Tag Archives: 3 Stars

Movie Review: Thar (2022)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Thar on Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Series Review: Aranyak (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: Sharmaji Namkeen (2022)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: Haseen Dillruba (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Haseen Dillruba on Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan on Amazon Prime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: The White Tiger (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch The White Tiger on Netflix
Buy the novel at Amazon

“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)

Watch Shakuntala Devi on Amazon Prime

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)

Watch Extraction on Netflix

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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