Tag Archives: 3 Stars

Movie Review: Brahmāstra Part One – Shiva (2022)

3 Stars (out of 4)

There’s a reason why you don’t use the phrase “first annual” to describe an event: you can’t guarantee the “second annual” event will actually happen. Writer-director Ayan Mukerji put extra pressure on himself when he titled the first film in his ambitious planned superhero trilogy Brahmāstra Part One – Shiva. Fortunately, Brahmāstra Part One is a solid foundation for future films in the franchise.

The movie opens with the establishment of the story’s foundational lore. Centuries ago, a group of sages received powerful weapons called astras, the most powerful of which is the Brahmāstra. The sages named their order the Brahmānsh, using their powers to protect humanity, keep the Brahmāstra from spinning out of control and destroying the world, and passing their powers down across the generations.

The powers themselves are pretty cool. One member of the Brahmānsh has the strength of a thousand bulls, another the agility of a monkey, and one can shoot snakes as arrows. It’s not totally clear how the powers are inherited, though. Some powers are explicitly tied to physical artifacts like bracelets, while others seem to transfer genetically and don’t require a sacred object. The first film in a planned series is the place to make those rules crystal clear.

In the present day, orphaned disc jockey Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor) is struck by a confluence of life-changing events in a temple during Durga Puja. He has visions of a scientist (Shah Rukh Khan, in a movie-stealing cameo) being tortured by three people with strange powers. He also sees a beautiful woman, Isha (Alia Bhatt), with whom he falls instantly in love.

As Isha and Shiva get to know one another, he has more visions in which the scientist reveals that an artist named Anish (Nagarjuna Akkineni) is in danger from the three strangers, and that the location of an ashram must be protected at all costs. Isha corroborates details of Shiva’s visions, and the two head out to warn Anish.

There they encounter the mysterious strangers, each wearing a piece of rock that emits a sinister red glow. Their beautiful, terrifying leader Junoon (Mouni Roy) wants to ignite the Brahmāstra’s full power and resurrect an entity called Dev. A battle ensues, but Shiva and Isha are able to reach the ashram.

The ashram is run by Raghu (Amitabh Bachchan), leader of the Brahmānsh and tutor for all astra wielders. He promises to explain Shiva’s visions and his strange connection to fire to him — and even tell him about his parents — but only if Shiva agrees to stay and send Isha back to the city.

Brahmāstra Part One employs a lot of superhero origin story tropes, right down to the main character being an orphan (a 30-year-old one at that). Character development isn’t high on Mukerji’s priority list, at least not in this phase of his saga.

Dialogue also isn’t a main priority, as much of what the characters utter is matter-of-fact or utilitarian. It’s also repetitive, as Isha says Shiva’s name fully 83 times, by one Reddit user’s count. It might even be more than that in the streaming video version, as Mukerji added some scenes to better establish the central romantic subplot.

Mukerji’s main focus in this first film is in establishing a visual language for the series. What he creates is stunning. Each scene is perfectly lit to focus the audience’s attention or set the emotional tone. Characters sport wardrobes in eye-catching hues. Best of all are the gorgeous ways the astras manifest, as collections of ethereal sprites of varying colors, depending on who wields them. Battles are vibrant as opposing magical forces clash, eschewing grittiness in favor of pure fantasy.

The scale of the film’s fight sequences feels appropriate. Battles are fought in enclosed spaces or in remote areas away from prying eyes, which makes sense, since the existence of the astras is supposed to be a secret. This approach provides a welcome respite from the tiresome city-wide destruction used in every Marvel film.

Brahmāstra Part One‘s sensory appeal is enhanced by an excellent soundtrack, written by Pritam and sung beautifully by Arijit Singh. The memorable songs come to life when performed by Ranbir Kapoor, who dances with a spontaneity that belies the hours of training that went into creating each song sequence.

Superhero origin stories have a formula for a reason, so Brahmāstra Part One – Shiva gets a pass for the elements that feel a little generic. Mukerji was smart to zero in on the aspects that set his film apart, including a distinctive look and approach to special effects that can enhance the array of possible superpowers yet to be introduced. I’m looking forward to Brahmāstra Part Two.

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Movie Review: Maja Ma (2022)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Maja Ma on Amazon Prime

Who we are is a complicated question because so much of our identity is relational. Descriptors like wife, mother, sister, friend, or co-worker all depend on there being at least one specific person on the other side of the equation. Navigating all those identities is tricky enough before we introduce individual identities that can be broader yet also more personal: artist, woman, gay, or straight. Maja Ma follows the members of the Patel family as a rumor makes them examine their own identities and their relationships with each other.

Tejas Patel (Ritwik Bhowmik) is trying to convince the wealthy parents of his Indian-American girlfriend Esha Hansraj (Barkha Singh) to allow him to marry their daughter. Tejas already passed a lie detector test required by Texans Bob (Rajit Kapoor) and Pam Hansraj (Sheeba Chaddha) to ensure that he isn’t just after the family’s money. The real challenge is a meeting between the families in India to prove that the Patels embody Bob’s idea of true Indian values. Bob believes anything less might harm Bob’s future campaign to become mayor of Houston.

The Patel family is pretty typical — dad Manohar (Gajraj Rao), mom Pallavi (Madhuri Dixit), Tejas, and his sister Tara (Srishti Shrivastava) — but Tara is the wildcard. She’s working on her PhD in gender studies, and she’s a vocal supporter of LGBTQIA+ rights. She’s so vocal that even the advocacy group she volunteers for asks her to tone down her fiery rhetoric to spare them the negative press.

Pallavi is supportive of her daughter, but she’s not keen on discussing sexuality with her. During an argument in which Tara presses her mom to admit whether she would have accepted Tara if she was gay (she’s not), Pallavi blurts out that she herself is a lesbian. It’s an effective way to end the argument, but Tara suspects that maybe there’s some truth behind her mom’s words.

When the Hansraj family arrives in town, the Patels do their best to tolerate their insufferable future in-laws for Tejas’s sake. Bob leers at Pallavi and says things like, “Exotic,” during her welcome ritual. When Tara serves snacks, Pam asks her if she’s menstruating (she’s not) since Bob won’t eat any food prepared by a woman who is.

At a festival that night, the host shows a video recorded by one of the nosy neighborhood kids that includes secretly recorded footage of Pallavi’s confession during her argument with Tara, sending the whole town into an uproar. Women exclude Pallavi from their activities, Manohar’s manhood is mocked, and Bob and Pam threaten to call off the engagement — unless Pallavi can pass a lie detector test.

Whether Pallavi’s confession is actually true is immaterial in the sense that everyone in her life changes the way they treat her anyway. Manohar’s concerns are the most understandable since Pallavi being a lesbian alters the foundations of their marriage. Tejas is willing to haul his mom off to conversion therapy if it means he can still marry Esha. Tara is thrilled at the prospect of having a lesbian mother, as it would give her more credibility in her gay rights organization.

One of the counselors in Tara’s organization emphasizes that it’s entirely up to Pallavi whether she decides to publicly embrace being a lesbian. The reactions by her family, the Hansrajs, and everyone else in the neighborhood show that doing so would not come without a cost. In addition to being a lesbian, Pallavi is a mother and a wife — two roles she’s let define her knowing that other options were not available to her when she was of marriageable age.

As far as the audience knows, Pallavi loves being a mom and being part of her community, and she and Manohar have an amicable relationship. Is making a public declaration worth risking damage to the other parts of her life she’s spent decades building? Director Anand Tiwari and writer Sumit Batheja compassionately provide context for a heart-wrenching decision people are still forced to make in places where it is not safe to come out.

Maja Ma also thoughtfully depicts the changing family dynamics as adult children finally realize that their parents are more than just “Mom” and “Dad.” Likewise, Manohar’s attempts to rekindle the physical romance in his marriage are handled with grace and good humor. This is a movie that is very fond of the main family at its core.

Conversely, Bob and Pam are shown to be buffoons who get away with awful behavior because they have money. One curious point is that the movie gives Esha a pass for tolerating her parents’ rude, bigoted behavior. Her unconditional love of them is painted as a good thing, but that doesn’t mean she should condone their abuse. Far less emotional growth is demanded of her than the other adult children in the film, and it seems like a missed opportunity.

Still, Tiwari’s and Batheja’s attempts to address as the many complications that would arise from Pallavi’s confession is worth applauding, as are the performances by Maja Ma‘s terrific cast.

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Movie Review: Babli Bouncer (2022)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Babli Bouncer on Hulu

Babli Bouncer puts a fun spin on a boilerplate Bollywood main character: the small-town slacker with a heart of gold. Tamannaah Bhatia turns in a stellar performance in the leading role, showcasing her skill as a physical comedian.

Babli (Bhatia) hails from a village on the outskirts of Delhi famous for producing wrestlers and bodybuilders. Many of the young men in town work as bouncers at Delhi nightclubs, but it’s widely known that Babli is just as tough as any of the guys. She’s not ambitious, knowing that marriage and kids are on the horizon (not that she’s mad about that). Her predetermined future enables her to coast, waiting for life to come to her.

It does in the form of Viraj (Abhishek Bajaj), the handsome son of a local school teacher. Viraj is educated and worldly — pretty much the opposite of Babli. She is immediately smitten. When Viraj politely offers to meet Babli for lunch should she ever find herself in Delhi, Babli makes it her mission to get a job in the city.

Thankfully, the club where Babli’s friend Kukku (Sahil Vaid) works is in need of lady bouncers to deal with rowdy female patrons. Soon enough, Babli is working at Kukku’s club and living in Delhi with her buddy Pinky (Priyam Saha), who teaches there. Babli thinks she’s perfectly positioned to get closer to Viraj.

In loads of other Hindi films where a man plays a similar type of lead role, the already-perfect hero sets his sights on a beautiful woman who fails to appreciate him until he uses his physical strength to save her. That she will fall in love with him by movie’s end is a given, so there’s no need to develop either character.

Babli Bouncer uses a similar character template but rejects the inevitable conclusion. Instead, Babli is depicted as flawed but lovable. When she’s confronted with her own shortcomings, she doesn’t like what she sees and chooses to fix them — not in order to win someone’s heart, but so she can be proud of herself. And her efforts at self-improvement amplify the things that were already good about her.

The story itself is entertaining enough, but Bhatia makes Babli sparkle. She’s a tomboy with a bit of swagger, and Bhatia’s every movement and mannerism suits the character perfectly. It’s heartbreaking to watch naive Babli wholeheartedly laugh along with Viraj’s city friends because she doesn’t realize they’re laughing at her, not with her. Bhatia’s spot-on characterization, spirited dancing, and quality fight scenes make for an overall great performance.

Saurabh Shukla is wonderful as Babli’s sympathetic father, and Saha and Vaid make great buddies for Babli. The resolution to lovelorn Kukku’s subplot deserved more airtime, but Vaid does a nice job selling it as written.

Babli Bouncer gets everything right that similar stories with male lead characters usually get wrong. Director Madhur Bhandarkar and co-writers Amit Joshi and Aradhana Debnath wrote a title character who is charming from the get-go but with room to grow. It’s a delight to watch Babli chart her own path.

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Movie Review: Ek Villain Returns (2022)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Ek Villain Returns on Netflix

Eight years after its release, Ek Villain finally got a sequel. Ek Villain Returns is a marked improvement over the original.

The sequel begins with a shocking attack at a party. A man disguised with a smiley-face mask tosses revelers about the apartment in search of his target: an up-and-coming singer named Aarvi (Tara Sutaria). She records the moment he finally finds her on her phone, pleading with him by name: “Gautam.” But is that really who’s behind the mask?

Flashing back six months, we learn that Gautam (Arjun Kapoor) is the spoiled son of a wealthy man. Gautam wants to win at all costs, and he sees boosting Aarvi’s career as a way to do so. Their unscrupulous partnership leads to a romance that fractures when Gautam betrays Aarvi.

The last person to speak with Aarvi before the party attack is a driver for a ride share service named Bhairav (John Abraham). Bhairav — who is also a part-time zookeeper at a zoo that clearly lacks professional accreditation — is questioned by the police and released, but of course there’s more to his story.

Bhairav gets his own six-month flashback to him stalking a woman named Rasika (Disha Patani) who works in clothing store. She works on commission, so she’s happy enough to have a reliable customer, and they do form something of a friendship. Because he has no romantic or sexual experience, he thinks they’re in love.

Like its predecessor, Ek Villain Returns is about toxic masculinity. Whereas Ek Villain faltered by implying that there were things that women could have done to prevent being murdered by a misogynistic killer, Ek Villain Returns is clearer in affirming that women are autonomous beings who can make their own choices and need not be perfect. They also need not return the affection of any man who gives it to them, and that prioritizing men’s feelings over women’s is unfair and dangerous.

By establishing all of the characters as flawed, those who are capable of growing are given space to do so. Gautam and Aarvi are arrogant and unethical, but not beyond redemption. Rasika is a bit flippant, but she’s seen mostly through the lens of Bhairav’s perception of her — and it’s hard to trust that his perception of her is accurate, since he wants something from her. One of Bhairav’s problems is that he’s only interested in one side of a given story, and he assumes the worst of every woman he encounters.

Here’s the thing about Bhairav: if you’re going to have a character who can’t get a date despite having the face and body of John Abraham, he’s got to be much more socially awkward or creepy than the movie makes him out to be. (Also, there’s a nineteen-year age difference between Abraham and Patani. Ew.)

The issues with Bhairav are mostly a case of filmmaker Mohit Suri wanting to have his cake and eat it, too. He needs Bhairav to be a dangerous incel, but he wants steamy scenes between Abraham and Patani as well. We get the steamy scenes at the expense of Bhairav being as weird as he should’ve been.

That said, all of the actors understand what’s being asked of them and get the job done. Patani and Abraham are sexy. Kapoor and Sutaria have a more playful romance and share a great rapport. This is a couple I’d like to see paired up again in the future.

Overall, Ek Villain Returns knows what kind of movie it wants to be and gets things mostly right. And it represents a big step up from the film that spawned it.

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Movie Review: Thar (2022)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Thar on Netflix

A veteran cop’s boring beat is upended by three murders and the arrival of a stranger in the Western noir Thar. Rajasthan is the ideal setting for a Western, and the stunning scenery is highlighted beautifully.

Inspector Surekha Singh’s (Anil Kapoor) decades-long career has been uneventful. Stationed in the Rajasthani town of Munabao in 1985, there’s little in the way of crime, except for the occasional drug bust of smugglers bringing heroin across the border from Pakistan.

All that changes in a single day. A married couple is found shot dead in their home, their daughter’s dowry stolen. Another dead man is found hanging from a tree, an axe embedded in his chest. For the first time in their careers, Singh and his partner Bhure (Satish Kaushik) feel like real police. They figure drug runners are responsible for the deaths, as they set about investigating the connection between the victims.

At the same time, a taciturn stranger arrives in town. He reluctantly gives his name: Siddharth (Harshvarrdhan Kapoor). He’s looking for a few men to help him move some antiques back to Delhi. Men in Munabao routinely work jobs in the city for months at a time, so his request isn’t unusual. A woman named Chetna (Fatima Sana Shaikh) assures him that her husband Panna (Jitendra Joshi) and his friends will be back in a matter of days, and Siddharth agrees to wait.

After Panna — an arrogant misogynist — and his compatriots return, it becomes clear that Siddharth’s intentions are not good. His polite interactions with Cheta are at odds with his actions when he’s going about his business. The mystery at the heart of Thar is: why is Siddharth doing what he’s doing?

Keeping Siddharth’s agenda a secret for as long as the movie does de-prioritizes his character development, blunting the emotional impact when his motivations are finally revealed. That said, Harshvarrdhan Kapoor is great at being mysterious. Nonverbal communication plays a big part in Siddharth’s interactions with Chetna, and Shaikh and Kapoor play off one another exceedingly well.

Relationships play a huge part in Inspector Surekha’s life. He’s got a supportive wife, and Bhure is his best friend, not just his coworker. Writer-director Raj Singh Chaudhary and editor Aarti Bajaj make a point to emphasize how much Bhure means to Surekha. Anil Kapoor and Satish Kaushik are a delightful duo. And Jitendra Joshi is really, really good at playing the loathsome Panna.

The desert location in Thar is not only crucial for making the way the story plays out possible. It’s also absolutely stunning. Though geographically and botanically distinct from the American Southwest, the area in Rajasthan where Thar was filmed feels like the perfect place to shoot a Western. The rocky hills spotted with scrubby brush make an ideal setting for a shootout.

One cautionary note for squeamish viewers is that Thar is very gory — more so than it needs to be to make its point about the nature of the violence being committed. But no one can say the makeup department didn’t do their job, that’s for sure.

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Series Review: Aranyak (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Aranyak on Netflix

Aranyak is Netflix India’s answer to Twin Peaks. With a compelling story and right-sized episodes, the supernatural (or is it?) murder mystery is made to be binged.

Aranyak takes place in the perpetually overcast fictional mountain town of Sironah, surrounded by a dense forest. Police officer Angad Malik (Parambrata Chattopadhyay) arrives to take over duties from Kasturi Dogra (Raveena Tandon), who’s taking a leave of absence from the force to deal with family issues.

On the day Angad arrives, a French tourist named Julie (Breshna Khan) reports her teenage daughter Aimee (Anna Ador) missing. Angad and Kasturi bicker over who should lead the case until Aimee’s body is found hanged in a tree. The cops agree to work together, putting Kasturi’s leave on hold.

Aimee’s death hits Sironah hard because of its similarities to a series of murders 19 years earlier that left over a dozen young women dead and the residents of the town emotionally scarred — none more so than Kasturi’s father-in-law Mahadev (Ashutosh Rana). He led the investigation into the murders but was unable to find the killer known as the “leopard man.”

The leopard man is a figure of local myth: a murderous beast and also the steward of a crop of “mystery mushrooms” that cure disease, but at a grievous cost to those who consume them. Whether the killer from 19 years ago was a man or a monster remains up for debate in Sironah.

One curious fact about the new crime is that all the rich and politically-connected residents in town seem to know that something bad happened to Aimee before the police do. Local politician Jagdamba (Meghna Malik) and sketchy rich guy Kuber Manhas (Zakir Hussain) try to leverage that information to their advantage.

There are many more characters and possible suspects. The story — written by Rohan Sippy and Charudutt Acharya — does a nice job of keeping all of them somehow connected to the crimes of the present or past. Each of the series’ eight episodes runs about 40 minutes, giving enough time to flesh out characters and their motivations without getting bogged down in backstory.

The runtime gives enough space to deal with the themes that Aranyak shares with Twin Peaks: collective trauma, whether evil exists as an independent entity or whether it’s simply individual moral corruption, and how “good” people reckon with this evil in their midst.

One of the more interesting characters is the politician Jagdamba. Her position is in jeopardy because her young adult son Kanti (Tejaswi Dev Chaudhary) was previously convicted of rape. She wants to protect him, but she also believes that he committed the current crime and fears that he might do it again. She’s concerned not just because he’s a political liability, but because she doesn’t want him to hurt anyone else — yet she’s not sure how to stop him. She loves her son, but he might be irredeemable.

This subplot fits with the show’s focus on the dangers faced by women, be it rape, murder, roofies, or cyberstalking. The stakes are raised for Kasturi because she has a daughter, Nutan (Tanseesha Joshi), who is the same age as Aimee. One of the commonalities between Aimee’s death and the murders from 19 years ago is that the police weren’t able to prevent any of them, only respond to them after the fact.

Aranyak has a few glaring flaws. Kasturi does stupid things that put people in danger, and she’s never heard of the jugular vein. Action scenes in the final episode defy the laws of space-time. The finale’s closing shot is sincerely crazy. The whole reason I watched the show was because Shah Shahid of the Split Screen Podcast warned me that the show’s final seconds were nuts, and he was right.

That said, the story build-up to that point is solid enough to make time invested in Aranyak worthwhile. Consistently good performances help, too, with special acknowledgement of Joshi as Nutan and Wishveash Sharkholi as Bunty, her boyfriend. Though the story feels complete as is, I’m very curious to see where Season 2 would go, based on the finale’s closing seconds.

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Movie Review: Sharmaji Namkeen (2022)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Sharmaji Namkeen on Amazon Prime

Rishi Kapoor’s final film is a charming story of a man trying to navigate his unplanned retirement. Sharmaji Namkeen is a lovely way to send off a legend.

A critical fact to know going in is that Kapoor passed away before the filming of Sharmaji Namkeen was complete. In a brief video before the movie starts, Kapoor’s son Ranbir explains that they considered various ways to finish the film but ultimately settled on having actor Paresh Rawal take over Kapoor’s role for the scenes he wasn’t able to film.

Though Kapoor and Rawal aren’t exactly lookalikes, the transitions between scenes are pretty seamless, thanks to rigorous attention to costume continuity. Though one doesn’t become blind to the difference, the premise of two actors sharing the same role is easy to roll with.

Kapoor and Rawal play Brij Gopal Sharma, a manager at an appliance company who’s forced to take an early retirement at age 58. Having devoted his whole life to his work, Sharmaji doesn’t know what to do with his newfound free time.

Sharmaji’s eldest son Rinku (Suhail Nayyar) has strong opinions about proper activities for a retiree — opinions he’s more comfortable expressing now that he’s the family breadwinner. Younger son Vincy (Taaruk Raina) just wants to go unnoticed as he fails his way through college.

One thing Sharmaji is good at is cooking, having taken over kitchen duties after his wife passed away. Rinku rejects Sharmaji’s idea of opening a snack shop, deeming cooking an unseemly profession for a middle-class retiree. Sharmaji’s best friend Chaddha (Satish Kaushik) suggests that he cater a party for a group of well-heeled women — a gig that would be easy enough to keep secret from Rinku. Thus begins Sharmaji’s second chapter as a professional chef and his friendship with a bunch of fun-loving ladies.

On a related note, the footage of food in Sharmaji Namkeen is beautifully shot by cinematographer Piyush Puty. Everything Sharmaji cooks looks scrumptious.

Sharmaji Namkeen is refreshing because it has plenty of conflict but no villains. Sharmaji and Rinku are both stubborn, with strong opinions about how the other one should live his life. Their cycle of keeping secrets from each other just to avoid a fight isn’t healthy or sustainable, but there isn’t any malice in it. They’re both just slow to adjust to their new reality.

While the theme about love and loyalty between family members is stated overtly, there’s a related theme about the importance of friends. The love-hate friendship between Sharmaji and Chaddha is adorable, but the support Sharmaji finds with his new circle of women is equally endearing. Given the prevalence of loneliness among seniors, Sharmaji Namkeen is a nice reminder that it’s never too late to make new friends.

Kapoor’s performance is very strong, establishing Sharmaji as persnickety but kind-hearted. Rawal matches Kapoor’s tone so well that the character feels totally cohesive. It’s wonderful that writer-director Hitesh Bhatia and his crew found a way to complete Sharmaji Namkeen. It’s a very enjoyable film.

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Movie Review: Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui is the first mainstream Bollywood romance to feature a transgender lead character. While the movie represents a huge step forward, it opens up a wider conversation about representation and who gets to tell trans stories.

Manu (Ayushmann Khurrana) runs a gym in Chandigarh that struggles for business. He hopes that winning the local strongman competition in a few months will raise his gym’s profile, but his chances of beating the reigning champ are slim.

Then Maanvi (Vaani Kapoor) arrives. New in town, Maanvi shows up at the gym to start a new Zumba program — one of Manu’s schemes to keep the gym afloat while he trains for the competition. Maanvi is gorgeous and energetic, and soon her Zumba students outnumber the bodybuilders.

On top of being popular, Maanvi is kind and generous. She helps Manu when he breaks his nose, getting him safely home and impressing his family in the process. The two spend time together, sparks fly, and love blooms.

Yet Maanvi is cautious. She’s been hurt before, so it’s only when Manu proposes marriage that she tells him an important secret: she’s transgender. Confirming her worst fears, Manu reacts terribly, spewing hateful slurs and vowing to ruin her life.

Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui is aimed at a broad audience — many of whom may not have given much thought to what it means to be transgender and the challenges that come with that — so the plot hinges on Manu’s emotional process as he comes to understand what Maanvi’s confession means for both of them. He educates himself about what it means to be transgender, educating the audience in the process.

Given the power imbalance that favors male stars in Bollywood, many romantic comedies treat their female leads as little more than accessories to the male lead. Not so with Maanvi. She has a full backstory that’s conveyed through her current relationships and also via smaller details, like the cutting scars on her arms or the nervous way she fidgets with the strap on her purse during a conversation that could turn awkward. The film tells us who Maanvi was by showing us who she is, without relying on flashbacks. Maanvi is a prime example of how to write a female lead character with as much depth as the man she’s romancing.

Two main points of criticism can be leveled at Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui that have nothing to do with how watchable or competently-made the movie is (it is both): the actor playing Maanvi is not a transgender woman, and no one on the writing team — including director Abhishek Kapoor — is trans. To the second point, the idea for the film’s story came from writer Simran Sahni, who is a mother to two trans daughters. Director Kapoor has stated in interviews that he and his co-writers consulted with trans people and organizations while writing the film.

Not casting a trans woman to play Maanvi is a missed opportunity. That’s taking nothing away from Vaani Kapoor’s performance, which is the best of her career. But casting a transgender woman would have elevated the movie from being a “conversation starter” to an example of turning a good intention into action. Director Kapoor claims that the film needed an established star like Vaani to draw the audience’s attention, but how can trans actors become stars if directors and producers won’t cast them?

Abhishek Kapoor told Filmfare: “This is not the last movie, this is the first movie of its kind that has been made and the kind of response and the kind of houses that this story has penetrated because of the kind of casting we’ve done . . . there is an understanding of the trans community and from hereon when you cast trans people for roles, I think it has opened doors, it has started conversations.” He’s right that this is the first movie of its kind. And maybe it was the studio or producers who insisted on a cisgender woman playing Maanvi. Still, hoping that someone else will see the success of Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui and take the next step is by no means a sure thing.

As much as I enjoyed the film, I recognize that as a cisgender woman I may have missed important context or other elements that could be problematic. I’ve linked below to a couple of articles about the film written by trans women that I found helpful, as well as interviews with Abhishek Kapoor about his casting choices. I’ve also linked to a great video essay about intention in storytelling that, while about a different specific subject (Asian-inspired movies by non-Asians), still seems relevant to Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui.

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Movie Review: Haseen Dillruba (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Haseen Dillruba on Netflix

The appeal of many murder mysteries is the final revelation of how the crime was committed (especially if the killer gets away with it). Though Haseen Dillruba (“Beautiful Beloved“) has a fiery payoff, the question of why the deed was done is far more interesting.

The film opens with an explosion in a residential neighborhood in the small city of Jwalapur, north of Delhi. Rani (Taapsee Pannu) is outside her home when a gas cylinder in her kitchen ignites. She identifies her husband’s body by his wrist bearing a tattoo of her name — the only part of him that hasn’t been incinerated.

Police Inspector Rawat (Aditya Srivastava) is convinced that Rani murdered her husband Rishu (Vikrant Massey), though she protests her innocence. Rawat’s interrogation triggers flashbacks to various points in the couple’s relationship, which Rani describes as, “sometimes good, sometimes not so good.”

Rani and Rishu get together via an arranged marriage. Both of them seem to have gotten through life doing the bare minimum to make themselves desirable marriage candidates, but not doing much to make themselves complete people. Shy Rishu has a stable engineering job, and Rani is pretty and a capable cosmetologist. Neither has any experience in communicating with a romantic partner nor any instinct for nurturing intimacy. Living with Rishu’s parents only adds to the pressure on the new couple.

All of Rani’s ideas about romance come from books by her favorite author Dinesh Pandit, who writes pulp novels about small-town murder mysteries. Rani quotes Pandit so often that the fictitious author is almost a character in his own right.

When Rani blabs about her and Rishu’s non-existent sex life to her family, Rishu gives her the silent treatment. This leaves Rani lonely and vulnerable when Rishu’s beefcake cousin Neel (Harshvardhan Rane) comes to stay with the family. Neel is as exciting as Rishu is mild, and he’s more than happy to give Rani the attention that Rishu withholds from her.

It takes Rani’s affair with Neel for both Rani and Rishu to become interesting people. It strains credulity a bit that both members of the married couple are so bland beforehand, but the wild trajectories their personalities take from that point is what makes the movie really intriguing. Rishu develops a violent streak and Rani a corresponding capacity to endure punishment. It’s nuts, but it works.

It’s worth considering how problematic Rishi’s violence toward Rani is within the context of the film. For some, a blanket condemnation of all violence perpetrated by men against women will make Rishu’s actions untenable. Within the world created by director Vinil Mathew and screenwriter Kanika Dhillon, the sequence where Rishu repeatedly tries to injure Rani is less about his actions and more about Rani’s willingness (or desire, even) to endure any punishment to atone for her transgression.

The sequence also highlights how screwed up Rani and Rishu actually are when forced to reckon with intense emotions. It’s something that is hinted at early in the film via Amar Mangrulkar’s unusual score, which ping-pongs between somber and melodramatic to sitcom-esque wacky, depending on the scene. The musical choices are slightly off-putting but effective at establishing that this is not a movie about an ordinary couple.

All three leads are effective in their roles, with Rane embracing his eye-candy avatar. Pannu is competent as always. Massey stands out as an ordinary man with a dark edge he didn’t realize he possessed. Haseen Dillruba isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly entertaining.

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Movie Review: Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan on Amazon Prime

Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (“Be Extra Careful of Marriage“, SMZS henceforth) — Bollywood’s first mainstream romantic comedy about a gay couple — is at its most effective when it leans into genre traditions.

Aman Tripathi (Jitendra Kumar) and Kartik Singh (Ayushmann Khurrana) are a dating couple living in Delhi. Aman’s parents Shankar (Gajraj Rao) and Sunaina (Neena Gupta) don’t know that their son is gay, but Kartik is sure they’ll be accepting. The dating couple meets up with the family on a train on the way to Aman’s cousin Goggle’s (Maanvi Gagroo) wedding outside of Allahabad.

On route to the wedding venue, Shankar spots Aman and Kartik kissing. Shankar’s dramatic negative reaction provokes the couple to kiss again, this time in the middle of the dance floor in front of all the wedding guests. Despite Shankar’s and Sunaina’s hilarious attempts to explain the kiss as some sort of family tradition, Goggle’s fiance cancels the wedding, and the Tripathi’s return to Allahabad.

Rather than embrace Aman as he is, his parents insist that he can be converted if removed from Kartik’s influence. They go so far as to get Aman engaged to a cute young woman named Kusum (Pankhuri Awasthy), who is all too eager to marry him.

The rest of SMZS is essentially the second half of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, but if Raj was trying to save Kuljeet from marrying Simran instead of the other way around. In DDLJ, Raj’s strategy was to convince Simran’s family that he was the best person for her to marry. In SMZS, Kartik’s approach is less personal and more about asserting Aman’s right to choose who he wants to date and marry, regardless of gender.

Perhaps SMZS would have struck a stronger emotional chord had Kartik used more of Raj’s strategy. This is a film about a family, but Kartik’s aggressive tactics and the Tripathis’ intransigence make it hard to see how he would fit in if he and Aman did marry. Scenes in which Kartik is emotionally vulnerable play as though they are meant to convince Aman of his loyalty — something that is never really in question — rather than prove his worthiness to the Tripathis.

Writer-director Hitesh Kewalya uses SMZS as an educational opportunity, focusing more on the moral and legal grounds for Aman’s relationship with Kartik instead. This plays into some of the issues that hampered the film SMZS spun off from: 2017’s Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, which Kewalya wrote but did not direct. Both stories periodically lose momentum as the plot gets bogged down in dialogue-heavy scenes.

The slow narrative pace is mitigated by the terrific performances by the entire cast. Awasthy is especially hilarious as Kusum, whose ostentatious shyness feels straight out of an old movie.

One of Kewalya’s strong points is his ability to write humorously about adult topics (Shubh Mangal Saavdhan was about impotence) in a way that never feels vulgar. SMZS is family-friendly. If one of the goals of the film is to normalize the depiction of gay relationships in mainstream Hindi cinema, making it a movie that is accessible to all ages is a great way to accomplish that.

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