Tag Archives: 3 Stars

Movie Review: Nil Battey Sannata (2016)

nilbatteysannata3 Stars (out of 4)

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Nil Battey Sannata (“Good for Nothing” colloquially) is a heart-warming story about familial bonds and the importance of education. However, the movie is more than just feel-good fare, offering a canny exploration of the complexities of poverty.

Appu (Ria Shukla) is a typical teen, more fond of hanging out with her friends and mooning over film stars than studying. Also like many teens, she doesn’t understand the lengths her mother goes to just to keep a roof over their heads.

As a single mother and the family’s sole breadwinner, Chanda (Swara Bhaskar) wears a lot of hats. She works as a maid for Dr. Diwan (Ratna Pathak) in the morning and does odd jobs at night, washing dishes or sewing clothes. When she comes home, she cooks and cleans so that Appu can focus on her studies.

Even though Appu is in her final year of high school, mother and daughter haven’t discussed Appu’s future plans. Chanda assumed her own toil would enable Appu to go to college, an opportunity high school dropout Chanda never had. She is stunned when Appu says she wants to be a maid like her mom.

Director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s story — co-written with her husband, Dangal director Nitesh Tiwari — doesn’t lay all of the blame on Appu, though the girl’s disdain for school is a huge hurdle. Her lack of ambition is partly a product of her surroundings. Everyone she knows is poor or a laborer, so what good will an education do her? Her friend, Pintu (Prashant Tiwari), plans to become a driver like his father. He’s befuddled when Chanda asks him if he wouldn’t rather own the car than drive for someone else.

Chanda’s perspective is also limited by her financial circumstances. She knows she can’t afford the tuition for medical school or engineering school, but she doesn’t know of any other jobs that could provide the comfortable lifestyle she envisions for Appu. By happenstance, Chanda meets a man being chauffeured in an air-conditioned car, and she learns that he’s the local tax collector. She immediately determines that’s the job that Appu must pursue.

Appu’s intellectual laziness has caused her to fall behind in math. With expensive tutoring out of the question, Chanda heeds Dr. Diwan’s advice and enrolls in Appu’s class so that she can tutor her daughter herself. Of course, nothing could be more mortifying to Appu than having her mom as a classmate, clad in a school uniform and all. Chanda’s efforts to help her daughter cause friction between the two of them, straining their formerly close bonds.

Bhaskar is charming and sympathetic as Chanda, though it’s hard not to pull for a mother who’ll go to any lengths for her daughter. Shukla’s job is harder given that Appu is often a pill, but the actress pulls it off, making her character relatable. Even at Appu’s worst moments, the audience can always tell that she’s a good kid at heart, thanks to Shukla’s performance.

The mother-daughter relationship is the core of Nil Battey Sannata, but Iyer Tiwari does an admirable job depicting a concept that’s hard to understand, namely the way poverty complicates all aspects of a person’s life. It’s easy to prescribe education as the ultimate solution to economic hardship, but Chanda’s and Appu’s story shows that money isn’t the only scarce resource for those on the margins. Time, experience, and connections are almost as important — and almost as rare, too.

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Movie Review: For Here or to Go? (2015)

3 Stars (out of 4)

For Here or to Go? opens in these theaters Friday, March 31, 2017.

Even though For Here or to Go? made its festival debut in 2015, its 2017 theatrical release could not be more timely. The film examines America’s complicated immigration system not from a policy level, but from a personal one.

Ali Fazal — known to Bollywood fans from movies like Fukrey and Bobby Jasoos and to Hollywood fans from his role in Furious 7 — plays Vivek, a programmer on an H-1B visa working for a big corporation in Silicon Valley. He’d love a job at a startup, where he’d have a better opportunity to put his ideas to work, but his visa status effectively prevents it. Most small startups lack the resources to sponsor visa employees, and he has less than a year left on his visa anyway.

This puts Vivek and countless other foreign employees in a kind of holding pattern, stuck in jobs they don’t want and unable to get new ones. With low odds for getting a green card that would enable him to live and work in the United States permanently — it takes ten months just to get in the line to wait for a green card! — Vivek and his roommates haven’t even bothered to buy furniture. What’s the point, when they’ll have to leave it behind when their visas run out and they’re forced to return to India?

This limbo state is bad for Vivek’s social life as well. It’s impossible to find a lasting relationship when he doesn’t know where he’ll be next year, or even sooner than that if his company should unexpectedly fold, which would give him just days to leave the country.

Vivek’s romantic problems are strictly theoretical until he meets Shveta (Melanie Chandra, nee Kannokada, the pride of Park Ridge, Illinois) at a yoga class. She’s the first American-born Desi woman to give him the time of day. They have fun together, taking center stage during a Bollywood-style flash mob.

While Shveta is an all-American girl, her rich dad, Vishwanath (Rajit Kapur), is trying to convince Desi tech workers to return to India as a sort of penance for his role in the “brain drain” phenomenon, which was the subject of Swades back in 2004. One of the most disheartening aspects of For Here or to Go? is the sense that problems like “brain drain” and the unwelcome feeling experienced by many immigrants have been around for a long time and have only gotten worse since the film was completed, even before the ascent of the Trump administration. Under Vishwanath’s tutelage, Vivek starts to wonder if maybe India is the best place for him after all.

The story is rounded out by Vivek’s roommates, Lakshmi (Omi Vaidya) and Amit (Amitosh Nagpal). Lakshmi is determined to become an American citizen, believing that the US offers him a better chance at happiness as a gay man than India does. Amit has his own visa issues, and his glibness regarding immigration laws worries Vivek.

The pacing of For Here or to Go? — directed by Rucha Humnabadkar and written by Rishi Bhilawadikar — is slow in spots. There are also some logical problems, such as why Vivek never learns that his mentor, Vishwanath, is Shveta’s father.

The film also loses focus as the plot progresses. Instead of sticking with Vivek’s story, For Here or to Go? tries to cover the whole Indian immigrant experience in America. The issue of racist violence against Sikhs and how that impacts their desire to live in the US — a rich enough topic for an entire film of its own — gets wedged into a scene that’s only a few minutes long and has no bearing on the central plot.

Thankfully, some nice performances make up for screenplay scope creep. Fazal is always reliable, whether he’s acting in English or Hindi films, and he’s quite sexy in the movie’s sole romantic scene. Chandra is totally adorable. Vaidya and Nagpal are both charming as well.

For Here or to Go?‘s best selling point is that it’s a really good tutorial on the US immigration system. That’s equal parts praise for a film that makes a dull-seeming topic interesting, and condemnation for a system that’s so complicated it needs a fictional medium to make it comprehensible to the general public.

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Movie Review: Commando 2 (2017)

commando23 Stars (out of 4)

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Commando 2: The Black Money Trail is absolutely bonkers. If one is willing to accept the movie on its own terms, it’s a helluva fun and goofy ride.

Part of making peace with Commando 2 is accepting that it is not Commando: A One Man Army. While that movie had some quirks as well, its narrative was a straightforward story of two lovers on the run. The threats to the lovers were immediate and directed by a single villain, while the danger in Commando 2 is borne out of distrust for India’s political system.

Carrying over from the first movie to the second is the commando himself, Karan (Vidyut Jammwal). No mention is made of his love interest from the original film, Simrit (Pooja Chopra), so I guess they broke up.

Karan now works for some elite secretive unit of the government, tracking money launderers overseas and killing them in encounters. He makes sure to have one of his sidekicks shoot him and plant the gun on the bad guy’s body, so as to not get tied up in court on suspicion of extrajudicial killings. Due process does not exist in Commando 2.

Following a scene of some shady dealings in Taiwan, Karan gets the most perfect introduction imaginable. Our first glimpse of him is a closeup of Jammwal’s bulging bicep. Director Deven Bhojani knows that his film’s greatest asset is Jammwal’s heavily muscled body and the wondrous things it can do, usually some combination of running, jumping, kicking, and punching. Karan’s solo assault on a Taiwan high-rise is a great way to start the movie.

(While Commando 2‘s camera spends a lot of time lingering on Jammwal’s chiseled bod, let’s take a moment to appreciate how impossibly handsome he is, as well. I found it very upsetting whenever the bad guys punched him in his perfect face.)

As soon as Karan recovers from his bullet wounds, his boss (played by Adil Hussain) tasks him with bringing to justice the most notorious money launderer of all: Vicky Chaddha (Vansh Bhardwaj), who was recently apprehended in Malaysia with his wife, Maria (Esha Gupta).

However, Chaddha has so much dirt on India’s rich and powerful that the whole government could be brought down if he names names. Delhi’s Home Minister (Shefali Shah) assembles a team of morally flexible police officers to bring Vicky and Maria back to India and recover the laundered funds, before quietly dispatching the married couple. Karan weasels his way onto the team, which consists of brutal lead officer Bakhtawar (Freddy Daruwala), obligatory computer hacker Zafar (Sumit Gulati), and vain gun-for-hire Bhavana (Adah Sharma).

Materialistic Bhavana’s broadly humorous character feels out-of-step with the movie’s tone until one realizes that her entrance signals a shift from fairly serious to absolute mayhem. There are twists upon twists as Karan and the bad guys both claim to know that the other side knows what they have planned, thus necessitating a whole new plan to throw the other side for a loop. The story was clearly written starting at the end and working backward, so trying to make sense of it while it unfolds is a recipe for a headache.

Once one accepts these new conditions, one is free to enjoy Commando 2 in all its silliness. Not only is Karan an unrivaled martial artist, he’s a tech wizard, too. In a “high-tech forensic lab,” he analyzes the audio from a security camera video and concludes: “That means that the church is on the banks of a river, and there’s a bird sanctuary nearby.”

Since Karan is part of a team, he has to share some of the fighting duties with Bakhtawar and Bhavana, who acquit themselves well. There’s a cleverly choreographed scene in which Karan and Bhavana beat up a gang of assassins, he with a lead pipe and she with an iron chain. Never mind that the fight takes place in an airplane graveyard situated immediately next to a glamorous shopping mall, or that they are fighting a bunch of white ninjas on stilts.

As tough as he is, Karan does have a weakness for women. He gets all googly-eyed when Maria saunters into the room in a catsuit, one of the many sublimely-tailored outfits she wears that leave not an inch of fabric to spare.

Such a weakness is a nice addition to Karan’s character, humanizing him and giving Jammwal license to have a bit of fun. His incredible stunts would be enough, but Jammwal is too good of an actor to limit him in such fashion. Gupta is always terrific as the bombshell, and even Sharma is likable in spite of her character’s chatterbox tendencies.

Commando 2 isn’t as great as the first Commando, but it’s still really darned entertaining. I enjoyed watching it and would watch it again. That’s more than enough for me to recommend it.

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Movie Review: Rangoon (2017)

rangoon3 Stars (out of 4)

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Director Vishal Bhardwaj explores the intersection of World War II and the Indian independence movement in Rangoon. The film starts strong but loses momentum and finesse as it progresses.

Aware of the potential to reach an international audience of WWII-movie buffs, Bhardwaj opens Rangoon with an efficient summary of the political climate in India in 1943, when the events of the film take place. The British still ruled India and thus employed hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers to fight the Japanese in places like Burma and Singapore. As a counter to Gandhi’s non-violent protest methods, the rebel Indian National Army (INA) allied with Japan to engage in a guerilla war against the Brits in the hopes of forcing them to relinquish control of India.

In Rangoon, not every Indian is interested in taking sides. Mumbai movie producer Rusi Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan) and his family have prospered by cooperating with the occupying British, particularly Major General David Harding (Richard McCabe). Staying on the Brits’ good side ensures access to rare materials like film stock, allowing Rusi build a successful studio around his mistress, gorgeous action starlet Julia (Kangana Ranaut).

However, such a dependent relationship allows for exploitation, and Harding threatens to cut Rusi off unless he sends Julia to Rangoon to perform for the troops. A last-minute bit of trickery by Rusi’s grandfather — who disapproves of his married, high-brow grandson carrying on a public affair with a low-class actress — finds Julia heading to Rangoon on her own.

Well, not entirely on her own. In addition to her acting troupe, Julia is assigned a bodyguard: gruff former prisoner of war, Officer Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor). When a Japanese attack separates Julia and Nawab from the rest of the traveling party, the bond they form over their shared survival instincts turns into a dangerous attraction.

Only under duress does Julia come to question what it means to be free, not only on a national scale but on a personal one. Rusi literally bought Julia from her mother at the age of fourteen, after watching the girl perform knife-throwing tricks on the street. He molded her into a superstar, in the process turning her sense of gratitude into one of dependence. While Julia longs for the material security and fame that Rusi can provide as a patron and potentially a husband, he makes it clear that he controls her fate so long as she is tied to him. The inequality of their relationship mirrors the exploitative relationship between Britain and India.

Major General Harding personifies Britain’s sense of inherent superiority but also its fascination with Indian culture. He prides himself on his Hindi vocabulary and uses it to assert himself — in his mind — as more Indian than native Indians. A sequence in which a kurta-clad Harding plays a harmonium and sings a classical tune is uncomfortable to watch, so effective is it at depicting cultural appropriation. McCabe is very well cast for the part.

Of course, Harding’s affinity for India only extends so far. After Julia and Nawab find their way back to the group — which now includes Rusi — the trip becomes more perilous as it heads further into INA territory. Harding and his second-in-command, Major Williams (Alex Avery), are quick to assert their race-based authority over Indian soldiers they deem suspicious, with Harding stating: “I’m white. I’m always right.”

That blunt line of dialogue exemplifies the story’s late shift from subtle character development to broad, obvious drama. Scenes are dragged out, as if hammering away at the same emotional beats will enhance their impact, even though it just slows down the film. It’s an unfortunate choice, as if the filmmaker lost faith in his audience’s attentiveness and sought to make sure they didn’t miss the climax. The result is a breaking of the spell he’d so carefully built for the first three-quarters of the movie.

With the spell broken, special effects deficiencies become impossible to ignore. The setting for the climax requires a lot of green-screening and CGI, and it’s clear that the budget didn’t allow for more seamless execution. Then again, the scale of the setting doesn’t make the ending more meaningful, so a less grand arena filled with more practical effects would have worked just as well. An early battle scene between troops in a confined area is particularly stirring, and a better example of what Bhardwaj can accomplish when he deploys his resources for maximum impact.

As always, Bhardwaj’s best asset is the music he writes for his films, and Rangoon does not disappoint in that regard. The numbers Julia performs for the troops are fun, and “Yeh Ishq Hai” perfectly suits the sexy chemistry between Kapoor and Ranaut.

Both actors are as reliable as ever, with Ranaut bringing vulnerability to a woman who is more than capable of taking care of herself. As a royal descendant himself, Khan plays an aristocrat perfectly. Satoru Kawaguchi gives a notable performance as a Japanese soldier Julia and Nawab encounter in their time in the wild.

Even though the film ends with more of a whimper than a bang, there’s a lot to enjoy about Rangoon. International audiences should appreciate the opportunity to see an aspect of World War II rarely covered by Western cinema. Given the deftness with which Bhardwaj incorporates music into his movies, Rangoon is a fine introduction to Bollywood.

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Movie Review: Irada (2017)

irada3 Stars (out of 4)

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A case of industrial espionage exposes an ecological crisis, awakening a federal investigator’s sense of justice in Irada. Debutant writer-director Aparnaa Singh’s movie survives early missteps to culminate in a satisfying, performance-driven second half.

The investigator, Arjun Mishra (Arshad Warsi), doesn’t appear until the movie is more than thirty minutes old, which is one of the problems with Irada‘s first half. Only after Arjun arrives does the story really take shape, as it is his emotional journey that drives the narrative.

Instead, Irada opens with Parabjeet Walia, a character played by Naseeruddin Shah, the film’s other marquee star. Retiree Parabjeet trains his daughter, Riya (Rumana Molla), for the Air Force entrance exam, coaching her through swimming sprints in the local canal. A medical emergency reveals that Riya has cancer, likely from exposure to toxic canal water polluted by the local chemical factory.

While seeing a father watch his previously healthy child succumb to cancer is obviously affecting, Singh cuts corners with character development. We endure training montages when we should be getting to know more about the father and daughter and their relationship. Only much later do we learn that Parabjeet himself was a career military man, explaining Riya’s distress at her inability to follow in his footsteps. It’s as though Singh is so familiar with her characters’ backstories that she forgot to share them with the audience.

In fact, when we see Parabjeet again a year after Riya’s death, he has become a writer and part-time investigative journalist. He’s published a book, likely of poetry given his fondness for speaking in couplets, though the contents aren’t specified. He’s also become an authority on the shady corporate dealings of Paddy Sharma (Sharad Kelkar), wealthy owner of the chemical factory.

With the blessing of corrupt politician Ramandeep Braitch (Divya Dutta, who crushes every scene she’s in), Paddy is able to conceal his company’s polluting ways. The company disposes of waste through a process known as “reverse boring,” in which pollutants are injected into the ground where they can contaminate the local water supply. I’d never heard of reverse boring before Irada, and it’s not until the very end of the film that someone mentions that the process is illegal, which explains Paddy’s willingness to protect his secrets at any cost.

Paddy’s henchman, Jeetu (Rajesh Sharma), kidnaps an activist named Anirudh (Nikhil Pandey), triggering a series of events that exemplify the director’s tendency to forget that the audience doesn’t know her characters as well as she does. A journalist named Maya (Sagarika Ghatge) throws mud at Paddy during a speech. Someone watching the speech remarks that she and Anirudh are an item. This is followed by Maya wistfully remembering the romance she shared with Anirudh, in song form. We don’t know Maya or Anirudh well enough to care about them after seeing each of them in one brief scene, so a boring love song feels like time-wasting.

Arjun the federal inspector finally joins the story after Paddy’s plant explodes, the result of tampering from within. Ramandeep the politician wants Arjun to resolve the matter quickly, promising him a promotion if he does and reassignment to the dangerous hinterlands if he doesn’t.

Arjun’s character is initially all over the place. He condescendingly dismisses Maya’s offer to help, but he grills Jeetu based on minimal evidence. Arjun’s wall is covered in maps and photos linked together by pieces of string, in front of which he paces while blindfolded. Curse the BBC’s Sherlock for influencing every screenwriter since to make their detectives “quirky.”

In one unintentionally funny scene, Arjun deciphers a coded message about the explosion. He determines that the word “players” in the cryptic couplet refers to the number of competitors per team. He muses (incorrectly): “Volleyball has five players. Basketball has six players.” Cracking the code apparently depended on the solver not knowing the rules for sports, as Arjun arrives at the right answer.

When Arjun finally meets Parabjeet just before the midpoint, the movie gets really good, and it stays that way through the end. Parabjeet’s personal trauma opens Arjun’s eyes to the extent of the environmental tragedy, forcing the ambivalent bureaucrat to decide if it’s time for him to finally take a stand. Warsi and Shah are great in their scenes together, recreating their chemistry from the Ishqiya films.

With the story rolling, Singh gets great performances from the rest of her talented cast, including Sharma as the twitchy henchman and Ghatge, who handles the movie’s most thrilling scenes. It’s worth reiterating just how fun Dutta is as the entitled politician who’s too secure in her own power. Top-notch acting makes Irada worth a watch.

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Movie Review: Growing Up Smith (2015)

growingupsmith3 Stars (out of 4)

Growing Up Smith is a funny, relatable coming-of-age story about an Indian boy’s attempt to adapt to American small-town life.

Smith Bhatnagar (Roni Akurati) is ten years old, living somewhere in Oklahoma with his family in 1979. Smith’s father, Bhaaskhar (Anjul Nigam, who co-wrote the screenplay), longed so much to come to the United States that he chose the most American name he could think of for his only son. Unfortunately, Bhaaskhar didn’t realize that “Smith” is a last name, not a first name.

The members of the family — father, son, mother Nalini (Delhi Belly‘s Poorna Jagannathan), and teenage sister Asha (Shoba Narayan) — enjoy life in their new country. Bhaaskhar loves his money-saving vegetable garden, and Asha likes the handsome boys, especially her classmate, Patrick (Paul Castro, Jr.).

Of all the things Smith likes about America — Star Wars, disco, John Travolta — his favorite is his pretty next-door-neighbor, Amy (Brighton Sharbino). Amy happens to be one of the few townsfolk interested in the Bhatnagar’s Indian heritage. She doesn’t flinch when the family offers her a vegetarian meal (flinching being the standard Midwestern response to vegetarianism until approximately 2008, as I can attest).

Amy’s friendship helps Smith navigate the usual pitfalls of adolescence like bullies, but also culture-specific problems, such as his parents’ inability to appreciate the importance of Halloween for kids in the States. Amy’s working-class dad, Butch (Jason Lee), takes it upon himself to teach Smith how to be an American man.

Growing Up Smith is humorous yet tender in the way it deals with Smith’s problems. A clever and occasionally bombastic score by Michael Lira guides the tone of the film, hearkening back to earlier Hollywood coming-of-age comedies like A Christmas Story.

The story poses interesting questions about raising children in a foreign country. Bhaaskhar regularly threatens to send his kids back to India when they act up, but how much of their misbehavior is due to their increasing Americanization, and how much is typical kid stuff they’d do no matter where they lived? Asha is skilled at getting away with mischief, simply shouting “Bye” on her way out the door to trick her folks into believing they already gave her permission to leave.

The time period in which the story is set also plays an important part. This is well before the age of cell phones and GPS, a time when parents had to hop in the car to track down their missing offspring. Not only are the Bhatnagars the only Indian family around, they aren’t even in regular contact with their own relatives. Smith describes a phone call to India as “an expensive and rare event.” Do Bhaaskhar and Nalini feel compelled to enforce a stricter set of culturally appropriate rules than if they had other Indian parents around to talk to? Smith and Asha are also deprived of peers who really understand their issues, such as their prearranged marriages.

These issues are only an undercurrent to a story that focuses on the antics of its charming junior protagonist. Akurati makes Smith impossible to dislike, barrelling down the street on his bicycle, wearing a helmet several sizes too big. The rest of the family is endearing, too, as is Sharbino as Amy. Lee’s performance is the only one that sometimes feels out of sync with the rest of the cast.

Just like its main character, Growing Up Smith is hard not to like. Here’s where to meet Roni Akurati and Anjul Nigam at one of the special screenings they are hosting around the country:

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Movie Review: OK Jaanu (2017)

okjaanu3 Stars (out of 4)

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OK Jaanu (“OK, Darling“) is a straightforward, contemporary romance. No twists, just two attractive people falling in love. The movie works because it knows what it is.

OK Jaanu is a Hindi remake of the 2015 Tamil film OK Kanmani (which I haven’t seen), and from what I understand, it’s pretty faithful to the original. OK Jaanu‘s director, Shaad Ali, got his start as an assistant director under Mani Ratnam, who directed OK Kanmani.

The Hindi version stars Aditya Roy Kapur as video game designer Adi and Shraddha Kapoor as Tara, an architect. At a mutual friend’s wedding, they discover a shared disdain for marriage. They both have plans to leave India in short order: Tara to Paris to continue her architectural studies, and Adi to the United States to “give Zuckerberg a run for his money.”

Allow me a nerdy digression. Mark Zuckerberg is the creator of Facebook, but he’s not a game designer. It would’ve been more accurate for Adi to say he was heading to America to become the next Mark Cerny or Will Wright. (Yes, I know how geeky I sound.)

Adi’s flirty friendship with Tara blooms into a full-blown love affair, though they refuse to utter the word “love”–since their romance must end once they expatriate. The sequence leading up to the consummation of their relationship is very sexy without showing much skin, other than a brief glimpse of Kapur’s shirtless back. The camera pans around the bedroom, letting the sounds of a thunderstorm and A.R. Rahman’s stirring score fill the audience’s imagination.

Adi’s and Tara’s belief that their fling is temporary and free of emotional strings is met with a collective, “We’ll see about that,” by the elder members of their social circle. Their landlord, Gopi (Naseeruddin Shah), recognizes in them the same fondness he and his wife, Charu (Leela Samson), shared in their younger days. As Gopi cares for Charu as her Alzheimer’s progresses, Adi and Tara see a depth of love that they might experience if they were willing to commit to each other.

The main characters’ family situations are a bit confusing, which is unfortunate given that those relationships exist in the story to explain why Adi and Tara are both so biased against marriage. At other times, scene transitions fail to clarify where the characters are geographically.

The lead actors are pretty good, and Kapur’s smile is a killer. However, the characters themselves never really won me over, despite multiple “Having Fun!” montages of the duo and their friends standing in moving convertibles or driving a moped through a cafe. Adi’s and Tara’s first conversation is over cell phones during the middle of a church service, which seems more rude than charming.

Where OK Jaanu redeems itself is in showcasing characters who are open and unapologetic about their sexual desires, all within a narrative that is strongly pro-monogamy. It’s a nice blend of modern and traditional.

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