Tag Archives: Aditya Chopra

Movie Review: Sultan (2016)

Sultan3 Stars (out of 4)

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Casting Salman Khan in a film brings baggage and expectations along with his sizeable fan base. Those attendant factors are evident in the story of Sultan, written and directed by Ali Abbas Zafar and produced by Aditya Chopra. The title role requires Salman to play a part unlike the one he typically plays, but the movie never quite allows you to forget that you’re watching Salman Khan.

Rather than opening with Salman’s character Sultan, the film begins with the financial troubles of a failing Indian mixed martial arts league. The league founder, Aakash (Amit Sadh, who deserves more attention in Bollywood), lacked the foresight to include any Indian fighters in his Indian fighting league, and he gets six months to boost audience interest before his investors pull the plug.

Aakash’s dad weirdly touts the superiority of Indian moral values before recalling an impressive wrestler named Sultan he saw up north about eight years ago. Aakash heads to Haryana, only to find that his father’s legendary wrestler is now a pot-bellied forty-something working a desk job at the water department.

Sultan’s friend Govind (the reliable Anant Sharma) gives Aakash the scoop on why his buddy quit wrestling. The flashback showing Sultan’s sporting career and his romance with fellow wrestler Aarfa (Anushka Sharma) is the most typical Salman Khan portion of the film. Young Sultan is an aimless prankster who’s nevertheless beloved by all, with no marriage prospects even though he’s “pushing thirty.” He meets Aarfa, who smacks him around for bumping into her, and immediately falls in love with her beauty and spunky attitude. She says she’s not interested, but he pursues her anyway.

This flashback section — which takes up the first hour — is the worst part of the film. Salman is long past the age where he can convincingly play a brat. His attempts to keep up with the younger cast members either in a footrace or on the dance floor make him look slow and heavy. Sultan’s father’s grey hair can’t disguise the fact that the two men look more like brothers than father and son.

The flashback seems designed to reassure ardent Salman fans who prefer him in this avatar before the un-Salman-like plot turns to come. Salman’s celluloid enemies are almost always external, be they villains or just obstacles in his way. Salman’s characters are morally perfect from the get go, so no character growth is required to conquer said obstacles.

Not so in Sultan. Aarfa calls Sultan out for being a presumptuous deadbeat, prompting him to realize the he needs to work to win not only the respect of others, but also himself. He pours his heart into wrestling and becomes a champion, but success brings other pitfalls. Sultan fails to appreciate the difference between confidence and arrogance, resulting in a tragedy for which he is solely responsible.

When present-day Sultan joins Aakash’s MMA league, he does so with loftier goals than personal glory. Sultan’s presence by no means guarantees the league’s success. Not only is the former champ out of shape physically, he’s emotionally deflated as well. His new coach (Randeep Hooda) takes one look at Sultan’s haunted expression and says, “I don’t train dead people.”

But train him he does, in an entertaining montage that sets the stage for some cool fight scenes. All the fights in the MMA tournament look really good, a huge leap forward since last year’s disappointing Bollywood MMA flick Brothers.

Probably the single best bit of acting I’ve ever seen from Salman comes as a washed-up Sultan confronts the man he’s become. He stands shirtless in front of the mirror looking at his paunch, and tears fill his eyes. Frustrated and sobbing, he struggles to put his arm through the sleeve of his shirt, desperate to cover himself. It’s a scene that could not exist in most of Salman’s recent films, in which his character is always perfect, always the superman.

Zafar brings out the best in Salman on screen, yet the superstar’s off-screen persona is never fully out of mind while watching the film. When Aarfa’s father speaks with his daughter about Sultan and says: “Even God forgives one mistake,” one can’t help but wonder if this is also a plea to the audience on behalf of the real-life star (who couldn’t avoid trouble even while promoting this very movie).

Aarfa is one of the highlights of the film. She’s a fully realized character, with hopes and dreams independent of Sultan. When she makes compromises for the sake of their relationship, they feel like reasoned decisions and not the inevitable reduction of a woman’s roles to wife and/or mother. Sharma’s tough act is spot on.

Obviously, Sultan would have to be a progressive guy to fall for a woman who refuses to be sidelined because of her gender. So why, in multiple media sessions, does Sultan fall back on negative tropes about wives and girlfriends? He tells the press, “She’s not my wife yet, but she’s sucking my blood already,” and they laugh. Why the jokes at the expense of women?

The film also falls on its face when it comes to race. Two of Sultan’s MMA opponents are black, and both are introduced in English as being “owned” by someone, when the appropriate word should have been “sponsored.” One of the opponents is a capoeira expert, and as he leaps to execute a kick, Govinda says, “He leaps like an ape.” Sultan asks of the same fighter, “Is this gorilla or chimpanzee style?” Of all of the animals in the world that jump, Zafar could only think of monkeys to refer to a black character?

Sultan is otherwise a well-executed sports flick that would be enjoyable even with another actor in the lead role. Yet, for better or worse, the movie is all the more interesting for the way the main character’s life reflects upon that of the actor playing him.

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Movie Review: Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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For the first ninety minutes or so, Jab Tak Hai Jaan is vintage Yash Chopra: catchy songs, glamorous locations, and Shahrukh Khan executing another smoldering performance. Things fall apart after the intermission break, and the film spirals into absurdity for its final ninety minutes. It’s hard to imagine being more disappointed.

The story begins as ultra-cool soldier Samar Anand (Khan) diffuses a bomb in a Ladakh market before saving a bikini-clad young woman (Anushka Sharma) from an icy lake, leaving his jacket with her. The woman, Akira, finds Samar’s journal in the jacket pocket. Reading it, she discovers that Samar wasn’t always the gruff soldier he is today.

A prolonged flashback to ten years earlier shows Samar working odd jobs in London, supplementing his income busking on the streets. He becomes smitten with a beautiful Indian woman (Katrina Kaif) he overhears praying to Jesus to bless her with a handsome Anglo husband, and not a boring Indian one. Samar and the woman, Meera, form a bond as he teaches her to sing in Punjabi and she teaches him to speak English.

Since Jab Tak Hai Jaan is nearly three hours long, Samar and Meera can’t get their happily-ever-after so early in the movie. Meera makes another promise to Jesus that hinges on her never seeing Samar again. That’s where Samar’s journal ends.

The unfolding of Samar’s and Meera’s doomed romance is the best part of the story. Khan is so handsome and suave, it’s possible to believe he really could charm all of London with his singing and intermittent guitar strumming. Yash Chopra gives Kaif a solo dance number that allows her to have the spotlight to herself, and she shines during the opportunity. Also, her body is amazing.

When events in the story return to the present, the whole film goes south. Akira, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, returns Samar’s journal and finagles her way into being embedded with his army unit on an assignment for the Discovery Channel. Her motive is allegedly to understand how Samar’s past influenced his refusal to wear protective gear when disarming bombs, but she really wants to make him forget about Meera and fall in love with her.

Sharma is as winsome and adorable as ever, but her character is an idiot. In addition to her moronic romantic plot, her lack of professionalism nearly gets her killed while following the bomb squad around, for whom she serves as a hybrid kid sister/sex object.

Things only get stupider from here. Writer Aditya Chopra resorts to the laziest of all possible storytelling clichés: amnesia. Aditya doubles down on the stupidity by alleging that retrograde amnesia can be cured by allowing the friends and family of the amnesiac to invent and play out a fictitious alternative life story for the patient to fill in the lost years, rather than just telling the patient the truth.

Jab Tak Hai Jaan‘s dumbest moment comes when the London police department allows Samar to disarm a bomb because “this guy just might know what he’s talking about.” Next time I’m in London, I’ll be sure to ask the cops what other dangerous matters of national security they farm out to random foreign civilians. Sounds like fun!

I’m not sure how the plot got so out of hand. Aditya Chopra is a better writer than this, and it’s unfortunate that this is Yash Chopra’s last film. The candid behind-the-scenes shots of the director that accompany the closing credits are the real highlights of Jab Tak Hai Jaan.

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Movie Review: New York (2009)

newyork3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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In 2007, FBI agent Roshan (Irrfan Khan) tasks Indian immigrant Omar (Neil Nitin Mukesh) with spying on his college buddy, Sam (John Abraham), whom The Bureau suspects of being a terrorist.  The job forces Omar to deal with his feelings for Maya (Katrina Kaif), another friend from college whom he hasn’t seen since September 11, 2001: a day that changed the friends’ lives forever.

Relative newcomer Mukesh capably carries the weight of the film as Omar, even playing opposite superstars like Kaif and Abraham. The plot is detailed enough to make it a believable spy thriller, but never loses focus on the story of love and friendship at its core.

New York has the extra responsibility of addressing a sad truth. Hundreds of Muslim men were arrested by the FBI in the days after 9/11, abused and detained for months in the U.S. before being released without charges (the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled on the related case of Ashcroft v. Iqbal). Writer Aditya Chopra and director Kabir Khan handle the subject compassionately, and yet with an objectivity I’m not sure most American filmmakers would be capable of, less than eight years after 9/11.

An American film would likely err on the side of either über-patriotism or empathy for those whose situations have driven them to violence. New York deftly avoids this by aligning itself against both extremes.

The film condemns the zeal and prejudices which led American law enforcement agents to target Muslims and men of Arab and South Asian descent. But the movie is no kinder to those ex-detainees whose desire for revenge against their captors might lead them to terrorism. Chopra & Khan’s ultimate message is that the cycle of revenge traps us all in the past.

The movie contains some graphic scenes of torture. Also, theater websites incorrectly list New York‘s runtime as 1 hr. 48 min.; it’s closer to 2 hrs 30 min.

Movie Review: Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008)

Rab_Ne_Bana_Di_Jodi3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Aditya Chopra and Shahrukh Khan, the director and actor responsible for the Bollywood classic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, succeed again with Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi.

In RNBDJ, Khan plays Suri, a mild mannered guy who fulfills his mentor’s dying wish by marrying the mentor’s daughter, Taani (Anushka Sharma). Though Suri’s older and less flashy than she is, Taani accepts her new role as his wife, with the caveat that she’ll never be able to love him because of her broken heart. Timid Suri, unable to show his wife how much he loves her, secretly invents a flashy alter ego named Raj in order to bring some joy into Taani’s life.

Chopra thoroughly explains the emotions motivating Suri and Taani, and Khan and Sharma perfectly portray the characters. The relationship between the pair is believable, despite the age difference between the duo (Khan is 43 and Sharma is 19). Sharma’s nuanced performance makes it hard to believe that this is her first film.

Cases of mistaken identity are often hard to pull off onscreen, but Khan looks and acts so differently as Suri and Raj that it seems totally reasonable that Taani wouldn’t know that the two men are the same person.

RNBDJ trips up late in the film during a sequence in which Suri battles a sumo wrestler. The scene is so long and out of place that it completely brought me out of the movie. While the scene intends to show that Suri would do anything to make Taani happy, I would rather have seen more examples of that interspersed throughout the film. Taani continually performs small acts of kindness for Suri, while Suri’s affection seems to stop after providing Taani with a place to live, only to rekindle during the over-the-top sumo showdown. Suri doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d  try to impress his wife with a big spectacle.

Apart from the one misstep, the movie is flawless. Chopra’s attention to detail is especially obvious during RNBDJ‘s big dance number, “Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte.” I’m almost always distracted by the background dancers in item numbers: one dancer is out of sync with the others, another is wearing an unflattering outfit, etc. No such worries, here. When I noticed the background dancers in RNBDJ, they looked spectacular. But most of the time, my attention was on the lead couple, as it should be.

Opening December 12: Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi

Yash Raj Films production Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi opens this Friday, December 12, in theaters across the United States. In the Chicago area, you can catch RNBDJ at the AMC Cantera 30 in Warrenville and the AMC South Barrington 30. Check AMC’s website for showtimes.

Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi reunites Shah Rukh Khan with the director of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Aditya Chopra. Can Chopra recreate the success of DDLJ, or will Shah Rukh’s nerdy moustache prove too distracting?