won.

Things come to a head when Bhavesh uncovers evidence of a scam to divert water from the municipal supply. He doesn’t have all the pieces to the puzzle, but he’s willing to take risks to find them. Siku’s too preoccupied with a potential job transfer to Atlanta and how that will affect his relationship with his girlfriend Sneha (Shreiyah Sabharwal) to care.

India’s water infrastructure problems are uniquely complicated, and basing the story’s big crime around it roots the film in a specific place. Yet the characters’ frustrations are relatable to anyone who isn’t rich.

It’s an especially interesting choice by writer-director Vikramaditya Motwane — whose impressive resume includes Udaan, Lootera, and Trapped — and his co-writers Abhay Koranne  and filmmaker Anurag Kashyap to set up a class conflict within the main trio. Siku is an engineer and Rajat a journalist, so they have options that Bhavesh does not. Bhavesh sympathizes with the underclass because he’s a member of it. Champions of workers rights across the globe face the same challenge: how to motivate members of the middle class for whom matters like access to water or healthcare are merely academic, not an urgent need.

Much of the press leading up to the film’s release focused on Harshvardhan Kapoor, the son of a prominent acting family, in his second movie after a disastrous debut (at least from a box office perspective). He’s perfectly fine in this, as are Verma and Sabharwal. The movie’s villains are likewise well acted, although I found their relationships a little complicated due to my unfamiliarity with job titles within the Indian bureaucracy.

The real surprise is Priyanshu Painyuli as Bhavesh. He pivots easily from Bhavesh’s exuberance during happy times to his simmering rage when things start to fall apart. Bhavesh is frequently lit in red to emphasize his righteous anger and revolutionary spirit, and Amit Trivedi’s dynamic score sets the perfect tone.

Even though Bhavesh Joshi Superhero draws from Bollywood’s vigilante legacy, it makes the case that social movements aren’t a solo effort. They require a group of people working together. One person may sacrifice more than the others, but you can’t change the world alone.

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Movie Review: Raazi (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A young Indian spy marries into a Pakistani military family in the gripping period thriller Raazi, the latest in a string of hit performances by leading lady Alia Bhatt.

Bhatt plays Sehmat, a Delhi college student in 1971 summoned home at the behest of her father, Hidayat (Rajit Kapur), to receive two shocking pieces of news. First, Hidayat reveals that he has just months to live. Second, as a spy himself, Hidayat has spent years cultivating a friendship with Pakistani Brigadier Syed (Shishir Sharma), who hinted that the military is planning an attack against India. In order to uncover the plot, Hidayat fixed Sehmat’s marriage to Syed’s son, Iqbal (Vicky Kaushal), so that she may act as a spy in her father’s stead.

The movie’s very title (“Raazi” translates to “Agree”) informs us that this isn’t an order but a plan that requires Sehmat’s consent. Hidayat’s fatherly instincts kick in, and he encourages her to go back to college just hours after his revelation. There’s also a sense from Hidayat and other characters of his generation that young people deserve to make their own choices — in contrast to their own youth when the buildup and aftermath of Partition forced them to act out of necessity.

Sehmat agrees to the marriage plan, assuring her father that she’s acting out of an inherited sense of patriotism, not obedience. She undertakes a month of training under Khalid Mir (Jaideep Ahlawat), who also wants to be sure that she’s doing this of her own volition. He’s hard on Sehmat because — even though there’s a plan in place to rescue her in case of trouble — she’ll be largely on her own, responsible for finding intel and relaying it to Mir in secret via a convoluted spy network.

It’s worth noting in relation to Mir that the film’s story — at least initially — is kind of confusing, at least for those whose history education focused on countries other than India or Pakistan. A lot of characters with secret allegiances are introduced right away, and there are mentions of separatist groups — which Mir may have been a part of, I’m not sure — that most of the audience will get, but that flew past white, American me.

After the initial information overload, the story itself and the relationships between characters simplify. Most of the action takes place at the spy training ground or in and around Sehmat’s in-laws’ house, and details of the brewing military conflict are less important than what’s happening to Sehmat. The 2017 multilingual film The Ghazi Attack deals with events in the same time period, and watching it beforehand gave me enough background information for me to walk out of Raazi feeling like I understood what happened.

Raazi is ultimately about its characters more than the military conflict. Sehmat not only faces challenges as a rookie spy but as a new bride as well, forced to integrate into a new family. Pure luck finds her married to a good man who is as surprised by their abrupt betrothal as she is. Iqbal’s compassion allows their relationship to develop naturally, and their romance adds a layer of complexity that Sehmat did not anticipate.

Every actor in this movie is terrific — from key players like Sharma as Sehmat’s kind father-in-law to the guy working at the flower stall and the sympathetic military wives — enabling Raazi to cast a spell that never breaks. Kapur and Kaushal are stellar, whether they are in the background of a scene or if they’re sobbing with the young woman they both love.

Alia Bhatt’s star power is beyond question. She effortlessly portrays Sehmat’s youthful inexperience and her fierce determination, provoking the same protective instincts from the audience that Sehmat inspires in her mentors in espionage. This is a wonderful performance by Bhatt in a thoroughly engrossing film.

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Movie Review: Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (2017)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the book Tikli and Laxmi Bomb: To Hell with Patriarchy at Amazon

Tikli and Laxmi Bomb plays at the UK Asian Film Festival on March 21 and 22, 2018.

Two women spark a revolution among sex workers in Mumbai in Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, a wonderful indie film currently doing the festival rounds. The story imparts a tremendous amount of information about the dangers faced by sex workers in an organic and thoughtful way, via endearing lead characters.

The title refers to two types of firecrackers popular in India: one with a short fuse (“Tikli”) and another that burns slower but makes a louder bang (“Laxmi Bomb”). The nicknames are perfect for the main duo. Laxmi (Vibhawari Deshpande) is a long-time sex worker, tasked by her pimp Mhatre (Upendra Limaye) with showing the ropes to the new girl in town, Putul (Chitrangada Chakraborty). Putul earns the nickname “Tikli” after she stabs an aggressive customer.

Laxmi can’t understand why Tikli won’t accept the way things are. Police hassle the women despite Mhatre’s bribes. Their supposed bodyguard A.T. (Mayur More) ignores their phone calls for help. Mhatre takes just enough of the women’s earnings to ensure that they aren’t destitute but can never rise above their current economic situation. World-weary Laxmi has learned to protect herself the best she can within the present constraints.

That acceptance doesn’t suit Tikli. She proposes breaking off from Mhatre and forming their own gang made up of women who will look out for each other instead of suffering abuse at the hands of those claiming to protect them. Laxmi resists until she discovers the extent to which Mhatre and his gang will go to keep the women subjugated. She, Tikli, and a handful of other sex workers set out on their own to change their fates.

As employees in an illegal profession, the women in Tikli and Laxmi Bomb are vulnerable to myriad forms of abuse. The film exposes its audience to many of them in a way that feels narratively consistent, without resorting to the lectures that ruin the flow of many socially conscious mainstream Hindi films. Each new setback the women face on their path to autonomy feels inevitable in retrospect, given the corruption and brutality built into the system.

It is to writer-director Aditya Kripalani’s credit that much of the violence against the female characters occurs off-camera. In the film, rape is used by men as a warning against insubordination and is thus carried out in front of other women. Their horrified reactions show us all we need to see.

Kripalani shares the credit for his enlightened directorial choices with his crew. Tikli and Laxmi Bomb‘s cinematographer, editor, and line producer are all women, as are the heads of costuming, makeup, and other key departments. Co-producer Sweta Chhabria says this deliberately chosen crew “helped the director and the film to lose its male gaze.”

Then there’s the talented cast. The two leads play off one another beautifully, Chakraborty’s impudent Tikli tempered by Deshpande’s pragmatic Laxmi. Divya Unny and Kritika Pande are great as two of the founding members of the gang, and veteran supporting actors like Suchitra Pillai and Saharsh Kumar Shukla help fill out the world.

The film was shot using natural lighting and handheld cameras, giving the film a raw quality appropriate for this view of life on the margins of society. Even with a big Bollywood budget, there’s little one would want to change about Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, so effective is its world-building and so well-organized is its story. Hopefully a successful turn on the festival circuit results in a way for the masses to see Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, because it deserves a wide audience.

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