Tag Archives: 3 Stars

Movie Review: Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: The White Tiger (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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“Rich men are born with opportunities they can waste.” So says a driver who realizes he has one chance to break out of the master-servant paradigm that has defined his life and kept him trapped in poverty.

Balram (Adarsh Gourav) narrates the story of his success via a series of emails written to Wen Jiabao ahead of the Chinese Premier’s visit to Bangalore in 2010. Ever the opportunist, Balram hopes to align himself with what he believes is the world’s rising power, as the influence of the West recedes.

The emails paint a clear picture of how social, economic, and political systems in India concentrate power and wealth. Balram’s family comes from a sweet-making caste in a small village north of Delhi. A third of the money everyone in town earns goes to the landlord, a stern man called The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) with a violent son known as The Mongoose (Vijay Maurya). Apart from a few rupees for incidentals, the rest of the money earned by the men in Balram’s family goes to Balram’s grandmother (Kamlesh Gill) — the only member of the large clan who doesn’t go hungry.

Through patience, observation, and quick wit, Balram secures himself a position as the driver for The Stork’s youngest son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), recently returned from New York with his Indian-American wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). The gig allows Balram to finally utilize the English language skills he picked up as a precocious kid. Ashok, Pinky, and Balram move to Delhi in order to facilitate some bribery on behalf of The Stork, with the threat that any misstep on Balram’s part could cause The Stork to murder Balram’s whole family.

In Delhi, it becomes apparent how the entrenched master-servant system limits the imaginations of those involved. Ashok doesn’t like when his brother and father hit Balram, but doesn’t try to make Balram a full-fledged employee with rights either. The expectation is that Balram will work hard for Ashok’s family for minimal pay until they decide to get rid of him. That’s it.

Even Balram starts to see how his upbringing has filtered his expectations. When Pinky asks him what he wants to do in life, it seems like an absurd question. He already achieved his goal of getting out of working at his family’s tea shop when he got this job. What else is there? Even if Balram had a bigger dream, he has no money or connections. The only people he knows who could help him are Ashok and his family, and they’ve made it clear they’d never do that.

Dangerous circumstances force Balram to choose whether to continue viewing himself as disposable the way that his bosses do, or to assert his right to self-determination. In order to overcome what he calls the “servant mindset,” Balram needs the fortitude of the rarest of creatures: the white tiger.

Director Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of Arvind Adiga’s novel is thorough in its world building but lets Balram’s particular viewpoint set the tone of the film. Balram is a loner, so something like collective action never crosses his mind. His choices, for good or ill, make sense for who he is, especially as defined by Gourav’s terrific lead performance.

Chopra Jonas — who co-produced the film — hits it out of the park as Pinky, a woman who wants to do good but doesn’t have the full context for the situation or the agency to make significant changes even if she did. With Rao’s history of playing likeable characters, it’s all the more frustrating when Ashok won’t stand up to his dad and brother to demand better treatment for Balram. Then again, he’s as much a product of his environment as everyone else, which is exactly the problem The White Tiger examines.

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Movie Review: Khuda Haafiz (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Khuda Haafiz (“May God Be Your Protector“) is the next step in action star Vidyut Jammwal’s shift away from characters who are ready-made killing machines and toward roles that require him to give a more complicated emotional performance. Sure, he still breaks arms and lands plenty of punches, but carnage isn’t the main goal.

Instead of playing a commando, a cop, or a villain, this time Jammwal plays Sameer Chaudhary — the world’s buffest software engineer. The film opens in March, 2008, with a battered Sameer begging the Indian ambassador to the fictitious Middle Eastern country of Noman (which I constantly misread as “Boman,” as in “Boman Irani”) for help finding his missing wife. The ambassador says, “I need every detail. Start from the beginning.” Boy, does Sameer comply.

Flashback to the beginnings of Sameer’s romance with his wife Nargis (Shivaleeka Oberoi), which started a year earlier in India. The two were set up by their parents and fell deeply in love. After a few blissful months, the global recession hit, shuttering Sameer’s small business and putting Nargis out of a job at her call center.

With no work on the horizon, the two apply for jobs in Noman through a broker named Nadeem (Vipin Sharma). The film establishes the grim local economic situation and why moving to a foreign country for temporary employment seems worth the risk. Nargis’s work permit and travel documents arrive first. Nadeem assures Sameer that his documents will arrive in a few days and encourages Nargis to fly to Noman with a group of other women.

The following day, Sameer gets a panicked call from Nargis that she’s been kidnapped. The job she’d applied for had been a ruse, with Nadeem serving as the front for an international sex trafficking ring. Armed with only Nadeem’s dubious information, Sameer flies to Noman to rescue his wife.

It’s refreshing to see Jammwal mix things up and play a character who does not have a set of skills suited to this exact situation. His programming background gives him insight into how to get some information from a cell phone carrier, but that’s really the only advantage he has. He doesn’t even speak the local language — which winds up not being an issue because all the important people in Noman conveniently speak Hindi.

Most important of the people Sameer meets is a cab driver named Usman (Annu Kapoor). He sees Sameer’s distress and feels obligated to help as a matter of faith. Usman helps Sameer connect enough of the dots that the two actually find Nargis. A subsequent sequence in which Sameer has to let go of Nargis’ hand in order to save her is beautifully filmed to make it look as though she’s swallowed up by a sea of goons. Kudos to cinematographer Jitan Harmeet Singh for that wonderful shot.

During Sameer’s attempted rescue attempt, Jammwal does an excellent job performing Sameer as a guy who is not a professional stuntman. Sameer hesitates before jumping from dangerous heights, only doing so when he has no choice. He fights like it’s a matter of self-preservation, not like a guy who knows from the start that he’ll win. Nevertheless, the action scenes are entertaining as always.

Jammwal’s acting isn’t exactly subtle. Though, to be fair, Sameer is frequently panicked or angry. And when Khuda Haafiz is sad, it’s really sad. Jammwal’s performance is appropriately restrained in the film’s love song montages. Oberoi is competent in the few scenes she’s in. Kapoor is quite good, as are Shiv Panditt and Aahana Kumra, who play a pair of Nomani security agents who help Sameer find Nargis.

Overall, Khuda Haafiz is well-executed and accessible to a wide audience. It appeals to Jammwal’s core action fanbase while expanding its reach to include viewers who may want more plot than butt-kicking.

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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)

Watch Music Teacher on Netflix

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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