Tag Archives: 4 Stars

Movie Review: RRR (2022)

4 Stars (out of 4)

*This review is of the Telugu version of RRR on Zee5. A Hindi-dubbed version of RRR is streaming on Netflix.

Filmmaker S. S. Rajamouli is the master of the “what if…” scenario. The plot of his latest epic RRR ponders what might have happened had two real-life Indian revolutionaries from the early 20th century met and become friends. Rajamouli’s style pushes the boundaries of “what if…,” showing us the delightful possibilities that can only happen thanks to movie magic.

N. T. Rama Rao Jr. plays Komaram Bheem, a leader of the Gond tribe. He makes it his mission to rescue a girl named Malli (Twinkle Sharma) who’s been kidnapped by the British regional governor Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson). The sequence in which Scott’s wife Catherine (Alison Doody) coolly asks to bring the girl home for her entertainment is infuriating.

Bheem’s rescue plan is audacious and relies upon his affinity with the natural world. An early scene in which he tries to trap a tiger in a net gives a preview to the wild action RRR has in store.

The British know that Bheem is in Delhi looking for Malli, but they don’t know where he is. They’re also scared of what might happen when they find him, given his fearsome reputation. Only one man is brave enough to track Bheem down — Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan), an Indian Imperial Police officer known for his tenacity and an unwavering dedication to his job.

It so happens that Bheem (in disguise as a Muslim mechanic named Akhtar) and Raju meet while saving a boy from a fiery train wreck. They find in one another a kindred spirit: someone brave and strong enough to risk his life for the sake of others. They become friends, with Raju going so far as to help shy Bheem meet Governor Scott’s beautiful niece Jenny (Olivia Morris), who is as sympathetic as her aunt and uncle are cruel.

Given that Bheem and Raju are secretly working in opposition to each other, it’s inevitable that they’ll wind up in conflict. When they finally do during a party for the Governor, it comes in one of the most fantastical action sequences ever brought to the big screen, including the reappearance of the tiger Bheem faced off with earlier.

RRR is larger than life, and Rama Rao Jr. and Charan take full advantage of the scope they are given (especially since the film is by no means biographical). Their characters can jump higher and run faster than normal men. Their muscles are bigger and stronger. Their gifts aren’t superpowers but a kind of idealized masculinity with heavy emphasis on physical strength.

Rajamouli uses the considerable resources at his disposal to make bombastic action sequences that are a joy to watch. Realism is not the point, and why should it be? RRR is a great reminder that a cinematic world need only be consistent with itself to be believable, not that it need conform to the rules of our world.

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Book Review: This Place | That Place (2022)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Buy This Place | That Place at Amazon

*This Place | That Place will be released on June 14, 2022

The innovative format of Nandita Dinesh’s This Place | That Place, along with its timeless subject matter, make her debut novel an absolute must-read.

Dinesh’s background in theater and the study of protest movements informs how she constructs This Place | That Place. The novel is primarily a dialogue between two characters, organized to read almost like a screenplay. The conversations are supplemented with other documents, including excepts from a guidebook and a developmental materials for a curriculum, along with notes from the character reviewing the document. The inclusion of these materials reminded me of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future.

The (sadly) evergreen subject of This Place | That Place is military occupation. Conversations between the two main characters — a man from the occupied country and a woman from the occupying country — take place inside his house during the first few days of a surprise military curfew.

In order to make her novel as universal as possible, Dinesh doesn’t assign names to either the countries or the characters. The book could be about Ukraine and Russia or Palestine and Israel, etc. Yet the setting is clearly inspired by Kashmir (“This Place”) in 2019, when India (“That Place”) revoked Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 and cut off access to the outside world. Fans of Hindi films will appreciate the characters’ discussion of a “Shakespeare adaptation” set in the region, clearly referring to director Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet.

Conversations between the main couple tend to focus on limits: practical limits on the movements of people under curfew; the limits of her ability to understand his experience of living under occupation; limits on the ability of individuals and groups on either side to change the terms of the occupation. The pair deliberately avoid addressing the romantic tension between them in order to delay the most frustrating discussion of all: the limits the occupation places on their possible future as a couple.

The woman from “That Place” is in “This Place” to pilot a (secret) course to deprogram occupying soldiers, similar to tactics used to deprogram cult members. The goal is to get soldiers to question their orders, rather than follow them blindly and to view the local citizens as people, not enemies. It’s one of an array of interesting resistance tactics discussed in the book. Editorial notes attached to the woman’s curriculum give further insights into the characters.

Perhaps of most interest to those of us lucky enough to live outside of a military occupation is the man’s document on how to endure prolonged periods of curfew. Most of the man’s solutions involve taking control of time — the only thing one has in abundance when locked inside one’s house — or at least the perception of it.

As the book explains, despite an outsider’s best efforts to empathize, it’s almost impossible to truly understand what it’s like to be trapped with no access — physical or virtual — to the outside world for days or months. Dinesh does a wonderful job guiding the reader to empathize with the situation right up until the point when the reader realizes that it can’t really be done without personal experience. It’s a an effective call to action.

Dinesh uses her wealth of experience to craft a thought-provoking novel that doesn’t claim to have all the answers. Rather, This Place | That Place invites further exploration and provides a new lens through which to see the world. As one character states: “One of the things that people without the experience of curfew don’t understand, is how easy it is to keep entire nations subjugated when its citizens cannot access information.” That’s a warning all of us should take to heart, no matter where we live.

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Movie Review: Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar (2021)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar on Amazon Prime

In 2012, Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra made their lead debuts in the romantic thriller Ishaqzaade. They made an excellent duo, turning in nuanced performances in a story that tackled a number of thorny subjects. Reunited nearly a decade later in Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar (“Sandeep and Pinky Have Absconded“), Kapoor and Chopra remind us that they might be at their best when they’re together.

Writer-director Dibakar Banerjee’s chilling opening scene sees a car full of rowdy bros gunned down as the opening credits come to an end. Shortly thereafter, we learn that their murder is a case of mistaken identity.

The real target is Sandeep “Sandy” Walia (Parineeti Chopra), a high-ranking executive at Parivartan Bank. She’s dating her boss, Parichay (Dinker Sharma), and is pregnant with his child. As Sandy waits at a restaurant for her boss/boyfriend, a messenger — Satinder “Pinky” Dahiya — arrives with a note from Parichay asking her to accompany Pinky to a different location.

Pinky is trying get his suspension from the police force overturned by doing jobs for a well-connected goon named Tyagi (Jaideep Ahlawat). Pinky assumes he’s been hired to turn Sandy over to some thugs who will scare her (he doesn’t care why). When he realizes Tyagi intended to have him killed along with Sandy in order to cover up her murder, Pinky reluctantly takes Sandy to a border town where they can cross into Nepal.

Pinky’s emotional arc is pretty conventional and self-contained. He needs to shed his tough guy self-image and learn to care about people other than himself. He does so first by realizing the special considerations Sandy has to take to protect her own health for the sake of her unborn child. Pinky’s progress is also helped along by Munna (Rahul Kumar), a young man who looks up to Pinky and needs a shoulder to cry on. Pinky’s compassion toward Munna — however grudgingly it’s given — yields dividends when Tyagi shows up in town.

Sandy’s arc is more complex and ties in with the film’s themes about misogyny, double standards, and capitalism. Sandy’s just as morally flexible as Pinky, if not more so — comfortable with both large scale corruption and simple interpersonal lies — but she’s often pressured to act by external forces. Parichay convinces her that the only way to save the bank is for her to do something illegal, so she acts in a way that saves her company and her relationship with him at the expense of faceless customers she thinks she’ll never meet. When she needs a clean place to stay, Sandy convinces an older couple — known simply as Aunty (Neena Gupta) and Uncle (Raghuvir Yadav) — to rent a room to her and Pinky even though they have no money. It’s an understandable act of deception for an expectant mother worried about her health.

The world as presented in Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar allows women no margin for error and gives men full discretion over the terms of their existence. Sandy climbs the ranks in her field through hard work but becomes disposable once she asks for something for herself. She makes a mutually beneficial deal with a local bank manager (played by Sukant Goel) who abruptly changes the terms, then resorts to violence when she refuses to comply. Uncle values his pride more than Sandy’s safety.

Aunty tells a story to Sandy and a group of other women about being so angry at Uncle that she packed a bag and left the house. He followed her out and asked where she was going to go. Realizing she had nowhere else she could go, she turned around and went back in the house. Everyone laughs, but the truth of the story is incredibly sad. All of the options for women in Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar are bad.

The only woman with a chance of making things right is a lawyer named Sejal (Archana Patel), hired by Parichay to track down Sandy. Like Sandy, Sejal is smarter than the men around her, so Parichay withholds information from her about the reasons why Sandy fled and what he plans to do with her when she’s found. Though at first she seems like another pawn working to preserve the power of capitalism and patriarchy, Sejal is Banerjee’s way of introducing hope into the story. Sandy didn’t see Parichay’s true colors in time, but if Sejal can, maybe she can balance the scales of justice a little bit.

Every performance in the movie is spot-on, down to the smallest roles. But boy do Chopra and Kapoor do an amazing job of reminding you just what they are capable of, especially when they’re working with a great director. Banerjee’s story — co-written with Varun Grover — heads in unexpected directions but never feels like it’s being clever for its own sake, and it does so at a pace that is neither too fast nor too slow. Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar is totally engrossing and dense enough to merit a second viewing.

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Movie Review: Bulbbul (2020)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Bulbbul on Netflix

With her first go as a feature film director, screenwriter and lyricist Anvita Dutt proves herself a master of atmosphere in the gorgeous gothic horror movie Bulbbul.

The story begins in 1881 somewhere in the Bengal Presidency at the wedding of Bulbbul (Ruchi Mahajan), a precocious 5-year-old who doesn’t really understand what’s happening. She is reassured in the carriage ride to her new home by Satya (Varun Buddhadev), a boy a few years older than her that she assumes is the person she’s been married to. Only upon arriving at the lavish estate of Lord Indranil (Rahul Bose) does she learn that her husband is not Satya but Indranil himself, Satya’s much older brother.

While Indranil waits for his child-bride to grow up, Bulbbul and Satya become inseparable companions. He regales her with legends of the “demon woman,” a witch who prowls the trees at night on feet turned backwards, hoping to find the little princess and gobble her up. They share the palace with Indranil’s identical twin brother Mahendra (also Bose) — who has an intellectual disability and an unsettling fascination with Bulbbul — and Mahendra’s beautiful but jealous wife, Binodini (Paoli Dam).

Two decades later, Satya (now Avinash Tiwary) returns home after several years abroad to find his home radically changed. Mahendra was murdered, Binodini lives in a colony with other widows, Indranil left the palace, and Bulbbul (now Tripti Dimri) rules in his place. The bookish, demure girl Satya remembers has become confident and aloof. She lounges, fanning herself with an ostentatious fan made of peacock feathers. Satya asks Bulbbul, “Where did the sweet little lady I knew disappear? What did you do with her?” “I gobbled her up,” she teases.

Something is clearly wrong in the jurisdiction, but what is a matter of opinion. Satya wants to solve a series unexplained murders, including Mahendra’s. There’s also the matter of the blood-red night sky and sense of foreboding that pervades the woods around the palace. But Bulbbul and her close confidant, Dr. Sudip (Parambrata Chattopadhyay), are more concerned about domestic issues, like the suspicious injuries sustained by Master Dinkar’s wife.

Violence against women is a theme throughout the film, and a couple of scenes are quite brutal. Not the scenes of violence themselves, but shots of the grisly aftermath. Dutt is careful not to make the violent acts in any way titillating. The scenes are simply sad, accompanied by a heartbreaking musical theme from composer Amit Trivedi.

Rather than focusing on the violent acts themselves, the story highlights a key mechanism that allows such violence against women to go unchecked: the otherwise good men who refuse to see it, as personified by Satya. He’s not violent, but he won’t believe that the men around him are. When Bulbbul and Sudip bring up Master Dinkar (Subhasis Chakraborty), Satya’s first reaction is to call him “a fine man.” Satya is so ensconced within the ruling patriarchy that he assumes that the way other men treat him is the way they treat everyone, and he’s willing to accept their version of events without question. Satya is more suspicious of those who challenge his perception of reality — especially an outsider, like Sudip.

Tiwary is successful at portraying Satya as a nice enough guy who just doesn’t get it, but whose ignorance has devastating consequences. Dimri’s ability to convey how much Bulbbul adores Satya amplifies the significance of those consequences.

Dimri has to play essentially two characters: Bulbbul before Satya leaves, and Bulbbul after he returns. She’s so good at both, but she’s particularly fun to watch as Bulbbul the ruler. The film’s best scenes are between Bulbbul and Sudip, Satya’s foil. Chattopadhyay is terrific when he plays the sidekick to a powerful woman, as he did in Kahaani.

Bulbbul‘s most memorable element is its color palette. Dutt uses filters liberally to set the mood of scenes, deploying super saturated tones for specific effect. The red night sky is discomforting, but it’s surprisingly bright. By contrast, the interior of the palace after dark is a heavy blue that allows shadows to proliferate. It doesn’t have the same unnatural quality of the sky outside, but it feels more dangerous. Dutt’s bold and effective use of color in Bulbbul sets a high bar for her next project — one that she seems more than capable of reaching.

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Movie Review: Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota on Netflix
Buy/rent Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota at Amazon or iTunes

By the time most of us reach adulthood, we’ve figured out that society is unfair and you only get as much justice as you can pay for. But what if you grew up without that knowledge? What if you truly believed that you could fight the bad guys and win?

Such is the case for Surya, the hero of Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (“The Man Who Feels No Pain“, MKDNH, henceforth). Born with a congenital insensitivity to pain, young Surya (Sartaaj Kakkar) spends most of his childhood indoors. His father Jatin (Jimit Trivedi) wants to protect his son not just because of his unique condition, but because he’s all that remains of Jatin’s wife (played by Shweta Basu Prasad), who died in a mugging days after Surya’s birth.

Jatin’s father-in-law lives with them, and he too wants to keep his daughter’s memory alive through Surya. Rather than keep the boy wrapped in cotton wool, Grandpa (Mahesh Manjrekar) encourages the boy to emulate his mother’s feisty streak (which we see through flashbacks as Surya imagines the mother he never got to know). Grandpa and grandson binge watch martial arts movies on VHS, with Surya acting out the moves and Grandpa teaching him how other people experience pain, so the boy can disguise his condition to the outside world.

An energetic boy with heroic instincts and an inability to accurately judge risk is a force to be reckoned with. [My nephew is basically Surya with pain sensitivity, so I speak from experience.] When the neighbors deem the 9-year-old wannabe vigilante a menace to society, the family moves away — separating the boy from his tenacious best friend Supriya (Riva Arora) and leaving her at the mercy of her abusive, drunken father.

Fast forward twelve years, and 21-year-old Surya (Abhimanyu Dasani) is ready to head out into the world. His mission is to reunite with “Supri” (Pataakha‘s Radhika Madan) and meet his hero: one-legged martial artist Karate Mani (Gulshan Devaiah). When Karate Mani’s evil twin brother, Jimmy (also Devaiah), steals Mani’s locket, Surya is finally able to put his training to the test — against the pragmatic advice of Supri and Karate Mani himself.

MKDNH is a nostalgic action comedy. It is to martial arts movies of the mid-20th century what Super 8 was to old monster movies. MKDNH‘s stunts are all the funnier for the ways reality intrudes upon them. Surya envisions the way fights will go, only for them to play out in sloppy and un-cinematic ways.

Underneath all the flying fists and high kicks is a touching story about families. Jatin wants to protect Surya physically but emotionally, too, long after Surya has become an adult. There’s a compelling subplot about Supri’s dysfunctional family and whether she will follow her in her mother’s (Lovleen Mishra) footsteps and tolerate abuse for the sake of protecting someone she loves. Mani’s conflict with Jimmy is the continuation of a lifelong battle for their father’s approval.

Yet MKDNH is never maudlin. Writer-director Vasan Bala trusts the audience to feel the story’s emotional weight and connect with the characters while always being an out-and-out comedy. It’s a difficult feat that is executed to perfection.

I don’t think there’s any way to improve upon MKDHN. It feels like the fullest possible realization of Bala’s vision, from the music and costumes to Jay I. Patel’s cinematography and Prerna Saigal’s editing. Every one of the actors is tremendous, with Devaiah and Manjrekar making the most of their delightful supporting characters without overshadowing Madan or Dasani, in his very first film role.

I absolutely loved Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota.

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Movie Review: Tumbbad (2018)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Tumbbad on Amazon Prime

Hindi-film fans in the United States had to wait until Tumbbad made its streaming video debut to finally catch the horror movie that captivated audiences in India and at film festivals around the world. But boy was it worth the wait! Filmmaker Rahi Anil Barve’s fable eschews metaphor in favor of shockingly literal depictions of its underlying mythology. It is a cautionary tale of the dangers of greed — with consequences presented in brutal detail. That the film’s protagonist forges ahead, knowing full well what doom awaits him, highlights how all-consuming the desire for more can be.

Broken into three chapters, Tumbbad begins in 1918, in a fading village bearing the same name as the title. Tumbbad’s governing family gained its wealth by worshiping Hastar, the disgraced son of the Goddess of Prosperity, imprisoned in his mother’s womb for stealing her gold. Legend has it that there is a treasure hidden in Tumbbad’s mansion, but the aged lord of the manor (played by Madhav Hari Josh) won’t divulge its secrets — not even to his mistress (Jyoti Malshe), with whom he fathered two sons: Vinayak (Dhundiraj Prabhakar Joglekar) and Sadashiv (Rudra Soni).

The lord’s mistress is tasked not only with meeting his carnal needs, but also keeping alive his ancient grandmother (played by Piyush Kaushik), while making sure she never wakes up. The mistress’s family lives in the same house as the scary old lady, and though the kids don’t know the details of her curse, preteen Vinayak is pretty sure his grandmother knows something about the treasure. A series of tragedies give the boy his chance to ask Granny directly — a mistake that nearly costs him his life. Saved by Mom, they flee to Pune.

Chapter Two picks up fifteen years later, in 1933. With Mom dead, now-adult Vinayak (Sohum Shah) is freed from his promise to her never to return to Tumbbad. Their old house still stands, and Granny is, to put it politely, in bad shape. Her appearance reminded me of something out of Lars Von Trier’s Danish TV series The Kingdom, which gave me nightmares for weeks. Granny gives Vinayak the information he needs to find the treasure, calling him a “greedy bastard.” “It’s my only quality,” he replies.

Tumbbad‘s straightforward dialogue makes it highly memorable, like Granny’s ominous warning: “Not all that is inherited should be claimed.” In Chapter Three, Vinayak’s 14-year-old son Pandurang (Mohammad Samad) tells his mother, Vaidehi (Anita Date), that his father doesn’t actually like anything, despite having accumulated a massive fortune. Vaidehi asks, “Then what’s the point?”

That’s Tumbbad‘s ultimate lesson: succumbing to greed means surrendering one’s will to a desire that can never be sated, leaving you miserable and mean as a result. The lure of unlimited treasure makes Vinayak willing to take risks that seem insane, given that he knows how horrible and immediate the consequences are, with Granny as his example. Chapter Three is set in 1947, and with age catching up to him, Vinayak is compelled to train Pandurang in the family business. It’s an act of unthinkable cruelty that takes advantage of the boy’s desire to win his father’s love. Poor Pandurang doesn’t understand that his father has no love to give.

Setting the film in the first half of the 20th Century allows for interesting parallels to India’s national independence, and the limited reach of electronic technology creates a chilling atmosphere. Atmosphere is where Tumbbad really excels, after all. Eerie locations and sets are awash in supersaturated colors, the dark mood enhanced a fantastic, menacing score by video game composer Jesper Kyd. All the acting performances fit so perfectly into the world of Tumbbad, as well. The longer I ruminate on the movie, the more impressed I am by it.

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Movie Review: Andhadhun (2018)

4 Stars (out of 4)

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Buy the soundtrack at iTunes

Neo-noir filmmaker Sriram Raghavan made his best movie yet: the black comedy Andhadhun (“Blindly“).

Ayushmann Khurrana stars as Akash, a talented blind musician living in Pune. He gets a gig as the piano player at trendy restaurant after the owner’s beautiful daughter, Sophie (Radhika Apte), runs into him with her scooter. The job puts Akash in touch with some high rollers, including former film star Pramod Sinha (Anil Dhawan). Pramod hires Akash to serenade him and his young wife Simi (Tabu) on their anniversary, and things don’t go as planned.

Raghavan’s script — co-written with Yogesh Chandekar, Hemanth Rao, and frequent collaborators Arijit Biswas and Pooja Ladha Surti (who also edited Andhadhun) — rewards fans of crime thrillers with familiar genre nods like femmes fatales and characters who aren’t what they seem. Yet the story veers in unexpected ways, forcing the audience into a giddy series of emotional pivots, from shock to uneasy chuckles to horror to hysterical laughter, all in a matter of seconds. It’s astonishing how well Andhadhun pulls this off.

Khurrana’s filmography is full of nice-guy roles, and the sympathy he inspires serves Akash well early on, before we discover that the pianist has his own secrets. His more complicated character contrasts with that of Sophie, who has the movie’s “sunshine role”, according to Ladha Sutri. A love scene between Akash and Sophie is wonderfully steamy despite its brevity.

Then there’s Tabu. She’s glorious in this, so much fun to watch as the ambitious trophy wife (who is shown at one point reading a book titled Anita: A Trophy Wife). She’s charming and chilling, and also hilarious as the movie’s main source of dark humor.

Raghavan and his co-writers ensure that every supporting character has their own clear motivations, which not only elevates the overall quality of the story, but makes it that much easier to get great performances from the whole cast. Ashwini Kalsekar is a laugh riot as the enthusiastic-but-out-of-the-loop wife of a police officer, played by Manav Vij.

Sound design plays a huge role in Andhadhun, as it has in Raghavan’s previous movies. Here, Raghavan expertly deploys tunes to shock the audience or punctuate a joke. Amit Trivedi’s terrific original songs are interspersed with Bollywood hits from the 1970s (ostensibly from the soundtracks of Pramod Sinha’s films).

Khurrana learned to play the piano well enough that cinematographer K. U. Mohanan could shoot Akash playing in full frame, instead of filming him from the chest up and inserting shots of a real pianist’s hands doing the playing. It’s an example of the cast & crew’s dedication that helps make Andhadhun so darned fun to watch.

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Book Review: Bollywood Kitchen (2017)

Author, screenwriter, and producer Sri Rao just released a new book called Bollywood Kitchen: Home-Cooked Indian Meals Paired with Unforgettable Bollywood Films. Trust me: you want this book.

Bollywood Kitchen is organized as a dinner-and-a-movie entertainment guide. Rao chooses one of his favorite recent Hindi films and pairs it with entrées and sides designed to complement one another–and the movie. For example, Kaahani‘s entry features recipes for kati rolls, which originated in Calcutta, where the movie is set. The meal for the family film Chillar Party consists of Rao’s take on fish sticks and healthy vegetables with a kid-friendly twist.

The first thing you’ll notice about Bollywood Kitchen is how extraordinarily colorful it is. Rao’s publishers secured the rights to use images from all of the films he mentions, so the book is full of amazing posters and stills. On top of that, the food is beautifully photographed.

One of the many gorgeous movie stills featured in Bollywood Kitchen.

The second thing you’ll notice is the effort Rao put into making his ideas for dinner-and-a-movie night doable. The films he selected are generally available on streaming services or for rent or purchase from places like iTunes. My public library has nineteen of the twenty-two films featured available on DVD or Blu-ray. For each entry in the book, Rao suggests three similar movies also worth checking out.

Rao’s recipes are easy to execute, as well. It’s clear that his goal is to get his readers cooking, while leaving them with enough time and energy left to actually enjoy the movies. Chickpea dishes use canned beans, not dry beans that need to be soaked for hours. Rao suggests time-savers like using pre-cut squash from the grocery store.

The very first recipe in Bollywood Kitchen requires zero cooking skills. Rao’s “Bollywood Popcorn” puts a spicy twist on a movie-night staple, and all that’s required is mixing together some common pantry spices to make a topping for do-it-yourself microwave popcorn in a paper lunch bag. The novelty of the lunch bag alone was worth it to me (not to mention it tasted great).

Using ingredients found in most American homes plays an important role in the story of Bollywood Kitchen. As he mentions in the book’s introduction, Rao was born and raised in small-town Pennsylvania to Indian parents who moved to the United States in the late 1950s. Decades before the internet made accessing products from around the globe a snap, Indian-American home cooks had to get creative, adapting their family recipes to use ingredients easily found in major grocery stores. This often meant using spices common in Mexican food — such as cayenne in place of Indian red chilli powder — or substituting ground beef for hard-to-find mutton.

These aren’t necessarily dishes that would be served in a restaurant, so the only way to taste them is with an invitation to someone’s home. Now that Indian ingredients are more accessible, I wonder if Indian-American home cooks have adjusted their recipes or if they’ve stuck with the recipes they used in the decades before the internet? Whatever the case, Rao’s description of his upbringing gave me greater insight into the lives of my high school classmates and the compromises their parents made to fit into an America that was not nearly as interested in diversity as it is today.

Confession time: I am not a good cook. I’m a good baker, but the idea of being responsible for dinner stresses me out. My wonderful husband, Greg, has handled most of the cooking in our household for the last dozen years, for which he has my eternal gratitude. Nevertheless, I actually made a couple of the dishes from Bollywood Kitchen, and they turned out great!

I chose two recipes crafted to accompany the gripping thriller NH10 — Northern Indian fare that one might find in the region where the movie is set. I started with something in my wheelhouse: kheer. Rao warns that Indian desserts can be quite sweet, so I only used about two-thirds of the recommended amount of sweetened condensed milk. The resulting dish was perfectly sweet (to my taste) and had a wonderful creamy texture, slightly thinner than American-style rice pudding.

One word of caution is that most of Rao’s recipes are designed to feed from four to six people, and with generous portions at that. I wound up eating more kheer in a week than one human should reasonably consume, not that I’m complaining.

The other dish I made was Rao’s chana masala, and it was amazing. The spicy chickpeas make for a hearty vegetarian entrée, especially when accompanied by naan. Greg and I have vowed to make it one of our go-to dishes; it’s that tasty. If someone with as limited a skillset in the kitchen as I have can make something as delicious as this chana masala, the recipe has to be good.

The cherry on top is that Rao has wonderful taste in movies. Almost all of the films featured in Bollywood Kitchen — big hits like Kapoor & Sons and gems like Haider — wound up on my “Best Of” lists for their respective release years. As the producer of New York and Badmaash Company and the writer of Baar Baar Dekho, Rao has enough experience in the film industry to know a good flick when he sees one.

Bollywood Kitchen is a must-have book for hardcore Hindi-film fans, but the movies featured offer a great introduction for any Bollywood newbies. The recipes themselves suit those new to cooking Indian dishes at home, although even those who prepare Indian food regularly will appreciate the meal-planning that Rao’s done. This really is a terrific book. Get it here.

Movie Review: Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the DVD at Amazon
Buy the book by Nicholas Barreau at Amazon

Based on the book The Ingredients of Love by Nicholas Barreau — which itself draws inspiration from Cyrano de BergeracBareilly Ki Barfi (“The Sweet from Bareilly“) feels familiar but fresh. Delightful characters, wonderful performances, and a touching and funny love story make Bareilly Ki Barfi an example of the romantic comedy genre at its best.

Bitti (Kriti Sanon) is the black sheep of Bareilly, a tomboy with a fondness for booze and breakdancing. Her mother Sushila (Seema Bhargava Pahwa) frets that Bitti’s unladylike tendencies are driving away potential suitors. Her supportive father Narottam (Pankaj Tripathy) is happy to have a daughter off whom he can bum smokes.

Father and daughter are aware of the societal norms that Bitti is up against. “Being a girl is a complete disaster,” Bitti says. Narottam doesn’t have any wisdom for her, but he stays by her side as they stand on their balcony looking glum.

Bitti runs away from home, but a book she buys on the train platform entitled “Bareilly Ki Barfi” prompts her to return. The protagonist of the book, Babli, is the spitting image of Bitti. Assuming the book to be the work of a secret admirer, Bitti asks the bookseller, Munna (Rohit Choudhary), for help finding the author, a man named Pritam Vidrohi. Munna instead sends her to his best friend, Chirag Dubey (Ayushmann Khurrana).

Five years earlier, Chirag wrote “Bareilly Ki Barfi” about his ex-girlfriend, Babli. In order to protect his identity, Chirag bullies timid Pritam (Rajkummar Rao) into claiming authorship. Chirag hopes that Bitti can replace Babli, but he doesn’t own up to being the book’s true author, vetting Bitti first. He instead acts as go-between for Bitti and “Pritam,” writing letters on his behalf, spending time with Bitti, and gradually falling in love.

Unable to put off Bitti’s requests to meet Pritam in person, Chirag and Munna track Pritam to Lucknow, where he fled to avoid the mobs of zealous book readers that never materialized (Bitti is the first person to ever buy the book). Pritam is as meek as ever, and it’s easy for Chirag and Munna to pressure him into returning to Bareilly. They force Pritam to adopt a brash, chauvinistic avatar designed to repulse Bitti, thus clearing the way for Chirag. Of course, things don’t work out the way Chirag plans.

One of the themes of Bareilly Ki Barfi is that we are who we are. Bitti won’t change herself to suit the demands of a conservative potential groom. Pritam’s tough-guy act has the unexpected effect of imbuing his natural helpfulness with a cool air, instead of his usual subservient aura. By refusing to acknowledge his true identity, Chirag deprives himself and Bitti of the love they both want.

Munna says something interesting to Chirag as his buddy’s manipulation of Pritam intensifies: “You’re not the villain.” It’s meant to absolve Chirag of wrongdoing, but it highlights the way Chirag’s deceit is changing him for the worse. The longer he continues the charade, the further he strays from the man he and Bitti want him to be.

While the plot of Bareilly Ki Barfi echoes stories that have come before, the setting and characters provide a refreshing update. Bitti and her family are so likeable, and Pritam’s Amitabh Bachchan-inspired boss act is a hoot.

There’s also a lot to like about the story’s construction. Barielly Ki Barfi is directed by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari (who debuted with 2016’s impressive Nil Battey Sannata) and written by her husband, filmmaker Nitesh Tiwari. An economy of characters ensures that everyone matters, even minor players like Pritam’s mom and Bitti’s best friend, Rama (Swati Semwal). A runtime of around two hours keeps the action moving, allowing the Tiwaris to wrap the movie up before it becomes tiresome.

Best of all is the cast. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Khurrana and Rao as Chirag and Pritam. Khurrana is a master of facial expressions, from his brilliant smiles for Bitti to his stony glares for Munna. Rao has the challenging job of essentially playing two parts and switching between them often, and he does so with ease. The whole supporting cast is terrific as well.

This is the Kriti Sanon performance I’ve been waiting for. She’s been little more than a helpless damsel in distress in her first two Hindi films, and it’s gratifying to see that she’s capable of so much more. Hopefully filmmakers follow Tiwari’s lead and look beyond Sanon’s beauty,  capitalizing on her humor and ease in front of the camera.

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Movie Review: Phobia (2016)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the DVD at Amazon

Anxiety is a difficult disorder to explain to people who don’t have it. While everyone experiences mild anxiety from time to time — be it a fear of heights or speaking in front of a group of strangers — it’s nowhere near the kind of crippling fear that can accompany serious anxiety attacks, a panic that can make an otherwise ordinary task seem terrifying.

Phobia comes as close to accurately depicting a panic attack as any film I’ve seen. It’s so effective that I’d caution those with a history of anxiety problems make sure you’re in a good mental state before you watch it. I thought about bailing a couple of times, it was that intense.

Radhika Apte stars in Phobia as Mehak, a single artist living in the city. She leaves an exhibition of her work early after feeling some bad vibes, falling asleep in the taxi on the way home. She awakes to find the cab driver molesting her behind some abandoned buildings.

Even though she escapes the attack, Mehak develops agoraphobia. Fearful of the outside world, Mehak hides in her apartment for months. Concerned by Mehak’s lack of improvement, her friend Shaan (Roshin Joy) and her sister Anu (Nivedita Bhattacharya) conspire to drug Mehak and move her to a new apartment, hoping that the change of scenery will fix everything.

Their actions exemplify one of the biggest challenges for anxiety sufferers: not being believed, or the fear of not being believed. By definition, phobias are irrational overreactions to perceived threats. My mother’s fear of snakes was so extreme that even a picture of a snake provoked the same terror as if one was actually slithering toward her.

Yet Anu and Shaan treat Mehak as though her fear can be diffused with logic. Shaan refuses to take out the garbage, hoping that leaving it will motivate Mehak to leave the apartment and walk down the hall to the trash bin. He doesn’t understand that the twenty-foot-long hallway might as well be twenty miles, as far as Mehak is concerned.

Mehak’s tortured attempt make it to the bin is Phobia‘s shining moment. Mehak breathes rapidly, her shirt soaked in sweat. She ties a makeshift rope of sheets to a shelf and then around her waist, as though she’s climbing out of the window and not stepping out into the hallway. If she falls, she’s afraid she won’t be able to retreat to safety. The whole sequence captures the overwhelming nature of a panic attack. Mehak’s terror is depicted perfectly by Apte, who is absolutely tremendous in the film.

Mehak’s condition only gets worse in the new apartment when she starts hallucinating sounds and images of a bloodied woman whom she assumes is “Jiya,” the previous tenant who suddenly went missing, leaving all of her belongings behind. Mehak is simultaneously too scared to go out and too scared to stay in. Shaan’s answer is set up security cameras in the house, as if Mehak’s haunted psyche can be soothed by proof.

The apartment itself looks like an upscale haunted house. There are mirrors everywhere and lonely paintings that take on a sinister air in the dark. The living room is separated from a hallway by a backless shelving system made up of niches ripe for peeping through. One of the bedrooms is full of artfully strewn about furniture.

Yet director Pawan Kripalani doesn’t deploy the horror tropes in his arsenal in the expected ways. He routinely directs the audiences gaze through mirrors and security cameras and the peephole in the door, but the anticipated jump scares never arrives. Phobia — which Kripalani wrote as well — isn’t about momentary thrills, but the persistence of Mehak’s fears.

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