Tag Archives: 3 Stars

Movie Review: Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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With Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (“How I Felt When I Saw That Girl“, ELKDTAL henceforth), debutant filmmaker Shelly Chopra Dhar set out to change how India thinks about LGBTQ people, both in terms of social acceptance and as an untapped well of cinematic storytelling possibilities. Her film is caring, thoughtful exploration of how a conservative family deals with a gay family member.

Sonam Kapoor Ahuja uses her star-power for good to play Sweety Chaudhary, a closeted lesbian from the Punjabi town of Moga. While on a trip to New Delhi, she ducks into a theater during play rehearsals to hide from a man we later learn is her brother, Babloo (Abhishek Duhan). Intrigued by Sweety’s good looks and her insightful critique of the awful play, its floundering writer, Sahil (Rajkummar Rao), helps her escape to a train station.

Sahil finds out where Sweety lives and heads to Moga under the pretext of running an acting workshop. There, a series of misunderstandings convince Sweety’s father Balbir (Anil Kapoor), her grandmother Gifty (Madhumalti Kapoor), and Sahil himself that Sweety is secretly in love with him.

Sweety explains to Sahil that she’s in love with a woman named Kuhu (Regina Cassandra). Babloo knows this and disapproves of his sister’s feelings, which is why he followed her to New Delhi and why she’d hidden from him in Sahil’s theater. Bereft of ideas for how to live a life true to herself, Sweety lets Sahil use his storytelling skills in a daring plan to win over her family and the town of Moga.

Director Shelly Chopra Dhar set herself the daunting task of making a movie that anyone could enjoy, but that would also open the minds of a particular segment of the audience. In an interview with The Telegraph, Chopra Dhar explains that her target audience was not progressive urbanites already accepting of LGBTQ people, but “people who’re genuinely not there”: those in smaller cities and towns in India who may have little personal exposure to gay people. So as not to risk scaring those people away, there is no same-sex kissing in ELKDTAL, only some affectionate hugging and hand-holding between Sweety and Kuhu — a choice consistent with the chaste way many mainstream Hindi films still depict straight romance.

Chopra Dhar also says in the interview that she had to consider ELKDTAL‘s setting when trying to reach her intended audience. Small-town folks might feel disconnected from an urban story, and a village setting could make the film seem too artsy and not commercial enough (which is why she made Balbir a rich factory owner). Although she wanted the serious message of acceptance to come through, she needed to relate to her audience in an uplifting way: “It’s not a dark and dingy film either. Why can’t it be a nice, bright film and be natural?”

ELKDTAL feels breezy and familiar, and its dramatic elements are balanced by two comic subplots. One involves the Chaudhary family staff — played by Seema Bhargava and Brijendra Kala, who is adorable in the film — betting on who Sweety will finally marry. Another features Juhi Chawla as Chatro, a goofy caterer with acting ambitions who catches Balbir’s eye. The tonal shifts between the comedy and drama elements aren’t seamless, but they never take the film off track.

In many ways, ELKDTAL‘s story is less about Sweety’s journey than how people react when she opens up to them. As the audience’s onscreen avatar, Sahil meets Sweety and decides she’s someone who deserves friendship and help, reinforcing the story’s message of judging someone by the content of their character. Sweety’s father, Balbir, already loves her, but he doesn’t see her for who she really is — in part because Sweety felt compelled to hide the truth from him. Balbir’s challenge is to accept what is, to him, a new facet of his daughter’s life, but also to see the way his own expectations for her made her life harder and less happy. It forces the audience to question whether we’ve let our own loved ones down by expecting them to be someone they’re not.

The downside to this narrative focus is that Sweety is acted upon more than she drives the action, but Kapoor Ahuja is fully engaged in every scene, her reactions always showing us how Sweety feels even when her character isn’t the center of attention. Same goes for Rao and Kapoor, whose love for his real-life daughter (Kapoor Ahuja) spills over into Balbir’s affection for Sweety. While ELKDTAL‘s laudable social goals are the perfect reason to start the movie, the film’s delightful performances make you want to see it through to the end.

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Movie Review: Junglee (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Junglee is exactly the movie it’s supposed to be: a fun action flick with a clear environmental message, great practical effects, and elephants. Lots of elephants.

Bollywood’s premier martial artist Vidyut Jammwal stars as Raj, a veterinarian who grew up on an elephant sanctuary run by his parents. As a young man, Raj ran away to the city, blaming his father for his mother’s death from cancer. Only on the tenth anniversary of his mother’s death does Raj finally return to the sanctuary.

Things have changed since Raj left. The remote jungle region is struggling economically, according to Raj’s friend Dev (Akshay Oberoi), who now works as a forest ranger. Raj’s childhood pal Shankara (Pooja Sawant) is one of the sanctuary’s few remaining mahouts, or elephant caretakers. She’s also grown up to be stunningly beautiful. The only thing that hasn’t changed is Raj’s frosty relationship with his father, Baba (Thalaivasal Vijay).

Too many Bollywood male leads are written as incapable of making mistakes, but Raj is different. He accepts Dev’s admonishment when his friend says that Raj is in no position to criticize the state of the sanctuary after abandoning it. Raj also comes to realize that he was too young to understand his parents’ choices during his mother’s cancer battle, and that realization starts to heal the rift with his father. Raj is willing to admit that he’s wrong and learn from his mistakes.

Economic troubles aren’t the sanctuary’s only problem. Ivory poachers use camera drones to spot Bhola, a bull with impressive tusks. Led by the hunter Keshav (Atul Kulkarni, who has a touch of Quint from Jaws in his performance), the poachers launch a nighttime raid, with elephants and humans among the casualties.

Raj sets out to find the culprits, aided by Shankara, Dev, and Meera (Asha Bhat) — a plucky reporter from the city visiting the sanctuary to interview Baba. This chase sets the stage for some of Jammwal’s signature stunt-work, which is as thrilling to watch as always. Raj fights with whatever items he has on hand, turning a ladder or a table and chairs into weapons with high novelty value. Shankara and Meera add comic relief, in the form of a love triangle which Raj doesn’t seem keen to participate in.

The highlight of Junglee is unquestionably its elephants, real-life residents at a conservation center in Thailand where much of the film was shot. Director Chuck Russell spoke with Scroll.in (interview linked below) about the numerous precautions the crew took to ensure the safety and comfort of the elephants while still shooting as many scenes with them as possible. The resulting footage is impressive — a refreshing throwback to the days before computer-generated imagery became the default cost-cutting option for film producers. It’s very cool to watch the cast interact with the elephants, and it makes the whole film a treat for the kid in all of us.

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Movie Review: Kedarnath (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Two lovers on opposite sides of a religious and class divide fall in love just before their world falls apart in Kedarnath. The compelling central romance is eclipsed by a well-executed disaster sequence based on the tragic floods of June, 2013, which destroyed much of Kedarnath and killed thousands.

Mansoor (Sushant Singh Rajput) works as a porter, ferrying Hindu pilgrims and their belongings up the winding mountain path to Kedarnath Temple. He and the other Muslim porters and shopkeepers have a history of cooperation with the Hindu innkeepers, allowing everyone to make a steady living during the six months of the year that the temple is accessible.

An upstart Hindu landowner, Kullu (Nishant Dahiya), sees profit in building a fancy new hotel in the valley, increasing the number of pilgrims and displacing a number of shopkeepers in the process. Mansoor — whose mother’s shop would be demolished to make way for the hotel — argues that more buildings and pilgrims could put the infrastructure of the whole valley at risk. Briraaj (Nitish Bharadwaj), a Hindu priest, appreciates Mansoor’s dedication to Kedarnath despite not being a Hindu himself.

That appreciation only extends so far, however. Briraaj isn’t about to let his younger daughter, Mukku (Sara Ali Khan), date a Muslim. Mansoor’s relationship with her exposes simmering inter-religious divisions and provides a pretext for violence, led by Kullu, who’s engaged to Mukku after dumping her older sister, Brinda (the beautiful Pooja Gor). The floods hit before the town can erupt into full-scale riots.

Khan shows poise and charisma in her first film role, but Mukku is problematic. She has a lot in common with stereotypical Bollywood man-child protagonists in that she’s immature and unable to see things from other’s perspectives. She has no regard for how her romance with Mansoor affects him, his family, or the other Muslims in the valley, so confident is she that her desires are right simply because she desires them.

Unlike the typical man-child protagonist character arc in which he finds a woman who makes him aware of the world and his role in it, Mukku’s worldview doesn’t change. Her position as the privileged daughter of a powerful man makes her overestimate her ability to shape her world to her will. If she’s just persistent enough, she can break down Mansoor’s barriers and make him fall in love with her. That same persistence will get her out of her engagement to Kullu, she believes. She’s even convinced that she can influence cricket matches and the weather.

Having been mostly insulated from negative consequences thus far, Mukku fails to account for all of the other factors that influence the events in her life, like the desires of other people, the lucky bounce of a cricket ball, and the randomness of a natural disaster. Mukku’s arrogance makes one question whether, from a narrative standpoint, her star-crossed romance with Mansoor is a worthy enough endeavor to balance the deaths of thousands in raging floodwaters.

That balance undermines the vibrant romantic tension conjured by Khan and Rajput. This is Rajput’s most charming performance in years after lackluster outings in M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story and Raabta, a reminder of how good he can be in the right role. It would be fun to see these two leads pair up again in the future after Khan gains more acting experience.

Director Abhishek Kapoor successfully blends practical effects with computer generated ones in Kedarnath‘s climactic disaster, with Rajput and Khan battling treacherous waters in thrilling sequences. The rarity of Bollywood disaster movies is perhaps reason enough to watch Kedarnath, coupled with the intrigued of a star scion’s debut (Khan’s father is Saif Ali Khan). If only the central romance matched the film’s spectacle.

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Movie Review: Karwaan (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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The dehumanizing nature of modern office culture is ideal movie fodder. Companies tout their soul-crushing policies as necessary for the sake of “efficiency” — code for cutting labor costs to increase the profits of shareholders and executives. Karwaan (“Caravan“) beautifully puts the lie to this vision of efficiency, showing instead how interpersonal connections and generosity are often better tools for getting things done than cold bureaucracy.

Dissatisfied IT worker Avinash (Dulquer Salmaan) learns of his father Prakash’s (Akash Khurana) death via a curt phone call from a travel agent informing him where to pick up the body. The two men hadn’t spoken in years, since Prakash forced his son to abandon a promising photography career for a job offering financial stability. Avinash followed his father’s wishes but never forgave him, ground down by a boring job in an office where posters touting the employees’ replaceability are considered motivational.

The body shipped to the airport in Bangalore is not that of Avinash’s father but of a woman who died in the same bus accident. The airport’s cargo supervisor isn’t keen to track down Dad’s body, leaving it to Avinash to arrange a swap with Tahira (Amala Akkineni), the daughter of the dead woman who received Prakash’s body by mistake. Avinash hops in a van with his jaded friend Shaukat (Irrfan Khan), and they drive to Kochi to make the exchange.

The road trip gives Avinash opportunities to showcase just how much one man can accomplish with a generous spirit — and a van. Tahira calls in panic when she can’t reach her daughter at college, prompting a side trip to Ooty to pick up free-spirited Tanya (Mithila Palkar). Conservative, grumpy Shaukat almost calls off the caravan when he sees Tanya wearing a dress that hits above the knee, but Avinash prevails, giving the trio further opportunities to do good on their way to Kochi.

Tanya’s youthful exuberance affirms Avinash’s altruism but highlights the rut he’s fallen into after years demoralizing office work. He judges Tanya irresponsible for her drinking, smoking, and casual flings, only to realize how much he must sound like his own dad to someone younger.

Though Shaukat’s attitude toward Tanya and some of Avinash’s own behavior are sexist, the movie itself isn’t. Akarsh Khurana’s screenplay and direction always side with Tanya’s right to make her own choices, especially since she’s not hurting anyone else and isn’t that irresponsible in the first place. Given that Tanya’s the one who instigates a side trip to return the belongings of another bus crash victim, she’s a net positive for the world.

Irrfan Khan is typically charismatic, but he never hogs the spotlight from his co-stars. Salmaan and Palkar are at their best during their scenes together. In an industry where 50-something actors routinely romance women in their 20s onscreen, it’s refreshing that Khurana’s script precludes a romance between Avinash and Tanya because of their age difference. It allows for a greater variety of scenes than we normally get when two attractive young performers are paired together.

Karwaan isn’t an explosive film — there’s exactly one action sequence, and it’s not handled that well — but sometimes you just want a movie about nice people doing nice things. Karwaan is that movie. Enjoy it.

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TV Review: Ghoul (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Ghoul pulls no punches in its depiction of the dangers of state-sanctioned religious intolerance. The show’s monsters are scary, but not as terrifying as the vision of the future presented by writer-director Patrick Graham.

The miniseries comprises three episodes, each with a runtime between 40-45 minutes (excluding closing credits). In all, Ghoul is about as long as a feature film. I appreciated the built-in breaks, which occur at logical points in the plot. This is a perfect kind of storytelling format for a streaming video platform, and I won’t be surprised to see it become more common as filmmakers adapt to changing audience viewing habits.

Graham keeps the scares to a minimum in the first episode: “Out of the Smokeless Fire,” establishing a world where every day is a nightmare for those on the wrong side of new societal divisions. A fascist Indian government cracks down on homegrown terrorism by outlawing certain religious texts and practices, burning books and whisking away citizens believed to harbor anti-nationalist sentiments for “re-education.” The only people targeted in crackdowns are Muslims, although the show doesn’t specifically identify the government as Hindu nationalist.

Naive patriotism inspires Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte) to enlist in the military, despite being the daughter of an Islamic scholar (played by S.M. Zaheer). She’s convinced that the government’s harsh tactics truly are about national security and not religious oppression, as her father believes — so much so that she turns in her own father for re-education. Soon after, she’s posted at a secret government prison to aid the interrogation of notorious terrorist Ali Saeed (Mahesh Balraj), who is captured in the show’s opening, half-dead and surrounded by the corpses of his followers. But why would the military assign Nida, a junior interrogator, to such a high-profile case?

The last two episodes draw from any number of horror films in which the characters are trapped in a remote location with a monster, their terror turning them against one another when their survival depends on them working together. Few of the soldiers and prisoners get any meaningful character development other than Colonel Sunil Dacunha (Manav Kaul), whose idea it was to bring Nida in, and Lieutenant Laxmi Das (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee), Dacunha’s skeptical second-in-command.

Although the relative anonymity of the other soldiers signals their expendability, it also highlight’s the shows message that any agent of a fascist government is liable for its crimes. Not every soldier in Dacunha’s prison personally tortured prisoners, but all of them knew about it and did nothing to stop it. The jail’s cremation room is a stark visualization of the parallels to Nazism present throughout Graham’s screenplay.

When Ghoul‘s namesake creature finally appears, the story becomes quite scary, playing on the fears of those within the prison. Several of the soldiers, including Dacunha, are haunted by the way engaging in torture has warped their sense of morality — not enough to stop torturing people, unfortunately — allowing the monster to play on their guilt. The scares in Ghoul are more psychological than surprise driven, and there’s a considerable amount of blood.

Nida is plagued by her own guilt, and she has no allies in her new surroundings. Apte is compelling in the lead role, showing both Nida’s grit and vulnerability. Bravely, the series doesn’t downplay her commitment to the totalitarian government. She’s willing to follow orders until the moment she’s absolutely convinced that she’s been duped. Nor does Ghoul try to make Dacunha more sympathetic than he should be. Kaul depicts Dacunha as conflicted, but unquestionably a bad person. Ghoul knows which way its moral compass points, and it’s not afraid to show it.

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Movie Review: Pataakha (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Director Vishal Bhardwaj is a master world-builder, designing rich spaces for his characters to inhabit and filling them with evocative music of his own creation. Pataakha (“Firecracker“) is the latest example of Bhardwaj’s formidable skill.

Based on the short story Do Behnein (“Two Sisters“) by Charan Singh Pathik, Pataakha‘s plot is simple. Badki (Radhika Madan) and her younger sister Chhutki (Sanya Malhotra) are constantly at war, each blaming the other for her sorry lot in life. But when they set out to achieve their dreams independently, they discover they need each other more than they thought.

The tale feels like a familiar parable, something one might expect to find in a storybook for children, were it not for all the swearing and fighting. Badki and Chhutki are their small Rajasthani town’s source of entertainment, their curse-filled brawls drawing enthusiastic crowds. Every fight ends with the girls’ father, Bechara Bapu (Vijay Raaz), dragging his daughters home — but not before getting battered in the melee himself.

Adding to Pataakha‘s folkloric feeling is the presence of a trickster character, an itinerant jack-of-all trades named Dipper (Sunil Grover), whose joy in life is instigating fights between the sisters. He snitches on them to each other, and he invents conflict when things are too peaceful. When Badki and Chhutki get boyfriends — Jagan (Namit Das) and Vishnu (Abhishek Duhan), respectively — it gives Dipper more fuel to stoke the fires of war.

Bhardwaj is clearly fond of both the character of Dipper and the actor who plays him. This may be more perception than reality, but it’s almost like Grover’s face is in sharper focus than the other actors’ — and it certainly seems like he gets more closeups. Whether that’s true or not, my attention always gravitated toward Dipper, just to see what he was going to do or how he would react, no matter what other chaos was happening on screen.

For so much attention to be given to a secondary character — as delightful as he is — hints at Pataakha‘s biggest problem: there isn’t enough material to warrant a full-length feature film. Trimming the runtime by thirty minutes would’ve been a start, but Pataakha‘s story would feel most at home as part of a collection of short stories.

It’s by the strength of Bhardwaj’s world-building and the performances he gets from his actors that Pataakha is as enjoyable as it is. Raaz is charming as the girls’ flawed father, who lectures them on the dangers of smoking by showing them the warnings on a half-empty packet of cigarettes he pulls from his own pocket. Madan and Malhotra give it their all in what must have been a fun but exhausting shoot, spending most of their screentime fighting, screaming, and crying as they do. Das and Duhan are solid in their supporting roles.

The movie’s showstopping item number, “Hello Hello,” is another highlight. Written by Bhardwaj and performed by his wife, Rekha, the sexy song is brought to life by the incomparable Malaika Arora. Unlike many lesser item numbers, cinematographer Ranjan Palit keeps his camera a respectful distance from Arora, without zooming in on particular body parts. This is not just a matter of decency but an acknowledgement that, when Arora dances, you need to see her from head to toe.

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Movie Review: 102 Not Out (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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A centenarian father tries to loosen up his grumpy, geriatric son in 102 Not Out, a funny, poignant take on parent-child relationships.

102-year-old Dattatraya Vakharia (Amitabh Bachchan) announces to his 75-year-old son Babulal (Rishi Kapoor) his intention to become the world’s longest-lived man, breaking a record held by a Chinese man who lived to 118. Dattatraya claims that the current record holder said in an interview that “old, boring, unenthusiastic people are more injurious to health than cigarettes.”

That description fits Babulal to a tee. He’s cautious and cranky, and nothing makes him happy — a perfect foil to his fun-loving, curious father. Dattatraya believes the best way to protect his own health and beat the record is to remove Babulal’s negative influence from his life. Dattatraya hands Babulal a brochure for an old folks’ home and tells him to pack his bags.

When a flustered Babulal protests, Dattatraya offers him a way out. Babulal can stay if he agrees to perform a series of tasks determined by his father, designed to shake Babulal out of his routine. To make the agreement official, the tasks are logged and witnessed by Dhiru (Jimit Trivedi), a 30-something pharmacy delivery man Dattatraya adopts as his sidekick.

Fulfilling Dattatraya’s conditions initially brings the three men closer together, but as they get closer to the heart of Babulal’s unhappiness, Dattatraya’s unorthodox prescriptions threaten to drive a permanent wedge between them.

Director Umesh Shukla’s picturization of Saumya Joshi’s play touches on a number of interesting themes, some of which seem in opposition to one another. Dattatreya demands that Babulal change, but he also wants Babulal to accept people as they are — chiefly Babulal’s absent son, Amol. While he’s busy wishing for a more gratifying relationship with Amol, Babulal ignores the fact that there’s a young man, Dhiru, who’s happy to accompany him on Dattatreya’s quests.

One aspect that could’ve been explored further is the idea that, even though Babulal is himself a grandparent, Dattatreya has sole claim to the maxim “father knows best” so long as he lives. Babulal just mentions it once, grousing about Dattatreya’s luck that his own father died while Dattatreya was young enough to enjoy the perks of being the head of the household. The story offers only two options for parent-child relationships — total deference to the parent or estrangement — and it would’ve been interesting to see if the characters could reach some middle ground.

The comfortable rapport Bachchan and Kapoor have developed after more than four decades of experience working together peeks through in small gestures, like the grin on Babulal’s face as Dattatreya lip-syncs old movie tunes to him. Trivedi fits in perfectly with the veteran duo.

102 Not Out is brief enough never to lose momentum, the story flowing between comedy and drama as it addresses family dynamics that are often times as comical as they are dramatic.

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Movie Review: Beyond the Clouds (2017)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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A complex blend of heartbreak and hope, Beyond the Clouds examines the role family bonds play in making poverty survivable, while showing us that the concept of family needn’t be limited to blood relations.

Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi’s first Hindi picture takes place in Mumbai. An arresting opening sequence filmed by cinematographer Anil Mehta follows Amir (Ishaan Khattar) as he receives a bag of drugs from a car on a highway overpass. The camera sweeps down as he crosses under the roadway, and then it turns to watch Amir and his friend Anil (Aakash Gopal) speed away on a motorbike.

Amir and Anil are small-time drug runners, young and brash enough to overestimate the amount of power they really have. The don they work for, Rahoul (Shashank Shende), decides to put them in their place after Amir shows up at Rahoul’s brothel unannounced. He sets them up to be nabbed in a police raid.

During the course of a thrilling police chase, Amir happens upon his estranged older sister, Tara (Malavika Mohanan), and then hides out at her house. The encounter gives them a chance to hash out the reasons for their estrangement, perhaps setting the stage for a healthier relationship going forward.

Their reunion is short-lived. Tara is arrested the next day for seriously injuring her employer Akshi (Goutam Ghose) during an attempted rape. It falls on Amir to nurse his sister’s assailant back to health so that Akshi can testify to his part in the assault, the only way to free Tara.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of Beyond the Clouds is its depiction of how tenuous even modest notions of comfort and security can be on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder, especially for women. Amir’s association with illegal drugs can bring his wild lifestyle to a halt at a moment’s notice. And his rising of the ranks of Rahoul’s organization comes at the expense of drug addicts and women forced into prostitution.

Then again, Amir is more morally flexible than the average Hindi-film hero, able to pivot from making silly faces at a child to threatening a paralyzed Akshi with a knife without blinking an eye. It’s less a factor of his youth than his having grown up reliant upon such flexibility to survive. Khattar does a creditable job in his debut film.

Mohanan is less successful in her depiction of Tara, who acts zombified in her conversations with Amir after she’s imprisoned. Yet, when Amir isn’t around, Tara seems well-adjusted to prison life, looking after Chotu (Shivan Pujan), the young son of an ill fellow inmate (played by Tannishtha Chatterjee). Tara’s relationship with Chotu embodies the movie’s theme that our “family” is made up not just of blood relatives, but also those we choose to care for.

Chotu is one of many examples in Beyond the Clouds of kids living in places distinctly not child-friendly because their mothers are poor and have no one who can help them. Dozens of little ones run underfoot in jail, an arrangement permitted in some Indian prisons for children under six years old. One worker at Rahoul’s brothel shoos her daughter out of their room when a client arrives. Amir himself becomes a reluctant babysitter when Akshi’s impoverished elderly mother and two daughters arrive from South India and mistake him for one of Akshi’s friends.

The surprising weak point in Beyond the Clouds is A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack. Though the tone of the film isn’t dour, Rahman’s score is still too upbeat for the circumstances. Nevertheless, Beyond the Clouds is a thought-provoking, heartfelt exploration of our shared humanity.

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Movie Review: Hichki (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Hichki (“Hiccup“) is an enjoyable if somewhat predictable parable about seeing the potential for greatness in everyone. It’s another interesting take on the Indian education system, following on the heels of last year’s terrific Hindi Medium.

Hichki focuses on two different barriers to academic achievement: disability and poverty. The disability aspect is addressed via the lead character, Naina (Rani Mukerji), a teacher with Tourette Syndrome. Tear-jerking flashbacks show her struggles as a small child, when she was the object of ridicule by her peers and scorned by her teachers for vocal tics and outbursts she couldn’t control.

As an adult trying to land her first teaching position, Naina spends more time explaining her neurological condition to the school board members and principals interviewing her than talking about her qualifications. The scenes illustrate just how much work remains to be done in educating the public at large about specific conditions and making the Indian education system more hospitable to students with various challenges, just as Taare Zameen Par did for dyslexia in 2007.

The one thing Naina asks for as both a child and an adult is to be treated as a normal person, and to that end, the movie quickly shifts away from her Tourette Syndrome as the central narrative focus. After the initial shock and some unkind jokes, the students in her class and her coworkers stop noticing her tics, showing just how unwarranted concerns over her being a distraction in the classroom were in the first place.

Naina is hired mid-semester to teach a notoriously rowdy class of poor teenagers who were only admitted to prestigious St. Notker’s — named for a German monk nicknamed “Notker the Stammerer” — when the private academy tore down the kids’ public school in order to expand their playground. The nasty head of the science department, Mr. Wadia (Neeraj Kabi), thinks neither Naina nor the kids belong at St. Notker’s. If the kids can’t pass their final exams in four months’ time, Naina and her students will all be kicked out.

Hichki tries to show what the students are up against — not just in the opposition they face from the school administrators, but also in the difficulties imposed on them by poverty. When Naina visits the slum where the kids live, she finds them caring for younger siblings, helping their parents at work or working solo, and waiting for hours in line to fill buckets of water from a tanker truck, since none of their homes have running water. Studying takes a backseat to the struggle for basic necessities.

Unlike Hindi Medium‘s progressive, leftist point-of-view regarding the inherent justice of public education, Hichki‘s politics are rooted in the neoliberal fantasy that the world is a meritocracy and education is the primary cure for poverty (as opposed to fair wages and access to public goods like clean water and sanitation). “You’re all masters of blaming your situations,” middle-class Naina chides her students.

The movie falsely presents all obstacles to education as equivalent. If Naina can overcome her neurological condition to become a teacher, these poor kids should be able to pass their exams. The film doesn’t acknowledge the many advantages Naina did have in coming from a middle-class family. Her mother had the time to advocate for her daughter’s education. Her younger brother owns a successful high-end restaurant. Even Naina’s father, who abandoned the family because he was embarrassed by Naina’s Tourette’s, uses his connections to land her a job in a bank. Despite her disadvantages, Naina has certain resources at her disposal that her students can only dream of.

Still, Hichki does push the idea that every kid has strengths, even if they’re hard to see at first. Naina uses some unorthodox methods to make the kids realize they understand concepts like parabolas and chemical reactions, even if they didn’t know they academic terms for them. The students flourish under the guidance of an adult who sees their inherent worth, and the story hits many familiar beats one expects from this kind of inspirational fare. (Thankfully, no one slow claps.)

Mukerji’s warmth makes Naina a particularly lovable underdog, one whose own self-doubts are even more important to conquer than the doubts of others. All of the young actors who play her students do a fine job. Neeraj Kabi is too blatantly villainous as Mr. Wadia, but that’s more a function of how the character is written than Kabi’s performance.

Hichki isn’t revolutionary, but movies like it, Hindi Medium, and Taare Zameen Par are important reminders of the Indian education system’s need to better serve all of its students, no matter their challenges.

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Movie Review: Welcome to New York (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Note: This is a review of the 2D version of the movie.

Welcome to New York has plenty of laughs for the hardest of hardcore Bollywood fans, packaged in an enjoyable fish-out-of-water comedy.

When I say “hardcore,” I mean it. It’s not enough to be familiar with the biggest Bollywood hits of recent years. Welcome to New York requires an appetite for industry gossip, knowledge of awards shows, and a fondness for Karan Johar–particularly his talk show, Koffee with Karan.

The extremely meta setting for Welcome to New York is the 18th International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards, which were held in New York City last year. As in real life, Johar plays the host of the awards show. His actual co-host, Saif Ali Khan, is replaced in the film by Riteish Deshmukh, playing a self-deprecating version of himself who bemoans his underpaid, B-list status.

In order to boost viewership in India, awards show organizers Gary (Boman Irani) and Sophia (Lara Dutta) create a talent contest, giving two winners the chance to perform onstage during the show. Sophia uses the contest to sabotage the show and get back at Gary, choosing the two worst entries among all the submissions as the winners.

Those winners are Teji (Diljit Dosanjh), a small-town repo man and wannabe actor, and Jeenal (Sonakshi Sinha), a feisty fashion designer. Whisked away to New York, the two must overcome their differences to navigate their flashy new surroundings and make their dreams come true.

Meanwhile, an angry Karan Johar doppelgänger named Arjun (also played by Johar) plans to kidnap his lookalike before the awards show. Teji accidentally foils one kidnapping attempt, thinking he’s playing a version of the Rapid Fire Round from Koffee with Karan.

The plotlines aren’t well-integrated, but it hardly matters, given how silly the movie is. Teji’s and Jeenal’s budding friendship is sweet to watch, and Dosanjh and Sinha are both effortlessly likeable. Dosanjh’s Teji gets most of the fish-out-of-water jokes, such as when he calls Jeenal’s terrycloth robe a “coat that looks like a towel.” Their characters have some amusing interactions with Aditya Roy Kapur and Sushant Singh Rajput that play off of people’s mistaken tendency to conflate actors with their roles.

When it comes to playing a role, no one in Welcome to New York does so more enthusiastically than Karan Johar, who plays the most outrageous version of himself imaginable. He’s vain, snarky, and snobbish, and he’s hilarious. He gets to spout lines like, “You are a traitor, Riteish Deshkmukh.” The payoff to subplot in which Karan advises Rana Daggubati on his career after Baahubali is worth the price of admission alone. Lara Dutta and Boman Irani being as great as always is a nice bonus.

The most disappointing element of Welcome to New York is its music. Songs range from forgettable to annoying, and there’s precious little dancing to speak of.

Casual fans may find Welcome to New York too “inside baseball,” but Bollywood junkies will see their obsession pay off in a multitude of self-referential gags. The actors seem like they had fun making the movie, and that quality translates to an enjoyable experience for the audience.

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