The two most recent Hindi releases had very different opening weekends in North America. The Kriti Sanon-Karthik Aaryan romantic comedy Luka Chuppi did well, taking in $440,705 from 144 theaters ($3,060 average), according to Bollywood Hungama.
On the other hand, Sonchiriya did really poorly, especially considering the number of theaters it opened in. The bandit drama earned $60,170 from 70 theaters ($860 average), per Box Office Mojo. Sonchiriya‘s per-theater average is half that of the next-worst opening weekend average this year: Thackeray‘s $1,729. I’m a fan of director Abhishek Chaubey — the man responsible for great films like Udta Punjab, Ishqiya, and Dedh Ishqiya — so this is a big bummer.
Other Hindi films still showing in North America:
Total Dhamaal: Week 2; $439,983 from 209 theaters; $2,015 average; $1,736,909 total
Gully Boy: Week 3; 411,409 from 164 theaters; $2,509 average; $4,783,800 total
Uri: Week 8; $34,511 from 15 theaters; $2,301 average; 4,155,109 total
Manikarnika: Week 6; $775 from two theaters; $388 average; $1,385,664
Several years ago, an affluent community near me realized it had a heroin problem. It did so when a pair of high school students — disturbed by the overdose deaths of three classmates within a single school year — filmed fellow students discussing their own drug use.
The students screened their documentary Neuqua on Drugs for a library auditorium full of horrified school administrators, media, and parents. The adults in the room were shocked that such a problem had festered under their overprotective noses. This kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen in neighborhoods with million-dollar homes. It wasn’t supposed to happen to “good” kids.
Punjab is in the middle of its own drug crisis, without the resources of a wealthy American suburb to fight it, nor the collective will to protect a generation of potential Ivy Leaguers. Writer-director Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab (“Punjab on a High“) provides context and scope for the state’s drug problems in a film that is as entertaining as it is enlightening.
A quartet of lead characters showcase different aspects of the crisis. Musician Tommy (Shahid Kapoor) made a fortune churning out songs celebrating drug culture. Just as it becomes apparent that Tommy’s own drug abuse is hampering his ability to write new music, he’s arrested, the easy scapegoat in a police attempt to look like they are cracking down on drugs.
That’s impossible to do, however, when the cops themselves are profiting from the drug trade. Officer Sartaj (Diljit Dosanjh) even complains that police deserve bigger bribes to look the other way when truckloads of narcotics cross the border. Only when Sartaj’s younger brother, Balli (Prabhjyot Singh), is hospitalized from an overdose does the young cop realize his part in fomenting the problem.
Dr. Preeti Sahni (Kareena Kapoor Khan) is more than happy to place blame on Sartaj and the police. She operates a rehab clinic, so she’s seen first-hand the devastation drugs wreak on individuals, their families, and the community at large. Eager to thank the doctor for helping to dry out Balli and atone for his own profiteering, Sartaj joins forces with Preeti to trace the drugs to their source.
Sartaj locates the region’s main distribution hub, a compound where a young woman nicknamed Bauria (Alia Bhatt) is imprisoned as a sex slave. When Bauria found a packet of powder — thrown over the Pakistani border discus-style — in the field where she worked, she’d hoped to sell it and get rich. Only the intended recipients of the packet found out, capturing her, hooking her on drugs, and using her to service clients, including the police chief, who happens to be Sartaj’s cousin.
Everything and everyone in Udta Punjab is connected, right down to the poster of Tommy hanging on Balli’s wall. In the same way that the character’s lives entwine, so do the region’s fortunes. It only takes a few corrupt cops and politicians to sustain a catastrophe that keeps the beds at Preeti’s clinic full.
Chaubey’s story — co-written by Sudip Sharma — wisely embeds the drug crisis within the purview of ordinary life. Crops still need to be harvested, and love still blossoms, as it does between Sartaj and Preeti. His crush on the beautiful doctor develops quickly, but he’s too shy to express his feelings, intimidated as he is by her intelligence. He gathers the intel, but she has to explain to him (and thus the audience, thankfully) the intersection between government officials, chemical manufacturers, and the gangsters controlling the drug trade. She grows increasingly charmed by his enthusiasm and dedication.
Rooting the narrative within a real-life framework requires room for humor as well, tinted appropriately dark given the subject matter. Chaubey juxtaposes funny moments with grim ones, occasionally blending the comic with the tragic in the same scene. For example, a singer croons, “Her smile makes the flowers bloom,” over a shot of Bauria vomiting.
The film’s performances are likewise balanced between the straightforward deliveries of Kapoor Khan and Dosanjh, and the wilder turns of Bhatt and Kapoor. The horrors of Bauria’s circumstances are made clear but not dwelt upon, focusing instead on the character’s strength and ingenuity, movingly depicted by Bhatt. Kapoor plays Tommy with a manic energy that doesn’t dissipate even when the singer is sober.
Chaubey’s film is perfectly balanced, in every respect. That makes the Censor Board controversy surrounding Udta Punjab‘s release seem even more ridiculous. There’s nothing in the film that comes close to glorifying drug use, so attempts to stall its release with demands that every reference to Punjab be removed is simply an attempt by vested interests to deny that Punjab has a drug problem. People in my own community and thousands of Punjabi citizens know the truth: while politicians bury their heads in the sand, people are dying.
There are times when the most appropriate review of a really good movie boils down to: “GO WATCH THIS MOVIE RIGHT NOW!” Dedh Ishqiya merits such praise.
Dedh Ishqiya combines many genres by being equal parts comedy, thriller, mystery, and romance, with a bit of action thrown in as well. The particular combination gives the movie its own unique flavor that builds on the tone of its predecessor, Ishqiya. Writer-director Abhishek Chaubey and his co-writer/producer, Vishal Bhardwaj, create a wonderful, distinct world for their two thieving protagonists: Khalu (Naseeruddin Shah) and his nephew, Babban (Arshad Warsi).
The events of the sequel pick up with the two crooks still in debt to Khalu’s brother-in-law, Mushtaq (Salman Shahid). The pair get separated during a jewel heist, until Babban discovers Khalu posing as a poet hoping to woo an aristocrat’s widow.
The lovely widow, Para (Madhuri Dixit-Nene), and her protective assistant, Muniya (Huma Qureshi), aim to find the widow a new husband via a poetry contest. Khalu’s main competitor is Jaan Mohammad (Vijay Raaz), a gangster desirous of a more respectable social position.
Khalu and Babban are great, dynamic characters. Babban’s lack of impulse control drives most of the laughs, while Khalu’s romantic nature causes problems in his professional life. Aspiring Romeos should study Shah’s performance for how to properly look like you’re in love with a woman. Stare at a woman the way Khalu stares at Para, and she’s yours.
Dixit-Nene and Qureshi get the meatier roles, both because their characters are new and because Khalu and Babban wear their hearts on their sleeves. The women are complex and intriguing, but not cagey. We want to know more, and they draw the audience in as easily as they do the thieves.
As mentioned above, Khalu and Para have wonderful chemistry. They both find themselves in a position to finally live for themselves, rather than on behalf of other people in their lives. At 46, Dixit-Nene would in reality be a very young widow, but she brings such grace and wisdom to the role that she gives the impression of being older than she looks.
The relationship between Babban and Muniya is more tumultuous and results in some entertaining gender-role reversals. Babban’s role as pursuer is short-lived, and Muniya quickly steers them into a physical relationship. Fearing that Muniya doesn’t share his romantic feelings, he worries that she thinks he’s nothing but a whore: an ironic twist, given his own fondness for prostitutes.
Raaz is perfectly sleazy as the wannabe aristocrat, though not so sinister as to detract from the movie’s humorous tone. Manoj Pahwa, who frequently plays broad comic characters, gets a more subdued role as a poet forced to aid the gangster. The payoff for Pahwa’s character is simply amazing.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s music is terrific, as always. The dilapidated mansion in which most of the story takes place is gorgeous. And we get to see Madhuri Dixit-Nene dance! There’s nothing not to love about Dedh Ishqiya.
In my attempt to find the best way to explain why I like an unconventional movie like Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola as much as I do, I found my answer in my review of director Vishal Bhardwaj’s previous effort, the magnificent 7 Khoon Maaf:
“7 Khoon Maaf is an all-or-nothing film. It either works for you or it doesn’t. Its strangeness will be a turn-off for some viewers, while others will lament a lack of explosive action scenes. But, if you’re in the mood for something a little different, beware: Susanna might just steal your heart.”
I feel the same way about Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (MKBKM, henceforth). I love it, but I understand why some people won’t. It’s a slow burn, with characters that are hard to pin down and a few odd elements that have to be accepted on faith rather than understood with reason. I think it’s fabulous.
The plot of MKBKM is the opposite of high-concept. In short, the story is about a wealthy man’s attempt to convert his land and the small village that sits on it into a massive factory, shopping mall, and apartment complex. Naturally, the villagers object to the plan, as do the man’s servants, his daughter, and strangely enough, the man himself.
See, the rich man, Mandola (Pankaj Kapur) has a dual personality: he’s a ruthless, ambitious tycoon in the sober light of day, and a populist by night, once he starts drinking. His handler, Matru (Imran Khan), is supposed to keep Mandola away from liquor. But Matru has little incentive to do so, as Mandola is a nicer guy when he’s drunk. Early in the film, an inebriated Mandola leads the villagers in a protest outside the gates of his own mansion, until he sobers up and realizes what he’s doing.
Mandola wants the factory in part to woo a fetching government minister, Chaudhari Devi (Shabana Azmi), and also to secure a prosperous future for his only daughter, Bijlee (Anushka Sharma). He’s gone so far as to get Bijlee engaged to the minister’s son, Baadal (Arya Babbar), who, Matru repeatedly reminds Bijlee, is an idiot. Matru and Bijlee are, of course, a far more appropriate couple, despite their differences in economic class.
Bhardwaj includes a number of quirky elements in the film to elevate it beyond a simple parable about the dangers of progress at any cost. A scene in which Mandola confirms his plans with Chaudhari explicitly evokes images of the witches in Macbeth and takes place amid ruins on a hilltop reminiscent of Weathertop in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Promos for MKBKM featured one of the recurring visual themes: a life-sized hot pink buffalo that Mandola sees whenever his longing for his beloved liquor becomes too strong.
My favorite oddball touch is the way Bhardwaj deals with something that would’ve been a throw-away gag in any other movie. When Baadal first sees Bijlee in the movie, he’s accompanied by an African folk dance group that he purchased in an attempt to impress her. Rather than just disappear after the joke is over, the folk group remains through the rest of the film. They take over a room in Mandola’s mansion, join in dance numbers, and protest alongside the villagers.
That detail alone makes the movie for me. What else would one expect to happen to a foreign dance group transported to rural India? Bhardwaj — who co-wrote the screenplay with Abhishek Chaubey — takes a practical problem and turns it to his advantage.
The performances are great throughout: Pankaj Kapur growls his way through his dialog as cantankerous Mandola; Anushka Sharma is as spunky and lovable as ever; Azmi and Babbar are appropriately diabolical; and Imran Khan is clever and sexy as a budding revolutionary, whose sidekicks include an old man, a blind preteen, and a transvestite.
Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola is a must see. Even if you don’t love it, you won’t see anything else quite like it.
Superstar actor — and up-and-coming director — Aamir Khan is reaching out to American companies in the hopes of forming new marketing relationships. Specifically, Khan wants to start marketing his movies in the U.S. as “art” films, similar to the way other foreign-language films are marketed.
Currently, Hindi movies are dropped into theaters with little promotion or fanfare. Indian production houses rarely screen their movies in advance for critics, so few get reviewed for newspapers. Fans in the U.S. must seek out information on upcoming releases themselves.
Without any promotion, mainstream American filmgoers likely scan past the names of Hindi movies on the theater marquee. At times, theaters may unintentionally steer people — especially those not obviously of Indian descent — away from Hindi movies. On several occasions, I’ve attempted to buy a ticket to a Hindi movie only to have the cashier say, “That’s a Bollywood movie,” or “You know that has subtitles, right?”
The shift to marketing at least some Hindi films like other foreign films is long overdue. U.S. theaters lump all Hindi movies together under the “Bollywood” label, evoking images of 3-hour epics full of romance, drama and action punctuated by flashy dance numbers.
Of course, those types of movies don’t make up the whole of Hindi cinema, even if they remain some of the most profitable. Just as the Indian film industry is shifting to producing more genre-specific films and away from all-encompassing epics, the industry is also producing films that American distributors would consider art movies if they were produced in other countries.
Some Indian directors, like Mira Nair, already have their films marketed in this way. But many of these Indian art movies, such as Deepa Mehta’s Oscar-nominated Water, are primarily Canadian productions.
Khan is a natural choice to forge this new marketing path in America. His recent efforts behind the camera have focused on smaller stories about specific issues, rather than mainstream blockbusters. Taare Zameen Par, which Khan directed in 2007, is about a boy with dyslexia. Peepli Live, which opens on August and is produced by Khan, is a black comedy about destitute farmers driven to suicide.
If Khan is successful, it could pave the way for other Indian directors to reach a much larger American audience. There are a few directors in particular whose films deserve this kind of treatment.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s movies are tailor-made for American fans of arthouse cinema. Westerners could consider Bhardwaj an Indian Kenneth Branagh. He’s already adapted two of Shakespeare’s plays into modern Indian stories — Maqbool and Omkara (MacBeth and Othello, respectively) — and he’s currently adapting a novel by Ruskin Bond for the big screen.
The criminal underworld of Uttar Pradesh provides the perfect setting for Bhardwaj’s updated classics. And since he broke into the industry as a composer, his have excellent soundtracks.
Bhardwaj’s frequent collaborator, Abhishek Chaubey, recently directed his first film, the atmospheric and charming Ishqiya. I can only assume that Chaubey’s future efforts will also deserve the arthouse promotional treatment.
Another obvious choice is director Mani Ratnam. His films are known for heartbreaking stories and stunning visuals. In keeping with tradition, he includes elaborate dance numbers in many of his movies, which add a surreal element.
Though it may take extra effort on the part of American distributors to determine which Indian movies are art versus simple popcorn flicks, it’s past time to stop grouping all Hindi movies under the Bollywood umbrella.
My enjoyment of most movies doesn’t hinge completely on the quality of the acting. I suppose that, when done well, you’re not even supposed to notice the acting. But the three leads in Ishqiya elevate an otherwise small and straightforward story to a work of art.
The film opens on a loving young couple engaged in a disagreement. The wife, Krishna (Vidya Balan) asks her husband, Vidyadhar (Adil Hussain) to abandon his criminal ways. He’s non-committal, though he professes to love her. As she walks through a dark hallway carrying a sacred flame on a tray, the camera cuts to the exterior of the house as an explosion destroys one of the rooms.
We next see Krishna as she opens the gate surrounding what’s left of the house to admit two of her husband’s former associates. Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) and Babban (Arshad Warsi) are an uncle-nephew pair of thieves on the run from their latest victim, Khalujaan’s brother-in-law. They arrive at the house hoping that Vidyadhar will be able to help them cross the border into Nepal. Krishna informs them that her husband is dead.
She allows them to hide out at her house until they can figure out an escape plan. Krishna’s beautiful voice, which she uses to sing old movie tunes, enchants Khalujaan, even though he’s old enough to be her father.
Khalujaan considers Krishna’s reserved nature evidence of her modesty; Babban thinks she’s hiding something. His suspicions are confirmed when Krishna reveals a dangerous plan to earn them enough money to pay off the brother-in-law and make them all rich.
Ishqiya has some of the best acting I’ve ever seen in a Hindi movie. Okay, any movie. Balan plays Krishna perfectly. She’s not your typical seductress. She’s cautious, as a woman who’s been living on her own should be, but she knows how to entice both men to fall for her. Whether that was part of her plan all along or just an impulse of a lonely woman, it’s impossible to tell.
Lately, Shah seems to only get cast in smaller, cameo roles that don’t give him much to do. Khalujaan is the meatiest role I’ve seen him play, and he’s tremendous. Shah is nearly 60, but plays Khulajaan like a teenager with a crush. The performance is both charming and heart-breaking because the odds are against Krishna reciprocating Khalujaan’s feelings.
Before Ishqiya, I disliked Arshad Warsi. In movies like Krazzy 4, Golmaal Returns, and Short Kut, I felt his performances were more loud than funny. I was happy to be proven wrong. Babban is a lech, but Warsi gives him a vulnerability that makes him a viable romantic match for Krishna. His falling for her is inevitable, and a lesser movie would make that love reason enough for her to fall in love with him. Thanks to Warsi, Babban is just charming enough that we believe Krishna could have feelings for him.
Writer-director Abhishek Chaubey does a superb job with his first movie. The story is small, and Chaubey, appropriately, doesn’t overreach. No big special effects, lavish dance numbers or distracting cameos. The attention stays focused on the three leads with straightforward camera work and a direct storytelling style.
Chaubey previously worked with director Vishal Bhardwaj on movies like Makdee, Omkara and Kaminey. The two worked together again on Ishqiya, which Bhardwaj produced and co-wrote. He also wrote the movie’s wonderful music.
In one scene, Krishna sings to herself while chopping vegetables. There’s no accompanying music, just a solo woman’s voice. The visuals and sound editing were so seamless that I was sure it really was Balan singing. Turns out it was the voice of Rekha Bhardwaj, Vishal’s wife.
The scene exemplifies all that’s great about Ishqiya. Chaubey pays close attention to small details, making the film immersive. And he’s willing to give time to such a simple scene that reveals so much about the characters. After such a terrific debut, I’m eager to see what Chaubey does next.
Note: I watched Ishqiya on a DVD produced by Shemaroo. A watermark of the company’s logo appeared in the bottom right corner of the screen throughout the whole movie. Eventually I was able to ignore it, but I found the practice annoying.