Tag Archives: 3 Stars

Movie Review: Shakuntala Devi (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Director Anu Menon’s Shakuntala Devi — based on the life of the woman nicknamed “The Human Computer” — opens with a note: “Based on a true story as seen through the eyes of a daughter, Anupama Banerji.” Rather than organizing the narrative as a sequential depiction of the highlights of Shakuntala’s career, the most pertinent episodes of her life are woven into a story about the challenging relationships between mothers and daughters. Events in Shakuntala Devi jump between time periods and settings, the earliest being Shakuntala’s childhood in Bangalore in 1934 and the latest being London in 2001, when her daughter Anu threatened to file criminal charges against her over unfair business practices.

When Shakuntala was around five years old (played by Araina Nand), her family realized that she had a unique affinity for numbers, solving complicated equations entirely in her head despite having no education of any kind. (Scientists and Shakuntala herself were never able to fully explain how her arithmetic abilities worked.) Her father Bishaw (Prakash Belawadi) made little Shakuntala the poor family’s breadwinner, putting his pig-tailed daughter onstage to solve math problems submitted by audience members. Local shows around Bangalore turned into performances elsewhere in India, before Shakuntala finally moved to London on her own.

Though her anger at her father for depriving her of a normal childhood and education was always apparent, Shakuntala — played as an adult by Vidya Balan — harbored a simmering contempt for her mother (played by Ipshita Chakraborty Singh) for not standing up to Bishaw on her daughter’s behalf. That resentment drove Shakuntala to become rich and famous and informed her own style of parenting — and not necessarily for the better.

Anu was born from the marriage of Shakuntala and Paritosh Banerji (Jisshu Sengupta), a government employee in Calcutta. Their relationship developed after Shakuntala was already internationally acclaimed, having added a magician’s showmanship to her performances. She tried being a stay-at-home mom for a while, but soon the road beckoned. She took young Anu with her, assuming that a life of travel would make the girl into an independent explorer like her mother. That’s not how it worked out.

Being disappointed by men is a recurring theme in Shakuntala’s life. Whether it’s their frustration at not being “needed” by her or, as in the case of Paritosh, a refusal to give up his job and follow her on the road, her paramours’ commitment to traditional gender roles only hardened her resolve to break them. Yet the film is clear that Shakuntala shared equally in the blame for her failed romantic relationships. She never found a way to integrate her career and home life. She also hated to lose, which led to young Anu being used as a pawn in the war between her parents.

As Anu grows up, we see how Shakuntala’s stubbornness and inability to compromise impacted their relationship. Anu (Sanya Malhotra) turns out to be just as stubborn as her mother and is determined to be nothing like her, just as Shakuntala was determined not to be like her own mother. Through conflict — including the above mentioned criminal charges — Shakuntala and Anu come to some important realizations about accepting our loved ones for who they are and learning to see our parents as more than just our parents.

Malhotra has the challenge of playing Anu when she is a married woman, but also when she’s a young teenager living in London. As a teen, Malhotra’s performance risks being overshadowed by her unflattering (but authentic) early 1990s attire. She’s more effective as Anu grows up and is forced to truly reckon with her mother as an adult.

If the goal was to portray Shakuntala Devi’s best and worst qualities, they couldn’t have found a better performer than Balan to do so. Balan makes Shakuntala feel like someone you’d love to know but hate to live with. She’s also effectively portrays Shakuntala across multiple decades.

From the vantage point of 2020, the idea of going to watch someone solve equations on stage sounds quaint, but Balan imbues with her character with such charisma and flair that she successfully translates Shakuntala’s appeal for a contemporary audience.

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Movie Review: Extraction (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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An Australian mercenary is hired to rescue the kidnapped son of an Indian drug lord in Extraction, a Netflix Original action movie that stars some well-known Hindi-film actors opposite Chris Hemsworth.

Hemsworth plays Tyler Rake, a former solider turned mercenary. The only reason Tyler is still alive is so that he can continue punishing himself for not being there for his wife and son when the little boy was terminally ill.

Tyler gets an opportunity for redemption when a fellow merc, Nik Khan (Golshifteh Farahani), hires him to execute the toughest part of a rescue mission: freeing 14-year-old Ovi Mahajan (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) from the goons holding him in Dhaka at the behest of Bangladeshi crime boss Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli).

Ovi’s father is Ovi Mahajan Sr. (Pankaj Tripathi), a drug kingpin incarcerated in Mumbai. Young Ovi is a pawn in a long-standing feud between his father and Amir, and the boy’s kidnapping is meant to humiliate Mahajan Sr. Ovi says that his dad ignores him and dismisses his intellectual pursuits, so the boy’s kidnapping reinforces his feeling that he’s an object and not a real person to anyone involved in his dad’s line of work.

That changes when he meets Tyler, who makes it his mission to save Ovi even after it’s revealed that they’ve been double-crossed. The appearance of Mahajan Sr.’s right-hand man Saju Rav (Randeep Hooda) further complicates things. Tyler could just hand Ovi over to Saju, but what if he was part of the kidnapping plan? As far as Ovi is concerned, Saju is just the guy who scolds him when his dad’s not around, so maybe he is safer with this stranger.

This clash between Tyler and Saju sets up Extraction‘s selling point: a ten-minute long chase/fight sequence that is made to look like it was filmed in a single shot. It’s extraordinary. Seeing a Hindi-film veteran like Hooda turn in a phenomenal action performance against Thor himself is a huge thrill for Bollywood fans. Hooda’s long been one of my favorite actors, and his turn in the international spotlight is well-deserved.

It’s unfortunate that Tripathi (another of my favorites) is only in one scene. But Painyuli shows the same skill he did in Bhavesh Joshi Superhero to make Amir low-key menacing, ordering someone’s death as nonchalantly as he’d order lunch. Jaiswal’s Ovi is likeable and sympathetic.

Extraction‘s story is basic — Tyler has to get Ovi from Point A to Point B without the kid dying — but the film weaves a theme about fathers and sons throughout the story. Tyler wishes he’d been a better father to his little boy. Ovi wishes his dad saw him as a real person. Saju attempts to rescue Ovi not for Ovi’s sake but because Ovi Sr. threatens the safety of Saju’s own young son. Tyler’s former colleague, Gaspar (David Harbour), mentions how his perspective on being a killer has changed now that he has his own family.

Even Amir is a twisted version of a father figure to a group of homeless boys who work for him. As neglected as Ovi feels, being ignored while living in a cushy mansion is a world apart from the abuse suffered by the boys in Amir’s employ, whom he murders and maims at the slightest displeasure. Yet he’s the only hope for a better life for a street kid like Farhad (Suraj Rikame), who’s willing to do anything Amir asks to finally feel a sense of power for once in his life.

Concerns about a “white savior” narrative are unavoidable in a film where Chris Hemsworth goes to Bangladesh to rescue an Indian teen, and Extraction doesn’t do much to challenge such concerns. While Tyler kills his share of Amir’s henchmen, most of the dead are Bangladeshi police officers or soldiers who presumably don’t know their commanding officers take orders from a drug lord. If you’ve already seen one-too-many films where a white character kills a bunch of non-white characters like it’s no big deal, you may want to skip Extraction.

If you do watch it, the film does demonstrate that exciting action sequences need not be solely the province of theatrical releases. Getting to see Randeep Hooda punch Chris Hemsworth is novel enough to make Extraction worth watching. Just don’t expect anything groundbreaking from the narrative.

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Movie Review: Bhangra Paa Le (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Though bhangra features in plenty of Hindi movies, it’s rarely the only dance style performed. Not so in Bhangra Paa Le (“Let’s Do the Bhangra“), director Sneha Taurani’s debut film, which is all bhangra, all the time.

This is established early on. As college stud Jaggi (Sunny Kaushal) fills out his university’s dance team, he rejects any dancer whose performance is too influenced by hip-hop or other Western dance styles. If you’re going to win a bhangra competition where top prize is a trip to compete in London, you need bhangra specialists.

While at a wedding, Jaggi spots an ideal candidate to fill the female-lead role on his team. He and Simi (Rukshar Dhillon) hit it off, but before he can ask her to join his squad, she asks him to join her university team. Realizing that they are rivals, they part ways — not on bad terms, but each determined to take the top prize.

Each has their own reason for wanting to win. By performing in London, Simi hopes to prove to her father (who abandoned her for a new life in the UK) that she’s doing just fine without him. Jaggi wants to honor his grandfather, Kaptaan, a bhangra legend in his hometown. Kaushal plays Kaptaan in flashbacks to grandpa’s days romancing a beauty named Nimmo (Shriya Pilgaonkar) before leaving to fight in World War II.

It’s a stretch to equate the struggles of a combat veteran with those of a college dancer, the way that Jaggi does. Yet, given Jaggi’s young age and comparatively limited life experience, it makes sense that he might make that connection. The characters in Bhangra Paa Le behave in authentic, age-appropriate ways. It’s one of the strongest aspects of the film.

It’s also a treat to watch both of the main characters evolve, even if Jaggi gets more of the narrative focus. While they have their ups and downs, there’s nothing mean-spirited about either Jaggi or Simi, so the drama never feels overblown. They’re two nice young people who deserve to succeed, even if they can’t both be victorious.

The film’s supporting characters don’t get the same kind of development as the leads, appearing and disappearing as the story requires. The story itself feels a bit disjointed, not because of the World War II flashbacks, but because Jaggi returns home in the second half–abruptly shifting the tone of the film from a modern youth picture to a rural family drama.

Of course, the main reason for anyone to watch Bhangra Paa Le is the dancing, which is overall really good. The movie does a nice job showcasing the dance form’s ability to express a range of emotions, using songs with different tempos and sentiments as a base for a varied choreography palette. Viewers who are only interested in the dancing will not be disappointed.

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Movie Review: Ghost Stories (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Ghost Stories is the third installment in the Hindi anthology series from directors Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, and Karan Johar, following Bombay Talkies and the Netflix Original Lust Stories. The latest is a strong collection, but some of the short films are more enjoyable than others.

Akhtar’s opening short is a fitting introduction to the overall theme, with a beautiful young woman in a creepy house. Janhvi Kapoor plays Sameera, a home health nurse sent to care temporarily for bedridden dementia patient Mrs. Malik (Surekha Sikri). Sameera was told Mrs. Malik’s adult son was taking care of her over the weekend, but there’s no sign of him when Sameera arrives at the cluttered, dimly lit apartment. Mrs. Malik says he’s hiding. Suspicious sounds in the hallway tip Sameera off that something is very wrong.

Akhtar bucks horror conventions by making Sameera a woman of questionable ethics, rather than some imperiled virgin. She invites her married boyfriend over for a romantic rendezvous and riffles through Mrs. Malik’s jewelry box. Instead of being about virtue under threat, Akhtar’s story explores which morals really matter when times get tough, and what obligations we have to other people and ourselves.

Anurag Kashyap’s story is next. It’s the most ambitious but least successful of the four films. After her first child died minutes after its birth, Neha (Sobhita Dhulipala) has eventually become pregnant again. She’s still struggling with the psychological damages from her previous loss. On top of that, the little boy she babysits, Ansh (Zachary Braz), isn’t keen on sharing her affections with anyone else. And she may have been cursed by a bird.

There’s so much going on that it’s hard to keep track of why things happen, let alone differentiate between what’s real and what’s not. Is Neha simply paranoid or out of touch with reality? Is she cursed, or does Ansh really have some kind of evil powers to harm her unborn child? Everything ends in gory, bizarre chaos. Women with a history of fertility problems or miscarriages may find this film disturbing.

The gore-fest continues in the third film, director Dibakar Banerjee’s parable of a small village literally cannibalized by its big-city neighbors. A bureaucrat (played by Sukant Goel) arrives in Smalltown to find it destroyed, with a boy (Aditya Shetty) and a girl (Eva Ameet Pardeshi) the only survivors. They explain that her father — a councilman from Bigtown — ate most of the residents and turned everyone else into zombies. Only when the man is nearly eaten himself does he accept that they kids are telling the truth.

Despite some truly disgusting moments, this is an intriguing story of greed and the sacrifices people will to make to save themselves. Banerjee does an excellent job building a world and giving his audience a lot to chew on (cannibal pun intended).

The anthology’s closing tale is much what you’d expect from a Karan Johar ghost story. Two rich and very attractive people, Ira (Mrunal Thakur) and Dhruv (Avinash Tiwary), agree to marry. When Dhruv interrupts their honeymoon lovemaking to say “good night” to his grandmother — who’s been dead for twenty years — Ira wonders what kind of mental illness afflicts her new husband. But maybe she’s the one who can’t see the ghost right in front of her.

Johar’s story is a light, fun respite after the two heavy shorts that came before it. Dhruv’s family mansion is gorgeous. There’s also a minor theme about faith that gives the story some dimension.

Other than Kashyap’s dense narrative, the stories all suit the short film format. They say what they need to say and end before they run out of steam. There are so many ideas in Kashyap’s story that he might have been able to better organize them in a feature-length film. Overall, Ghost Stories is an interesting collection that creates chilling scenarios without relying on jump scares. Just be ready for some blood and guts.

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Movie Review: The Zoya Factor (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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A young woman’s good fortune causes headaches for both her and the captain of India’s cricket team as they try to win the World Cup in The Zoya Factor, based on Anuja Chauhan’s 2008 novel of the same name.

The novel and movie are both set in a timeline based on the 2011 Cricket World Cup tournament played in India, but the members of the Indian cricket team are all fictional.

Sonam Kapoor Ahuja plays Zoya, a copywriter struggling to fit in at her snooty advertising firm who’s rejected by potential romantic suitors because of her middle-class background. At least her dad Vijayendra (Sanjay Kapoor, Kapoor Ahuja’s real-life uncle) and older brother Zoravar (Sikander Kher) love her. They believe she brings them luck in their local cricket pickup games because she was born the day India won its last World Cup in 1983.

Zoya is sent on a make-or-break work assignment to photograph members of the Indian Cricket Team. She gets off to a mixed start with the team’s handsome captain, Nikhil (Dulquer Salmaan), who is charmed by her exuberance and frustrated by her determination. But when he sees Zoya’s co-workers ignore her at breakfast the next morning, he invites her to eat with the team, where she tells them that she’s her family’s lucky charm on the cricket pitch. The team wins their match that afternoon, and Zoya becomes their lucky charm, too.

Screenwriters Pradhuman Singh and Neha Rakesh Sharma skillfully adapt Chauhan’s novel, so that all of drama in the film arises from the characters’ conflicting motivations. Zoya is of course delighted when handsome, rich Nikhil takes a romantic interest in her, but she’s just as thrilled to finally fit in with a group. The team’s most superstitious players — Shivy (Abhilash Chaudhary) and Harry (Gandharv Dewan) — value Zoya for her good luck, but they also genuinely like her because she takes an interest in them. She approaches them differently than Nikhil, who believes that hard work is the only factor in team’s success. When he insists that Zoya stay away from the team, lest they put too much faith in her, he doesn’t realize that her presence has a reassuring affect on jittery players like Shivy and Harry, making them more relaxed on the pitch and helping them perform better.

Even the story’s villain, Robin (Angad Bedi), has understandable motives. It would be a lot easier for Robin to reclaim the captaincy he lost to Nikhil if the public and the Indian Cricket Board give Zoya the credit for the team’s victories — especially when Nikhil is trying to keep her away. It just so happens that Robin’s uncle is the head of the Cricket Board, which makes Zoya an offer that forces her to choose what’s really important to her.

Sikander Kher is stealthily terrific in the movie, and his character plays an important part in steering Zoya’s choices. As her big brother, he’s sincerely concerned for her well-being, but he also reinforces all of Zoya’s insecurities by asking her why someone as popular as Nikhil would be with a nobody like her. Adding insult to injury is that she hates his nickname for her, delightfully translated in the English subtitles as “Spongebob.”

The whole cast is likeable, and Salmaan and Kapoor Ahuja are quite cute together. There’s a distracting amount of product placement in The Zoya Factor, but it’s otherwise a sweet, fun romantic comedy.

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Movie Review: Notebook (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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A reluctant teacher at a remote schoolhouse finds a diary left by his predecessor, leading him to fall in love with the author and the profession of teaching in the charming drama Notebook.

Based on Thailand’s entry for Best Foreign Language film at the 2014 Oscars — The Teacher’s DiaryNotebook sets its story in Kashmir in 2008. Kabir (Zaheer Iqbal) is struggling to readjust to civilian life, following a stint in the army that ended when he inadvertently caused a child’s death. Haunted and directionless, he’s summoned to his ancestral home in Srinagar by his uncle. The elementary school Kabir’s deceased father founded is in danger of closing because it has no teacher, and Kabir agrees to fill in, despite his lack of experience.

The school is a collection of small buildings built on rafts, lashed together and floating on a wide lake. Though the school is six hours from the nearest town and only accessible by boat, it offers the only educational opportunity for children in the region. The gorgeous setting is an ideal place for introspection, but Kabir finds the practicalities hard to handle. There’s no cell network, running water, or electricity. A frog lives in the cistern.

Kabir’s students don’t make his job easy on him, disappointed as they are at the loss of their beloved teacher, Firdaus (Pranutan Bahl). After a disastrous first day, Kabir almost calls it quits, until he finds a diary Firdaus left behind. Her writings and drawings give Kabir insight into his students, and they lead him to fall in love with her — or at least with who he imagines her to be. Yet even as he immerses himself in the lives of his students, the camera often shoots Kabir through windows or reflected in mirrors, while flashbacks of Firdaus feature her fully in frame. The technique symbolizes Kabir’s yet unrealized sense of self and his still-developing connection to the school.

Notebook is whimsical in the best possible ways. There’s the novelty of a love story involving two people who’ve neither met nor seen each other. The school’s isolation forces both Firdaus and Kabir to embrace what’s truly important to them, and in doing so, steers them toward each other. Then there’s the school’s magical setting, floating on a lake covered in lily pads and surrounded by mountains. It’s straight out of a fairy tale.

Notebook released theatrically in the spring of 2019, several months before the Indian government cut off Kashmir’s cell network and internet access (which has been ongoing for over a month at the time of this writing). A boatman who ferries Kabir to the school explains that the unreliable cell phone network only works “when weather is good and peace prevails,” hinting at the region’s long-standing instability.

While the film isn’t political to the point of taking sides, it depicts the suffering of the people who live there. Every character in Notebook is traumatized by violence and death, including the children. Kabir’s undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder points to the fact that soldiers in the region are vulnerable to psychological damage as well. The constant military presence and threat of militant action creates an unhealthy situation for everyone living there.

Director Nitin Kakkar is the right person to tell this touching love story set in a fraught region, giving the main narrative its due while providing thoughtful context on its surroundings. Kakkar showed his capabilities with the 2012 comedy Filmistaan, in which a kidnapped Indian man doesn’t realize he’s been brought to Pakistan because of the strong similarities between both countries and their citizens. Notebook is just as sensitive in the way it stresses its characters’ shared humanity.

Iqbal and Bahl acquit themselves well in their film debuts, giving Kabir and Firdaus enough warmth to sustain Notebook‘s romantic feel, even though their characters spend little time together on-screen. They help to create a movie that is sweet yet substantial, and gorgeous to look at.

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Movie Review: Music Teacher (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Music Teacher is a melancholy exploration of the consequences of blowing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Beni (Manav Kaul) is a middle-aged vocal instructor and part-time lounge singer in Shimla, where he lives with his mother Madhavi (Neena Gupta) and younger sister Urmi (Niharika Lyra Dutt). He dreamed of being a playback singer for the movies, but his father’s death called him back from Mumbai years ago, before he could land any film gigs.

Adding salt to Beni’s still-open wound is the success of one of his former students, Jyotsna (Amrita Bagchi), who herself is now a popular playback singer. Beni must confront his jealousy and anger toward her when Jyotsna returns to Shimla for a concert after eight years in Bollywood.

But is the story Beni’s been telling himself about Jyotsna’s fame and their falling out true, or does he view the past through a lens that paints her as the villain (corroborated by his mother’s hostility toward her)? He reexamines the narrative as he tells it to his new neighbor, Geeta (Divya Dutta), a lonely wife who’s been ditched by her husband and banished to Shimla to care for her ailing father-in-law.

The present and past timelines in Music Teacher are differentiated by the color of Beni’s sideburns: black in the past, grey in the present. It’s subtle and easy to miss at first. Beni himself was more upbeat when he first meet Jyotsna, as opposed to the terse curmudgeon he’s become since she left. Their relationship was about more than music, but both had different dreams for the future.

Beni’s challenge is to realize how his own actions led him to his present unhappy state, and then either chart a new course or find a way to accept things the way they are. He’s spent his whole life waiting for his big break, thinking it could only come in the form of a show business career. He never considered that loving Jyotsna could be a life-changing opportunity in its own right.

Kaul plays Beni as more sad than angry, although the sense of having been wronged is what keeps him in stasis. Kaul convincingly portrays Beni as a decent guy who blew his big chance and never learned how to cope with it.

Bagchi is touching as Jyotsna, both in flashbacks as a young woman desperate for love and in an impactful present-day sequence in which she hints that the lessons she’s learned have been hard won.

While Jyotsna embodies all of Beni’s opportunities lost, Dutta’s Geeta represents the idea of accepting life’s hardships and finding pleasure where one can. Were Beni further along in his emotional journey, maybe he and Geeta could be happy together, damaged but at least not alone.

Though Music Teacher‘s story focuses on Beni’s growth, there’s an interesting theme about the lack of control women have over their own lives. Geeta is the most obvious example, fulfilling the edicts of a husband who lives in a distant city and no longer loves her. But Beni himself has undue influence over the lives of the women in his family. He selects a groom for his sister Urmi, and while we can assume that he wouldn’t make her marry against her will, he clearly has veto power when it comes to groom choice. Beni’s insistence forces Jyotsna to make a choice she doesn’t want to, and the repercussions destroy their relationship.

The men in Music Teacher don’t deserve the power they have. Geeta’s husband — who doesn’t even appear onscreen — is a bad guy for ditching her and offloading the care of his sick father onto her. Beni is guilty of myopic self-interest and a tragic lack of foresight, and loneliness is the consequence. Music Teacher is a big improvement over writer-director Sarthak Dasgupta’s first film, 2007’s The Great Indian Butterfly. There’s a lot to relate to and appreciate about this cautionary tale.

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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)

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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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