Tag Archives: Ali Abbas Zafar

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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Opening July 6: Sultan

Salman Khan’s latest — Sultan — hits Chicago area theaters on the evening of Wednesday, July 6, 2016, before adopting a full-day schedule on Thursday, July 7. The Yash Raj Films wrestling drama is directed by Ali Abbas Zafar of Mere Brother Ki Dulhan fame and co-stars Anushka Sharma and Randeep Hooda.

Sultan opens tonight in the following Chicago area theaters, with shows starting as early as 6 p.m.:

Sultan has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 49 min.

As of Friday, the only other Hindi film showing in the Chicago area will be Housefull 3, with one show daily at the South Barrington 30.

Movie Review: Gunday (2014)

Gunday2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Editor’s note: So, a lot of people have been coming to this review via IMDb, because Gunday is — after just one week in theaters — already the lowest-rated movie of all time. Lower than The Hottie and the Nottie, Birdemic, and even Manos: The Hands of Fate. As of February 22, it’s at 1.2/10, a full .8 ahead of its nearest competitor.

Is Gunday really that bad? As a movie, no. You can read below how I thought it was problematic, but passable.

Then why is it ranked as IMDb’s worst movie ever? It looks like the movie’s portrayal of the Bangladesh Liberation War has angered a lot of people, who have coordinated to give it as many 1/10 reviews as possible. Look at the IMDb user reviews, and several of them have the exact same title: “Manipulating Bangladesh’s Liberation War history.”

Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with the true events that Gunday references. So while I still think it’s okay as a film, I certainly wouldn’t vouch for it being historically accurate!

Abrupt changes in tone and an abundance of slow-mo keep Gunday (“The Outlaws“) from establishing its own voice or finding a rhythm.

The story begins in 1971 at the end of the war that established Bangladesh as an independent nation. 14-year-old orphans Bikram (Darshan Gurjar) and Bala (Jayesh V. Kardak) survive the deprivation of a refuge camp by working as gun runners. When Bala shoots an army officer to save Bikram’s life, the boys flee to Calcutta.

Fast-forward ten years, and Bikram (Ranveer Singh) and Bala (Arjun Kapoor) are the unofficial kings of Calcutta, controlling all of the city’s black market commodities. The buddies do everything together, while savvy Bikram keeps Bala’s temper in check.

As soon as the guys’ present-day circumstances are established, an anchor drops onto the plot in the form of a love interest: a cabaret dancer named Nandita (Priyanka Chopra).

The premise that two guys are such good buddies that they decide to share the same girl could be cute in a more lighthearted movie than this one. But Gunday starts out grim, and it returns to being so once Nandita chooses one guy over the other. The thirty-minute wacky romantic-comedy interval doesn’t fit.

That’s not the only aspect of Gunday that doesn’t make sense tonally. Action sequences vary from dramatic and realistic to outright loony. Bala causes an earthquake before shooting up through the ground, as though propelled by a geyser. A fish is wielded as a deadly weapon.

The goofy action sequences are pretty entertaining, but again, they don’t feel right in the context of the movie. Gunday would’ve been better had writer-director Ali Abbas Zafar established surreal action as the dominant tone of the movie.

Such a tone would’ve also explained the volume of slow-motion used in the film. Walking, running, dancing: seemingly every form of motility is presented in slow-motion. The impact of the two scenes in the movie that actually benefit from the treatment is dulled by its application to so many mundane activities.

There is a ridiculous amount of skin on display in Gunday, and not just by Chopra’s cabaret dancer. In the movie’s funniest fight scene, Bikram and Bala exchange blows, ripping off each other’s shirts in the process. The shirts come off in slow-mo (of course), exposing Singh’s and Kapoor’s hairless, tanned, greased-up, muscular torsos. It’s not supposed to be as hilarious as it is.

As much attention as is given to the guys’ muscles — with special attention paid to Singh’s perky buns — Irrfan Khan wins for Best Body, and he gets to keep his clothes on.

Khan’s star power is on full display as the police inspector tasked with bringing down Bikram and Bala and returning order to Calcutta. Saurab Shukla’s understated role as the lawyer who watches over Bikram and Bala is also notable.

Chopra is fine as Nandita, though she’s not given much to do besides look sexy, early on. Her performance improves as Nandita realizes the consequences of having strained the friendship between the two gangsters.

It almost seems as if the role of Bikram was written with Singh in mind, and his charisma is undeniable. Kapoor is very good at playing edgy anti-heroes, and it’s a shame when Bala gets turned into a mindless beefcake goofball during the romance portion of the movie. His hair-trigger is shelved for the sake of song-and-dance numbers and out-of-place comedy bits.

As a surreal dark comedy or action flick, Gunday could’ve been really interesting, but there’s no place for light romantic tomfoolery in such a film. A clear vision rather than a please-all approach would’ve done wonders.

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Movie Review: Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (2011)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Katrina Kaif and Imran Khan have been established Bollywood stars for years, but this has been something of a breakout summer for both of them. Kaif scored big at the box office with Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, and Khan showed serious comedy chops in Delhi Belly.

Headlining Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (“My Brother’s Bride”), Kaif and Khan seem their most at ease in front of the camera. Not only do they share a charming chemistry, but they give two of their strongest individual performances to date.

Khan anchors Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (MBKD, henceforth) as Kush, an aspiring director in India who gets an odd request from his brother in London, Luv (Ali Zafar). Having broken up with his longtime girlfriend, Piali (Tara D’Souza), Luv decides to entrust his romantic future to Kush. Luv asks his younger brother to find a nice Indian girl for him to marry.

Kush enlists his parents and friends to scour Dehradun for a bride for Luv. The ideal candidate turns out to be a reformed party girl named Dimple (Kaif), whom Kush met years earlier during her wilder days. She describes her qualifications thusly: “I am correctly beautiful and appropriately sexy.” She gets the gig.

Predictably, Kush and Dimple fall for each other as they make wedding preparations. Only after Luv arrives do they acknowledge the problem: she’s about to marry the wrong brother.

The fact that MBKD feels a bit like something we’ve seen before is actually its strength. Debutant filmmaker Ali Abbas Zafar (who’s not the Ali Zafar who plays Luv) clearly set out to make a feel-good romantic comedy, and he achieved his goal.

To play up the familiarity, the opening dance number pays homage to some famous Bollywood routines of the recent past. There are plenty of dance numbers, and all of them are entertaining and well-integrated into the plot.

A few slightly unexpected tweaks to the formula are a nice surprise. While Kush is the film’s main character, Dimple does more to drive the story forward. She’s not a passive damsel in distress, but rather an impatient problem solver whose impulsiveness gets her into trouble.

In another unexpected twist, MBKD doesn’t have a villain. I kept waiting for Luv to reveal himself to be an oaf, or for Piala to turn into a “crazy ex-girlfriend,” but all of the characters are nice people. The situation — not the characters — provides the conflict. It’s tricky to pull off, but Abbas Zafar handles it well.

The advantage of this approach is that the story doesn’t get bogged down in maudlin montages of Kush and Dimple staring forlornly into the rain as a singer laments the cruelty of fate. Rather, the lovebirds recognize a problem and set about fixing it.

The lone complaint I have about the movie is that several jokes depend on cultural references that American audiences likely don’t share. There are repeated references to Complan, which I learned after the movie is a British nutritional supplement. (See Ricky’s comment below for a more complete explanation of the Complan references.) This isn’t a reason to avoid the film, but American moviegoers should know in advance that they won’t get all the jokes.

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