Tag Archives: Alia Bhatt

Movie Review: Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Alia Bhatt sparkles in filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi. Bhansali’s visuals are mesmerizing as ever, but the characters are the real stars.

Gangubai (Bhatt) was born Ganga, the educated daughter of a barrister. At 16, a man she loved tricked her into running away to Mumbai to pursue a movie career. There, he sold her to Sheela Mausi (Seema Pahwa), the owner of a brothel.

With her only choices being life as a sex worker or death, Ganga chose to live. Her first client nicknamed her Gangu, a moniker she adopted to mark this new phase of her life. When she became the madam of the brothel following Sheela Mausi’s death, the other women christened her Gangubai as a sign of respect.

Gangubai’s great strength is her empathy for the women around her. Her first act of defiance under Sheela Mausi is to take a handful of other women out to see a movie — hardly a radical act, but one that affirms their humanity. Gangubai knows that the only way to achieve her goals of securing safety and dignity for her fellow sex workers and education for their children is to put herself in a position of power, even if it means sacrificing her own personal happiness.

Gangubai succeeds because she’s great at understanding what motivates people. Bhansali drives that home by making sure that, in every scene, it is perfectly clear what every character wants. That goes for main characters and those in supporting roles. It’s so consistent throughout the film that it’s clearly something that Bhansali and co-writer Utkarshini Vashishtha put a lot of thought into.

Bhansali also pays a ton of attention to the way characters move. Choreography is obvious in the film’s two large-scale dance numbers, but it’s present in simpler gestures, too: the way someone tilts their head dismissively or the way Gangubai’s rival Raziabai (Vijay Raaz) sidles up behind her in an attempt to intimidate.

The focus on movement is most thrilling in the two love songs between Gangubai and Afshan (Shantanu Maheshwari), an apprentice tailor. Afshan leans back timidly as Gangubai leans in, tricking him into thinking she’s going to kiss him as she reaches for a bottle. Both songs “Jab Saiyaan” and “Meri Jaan” are super sexy, as Gangubai and Afshan move teasingly around each other. Maheshwari got his start in entertainment as a member of the Desi Hoppers dance crew, and his expert body control infuses every part of his performance. Casting him was an inspired choice.

Songs integrate into the story seamlessly — so much so that Gangubai Kathiawadi could make for a good starter “Bollywood-style” movie for someone who thinks they don’t like musicals. The song numbers fit perfectly within the flow of the story.

The only weak point in the film comes from another typical Bollywood element: a character giving a climactic speech in front of a crowd. The scene doesn’t have the same impact as it would have in real life, and it slows down the momentum. The movie also ends with a narrated outro that sounds like the closing paragraph from an elementary school social studies report.

Alia Bhatt’s charismatic performance can’t be praised enough. It’s a swaggering role, but it’s always clear why Gangubai is the way she is. Her brash persona is a necessary part of her plan to improve the lives of the women around her.

She’s surrounded by some colorful characters brought to life by even more great performances. Pahwa is appropriately loathsome as Sheela Mausi, and Raaz’s Raziabai is chilling. Ajay Devgn is terrific in his extended cameo as the helpful gangster Rahim Lala.

Best of all are those closest to Gangubai. Maheshwari’s Afshan is adorable, and Indra Tiwari is sensational as Gangubai’s best friend and sidekick Kamli. Bhatt’s lead performance deservedly gets most of the attention, but the ensemble around her is terrific as well.

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Netflix Women’s Day 2022 News

In honor of International Women’s Day, the Netflix India Twitter account drew special attention to six upcoming projects with strong women characters, including some new photos. The account tweeted about the recently announced films Kathal, Thar, and Qala, as well as the upcoming second seasons of Masaba Masaba and She. Most exciting was a tweet about the forthcoming series Mai, which was announced a couple of years ago and hasn’t gotten much attention since. All of the titles were mentioned as “coming soon,” so here’s hoping that’s true.

Netflix recently brought together a bunch of the women filmmakers and actors responsible for the streamer’s biggest Indian hits to film a promotional video for Netflix and take questions from the media. Friend of Access Bollywood Suchin Mehrotra was at the event reporting for The Hindu, and Anupama Chopra recorded a video interview for Film Companion. Check it out:

As if this wasn’t enough, yesterday Netflix revealed that Alia Bhatt’s first foray into Hollywood will be a role in the Netflix Original film Heart of Stone, starring Gal Gadot and Jamie Dornan. Exciting stuff!

Movie Review: Kalank (2019)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Kalank (“Stigma“) is a middling extravaganza, neither as good nor as bad as it could have been. Lavish sets, impressive dance numbers, and a gorgeous cast make it an enjoyable enough one-time watch, so long as you keep your attention at surface level.

Set just before Partition, the story follows Roop (Alia Bhatt), a young woman forced to integrate into a wealthy Hindu family living near Muslim-majority Lahore under unusual circumstances. Her acquaintance Satya (Sonakshi Sinha) proposes a business arrangement: in exchange for funding dowries for Roop’s younger sisters, Roop will move in to Satya’s home and grow closer to Satya’s husband, Dev (Aditya Roy Kapur). Satya is dying from cancer, and she hopes Dev will marry Roop after Satya’s death. Roop insists that she’ll only enter the home as Dev’s co-wife — a prudent move since Satya otherwise wouldn’t be around to make sure her wishes are carried out after death.

The second marriage proceeds and Roop moves into the Chaudhry family mansion with Satya, Dev, and Dev’s stiff father, Balraj (Sanjay Dutt). It would have been interesting to watch Roop and Satya negotiate their evolving roles in the household (as Bhatt’s character Sehmat did in Raazi) and learn more about nature of their tense preexisting relationship, but filmmaker Abhishek Varman sidelines Satya. Her illness progresses off-screen, and she and Roop have few interactions after their initial one. It’s unfortunate how small Sinha’s role in Kalank is given her prominence in the film’s marketing and the quality of her performance in her few scenes.

Dev tells Roop that he agreed to the marriage to make Satya happy, and that while he will never be mean to Roop, neither he will ever love her. Perhaps it’s because of the limitations of Dev’s nature, but Kapur’s one-note performance in the role is not one of his best.

In order to escape her stifling home life, Roop undertakes vocal music tuition from the famed courtesan Bahaar Begum (Madhuri Dixit) in a working-class Muslim neighborhood. There Roop meets Gendry, er, Zafar (Varun Dhawan): a hunky blacksmith who’s the unacknowledged bastard son of — you guessed it — Roop’s father-in-law, Balraj. Zafar neglects to mention that to Roop so that he can use her to take revenge against the family that abandoned him.

Varman lays the melodrama on thick, with lots of longing looks, near-kisses, and simmering tensions between family members. It’s fun, if that’s the kind of story you’re in the mood for. The melodrama is enhanced by song numbers that are grand in scale and a delight to watch, especially when Madhuri Dixit takes the floor. The sets have a depth of field, and every rooftop and alleyway is populated with extras. Some settings do feel over-the-top for their location. Bahaar Begum’s brothel is apparently so successful that she can afford to stack chandeliers atop one another, and Blacksmith Alley’s festival budget tops the production costs of most Bollywood films.

Then again, I don’t think authenticity was Varman’s goal with Kalank — especially not with Karan Johar financing the film. Everything is big and glamorous, regardless of whether it makes sense. I’m not sure if the costumes are true to the time period, but they look fabulous. The cast members — particularly Dixit, Sinha, and Bhatt — look stunning under Devdas cinematographer Binod Pradhan’s lens.

Kalank gets its worst bang for its buck on an awful CGI bull-riding sequence involving Zafar that includes maybe one shot of an actual bull. I’m not sure why this made the final cut of the film, except that they must have spent a lot of money on it.

Kalank‘s larger-than-life relationship drama is set within a complicated political environment. While Roop is falling in love with Zafar behind her husband’s back, neoliberal Dev uses his newspaper to promote the economic benefits of bringing a steel mill to Lahore — a move that would decimate the local, Muslim-run blacksmith industry. Dev — who is also anti-Partition — thinks he’s just seeing the big picture, envisioning an India made prosperous by innovation. Never mind that only his family’s prosperity is assured by such advances, at the expense of a struggling lower class.

Dev’s main antagonist is Zafar’s friend Abdul Khan (Kunal Khemu, who’s excellent in Kalank), a politician responding to his base’s growing discontent. His own politics become more religiously divisive over time in part because of the mood of the neighborhood but also due to Zafar’s aggrieved goading. There’s an inevitability to the violent climax, and Khan admits he couldn’t stop it if he wanted to (not that he wants to, by that point).

Kalank‘s epilogue — featuring Bhatt in a weird direct-to-camera speech — suggests that all this trouble could’ve been avoided if we just set aside our differences and chose to get along. But could it? The plot makes a compelling case for the Muslims in the film to favor Partition by whatever means necessary. Things were already tough — huge festival budgets and extravagant brothel chandeliers notwithstanding — and likely to get worse, all so that the (Hindu) rich can get richer and the (Muslim) poor poorer. I’m not saying this applies to actual history, but in the terms the movie sets for itself, the angry mob’s response makes sense.

That said, it stinks to see another mainstream film depict Muslims as violent, except for those noble enough to sacrifice themselves to save innocent Hindus. And it stinks that this is another movie that wants us to sympathize most with characters who are wealthy enough to escape difficult situations without regard for the mess they leave behind.

In order to enjoy Kalank, one must ignore the politics undergirding it and allow oneself to revel in the superficial beauty of it all. I was able to do that while I was in the theater. Only afterward did the film’s unfortunate aspects start to weigh on me.

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Opening April 17: Kalank

The Karan Johar-produced period drama Kalank hits Chicago area theaters on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. The stellar cast — which includes Madhuri Dixit, Sonakshi Sinha, Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan, Aditya Roy Kapur, and Sanjay Dutt — is directed by 2 States helmer Abhishek Varman.

Kalank opens Wednesday at the AMC River East 21 in Chicago, MovieMax Cinemas in Niles, AMC Niles 12 in Niles, Century 12 Evanston in Evanston, Regal Round Lake Beach 18 in Round Lake Beach, AMC South Barrington 24 in South Barrington, AMC Rosemont 18 in Rosemont, Marcus Addison Cinema in Addison, Regal Cantera 17 in Warrenville, AMC Naperville 16 in Naperville, Cinemark at Seven Bridges in Woodridge, and AMC Woodridge 18 in Woodridge. It has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 46 min.

MovieMax carries over Kesari and The Tashkent Files.

Other Indian and Pakistani movies playing in the Chicago area this weekend (all films have English subtitles):

Movie Review: Gully Boy (2019)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Aspiring filmmakers should study Gully Boy as a masterclass in character creation. Every character has a place in the story’s social fabric, and we see how they fit into the wider world — not just how they relate to the protagonist.

Murad (Ranveer Singh) is the spoke around which the rest of the characters in Gully Boy turn, but there’s always a sense that they have lives that continue when he’s not around. Murad suspects his criminal friend Moeen (Vijay Varma) is up to something dangerous, but he isn’t sure, since they’re not together all the time. The parents of their buddy Salman (Nakul Roshan Sahdev) are looking for a bride for him — something Murad’s fiery girlfriend Safeena (Alia Bhatt) uses to her advantage when the couple are on the outs.

Too often, Hindi movies with a male protagonist played by a big star consider the hero’s love interest only in terms of how she relates to him. Director Zoya Akhtar and writer Reema Kagti make sure that Safeena’s character is fully developed, showing her relationships with her parents and Murad’s friends. This doesn’t take away from Murad’s importance to the story, but instead emphasizes how he fits into his world. Giving all the characters agency adds to the movie’s realism and reinforces the notion that Murad’s actions have consequences for other people.

He and Safeena have kept their relationship secret from their parents for years, assuming that they’ll announce their intention to married when she finishes medical school and he earns a business degree. When Murad begins participating in the local rap scene, it changes the trajectory of his life and Safeena’s. Even though she supports his new endeavor, it means adjusting the plans for their future, since rapper isn’t an occupation that any of their conservative parents would approve of. A powerful scene in which Safeena asks her parents for the freedom to go places other than school highlights what she and Murad are up against, if he strays from the safe path to follow his dream.

Murad’s lyrics are born out of anger at the injustice that defines his world and limits his opportunities. His father, Aftab (Vijay Raaz in a chilling performance), accepts the limits imposed on poor Muslims and views educating Murad as a waste of money, since he’ll likely just end up a driver like his father anyway. Quashing Murad’s aspirations is a way of protecting himself from the truth that his own life might be better had he allowed himself to dream, instead of accepting what was forced upon him.

Gully Boy doesn’t pretend that Murad can succeed on desire alone, given the enormous societal forces he has to contend with at both the top and bottom of India’s economic ladder. He hones his craft under the tutelage of MC Sher (star-in-the-making Siddhant Chaturvedi), an established local rapper who understands Murad’s frustration and sees him as a voice for the underdogs in their neighborhood.

Ranveer Singh did his own rapping in the film, and the music overall is really good. (It would have been nice if the lyrics of the incidental music had been subtitled, and not just the lyrics from Murad’s scenes.) The lone weak points in Gully Boy are rap battle scenes — insult contests that have little in common with Murad’s introspective lyric-writing. I don’t know if one must be adept at rap battles to be considered a good rapper — or how one even wins a rap battle — but the sequences are dull.

Although Gully Boy isn’t an ensemble picture like Akhtar’s two most recent feature films — 2015’s Dil Dhadakne Do and 2011’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara — it almost feels as though it is, given how much care went into fleshing out the characters in orbit around the protagonist. Akhtar’s fascination with the connections between people sets her apart from her contemporaries and makes her one of India’s most compelling filmmakers.

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Movie Review: Raazi (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A young Indian spy marries into a Pakistani military family in the gripping period thriller Raazi, the latest in a string of hit performances by leading lady Alia Bhatt.

Bhatt plays Sehmat, a Delhi college student in 1971 summoned home at the behest of her father, Hidayat (Rajit Kapur), to receive two shocking pieces of news. First, Hidayat reveals that he has just months to live. Second, as a spy himself, Hidayat has spent years cultivating a friendship with Pakistani Brigadier Syed (Shishir Sharma), who hinted that the military is planning an attack against India. In order to uncover the plot, Hidayat fixed Sehmat’s marriage to Syed’s son, Iqbal (Vicky Kaushal), so that she may act as a spy in her father’s stead.

The movie’s very title (“Raazi” translates to “Agree”) informs us that this isn’t an order but a plan that requires Sehmat’s consent. Hidayat’s fatherly instincts kick in, and he encourages her to go back to college just hours after his revelation. There’s also a sense from Hidayat and other characters of his generation that young people deserve to make their own choices — in contrast to their own youth when the buildup and aftermath of Partition forced them to act out of necessity.

Sehmat agrees to the marriage plan, assuring her father that she’s acting out of an inherited sense of patriotism, not obedience. She undertakes a month of training under Khalid Mir (Jaideep Ahlawat), who also wants to be sure that she’s doing this of her own volition. He’s hard on Sehmat because — even though there’s a plan in place to rescue her in case of trouble — she’ll be largely on her own, responsible for finding intel and relaying it to Mir in secret via a convoluted spy network.

It’s worth noting in relation to Mir that the film’s story — at least initially — is kind of confusing, at least for those whose history education focused on countries other than India or Pakistan. A lot of characters with secret allegiances are introduced right away, and there are mentions of separatist groups — which Mir may have been a part of, I’m not sure — that most of the audience will get, but that flew past white, American me.

After the initial information overload, the story itself and the relationships between characters simplify. Most of the action takes place at the spy training ground or in and around Sehmat’s in-laws’ house, and details of the brewing military conflict are less important than what’s happening to Sehmat. The 2017 multilingual film The Ghazi Attack deals with events in the same time period, and watching it beforehand gave me enough background information for me to walk out of Raazi feeling like I understood what happened.

Raazi is ultimately about its characters more than the military conflict. Sehmat not only faces challenges as a rookie spy but as a new bride as well, forced to integrate into a new family. Pure luck finds her married to a good man who is as surprised by their abrupt betrothal as she is. Iqbal’s compassion allows their relationship to develop naturally, and their romance adds a layer of complexity that Sehmat did not anticipate.

Every actor in this movie is terrific — from key players like Sharma as Sehmat’s kind father-in-law to the guy working at the flower stall and the sympathetic military wives — enabling Raazi to cast a spell that never breaks. Kapur and Kaushal are stellar, whether they are in the background of a scene or if they’re sobbing with the young woman they both love.

Alia Bhatt’s star power is beyond question. She effortlessly portrays Sehmat’s youthful inexperience and her fierce determination, provoking the same protective instincts from the audience that Sehmat inspires in her mentors in espionage. This is a wonderful performance by Bhatt in a thoroughly engrossing film.

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Movie Review: Badrinath Ki Dulhania (2017)

1 Star (out of 4)

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The romantic-comedy Badrinath Ki Dulhania (“Badrinath’s Bride“) fails as both a romance and a comedy. A somewhat amusing first half is undone by a disturbing second half that is no fun to watch.

One of the qualities that made the main characters in writer-director Shashank Khaitan’s previous film, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (which starred the same lead actors in different roles) so likeable was that they both had strong moral values guiding their actions. That element is missing from Badrinath Ki Dulhania, resulting in a male lead character who is outdated at best.

Badrinath (Varun Dhawan) is the good-for-nothing youngest son of a money-lender, Mr. Bhansal (Rituraj Singh), in the town of Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh. The elder Bhansal already managed to guilt-trip Badrinath’s brother, Alok (Yash Sinha), into giving up the woman he loved in favor of an arranged marriage. Bhansal’s penchant for clutching his chest and reaching for an oxygen tank he doesn’t need prompts Badrinath to explain: “An Indian father has the weakest heart in all the world.”

This would be amusing were Bhansal not a sinister enforcer of repressive gender politics. Mrs. Bhansal never speaks, period. Alok’s wife, Urmila (Shweta Prasad), is a financial expert with an advanced education, but Bhansal will not allow his daughter-in-law to work. It’s as though he takes pride in forcing such an accomplished woman into a life of domestic servitude. Alok is too much of a coward to stand up to his father, despite his wife’s suffering.

Badrinath is just as cowardly as Alok, but also more entitled. Badrinath is so assured that he can have whatever he wants — taking it by force, if necessary — that he pursues a woman who is his intellectual superior and not the least bit interested in him: Vaidehi (Alia Bhatt).

After repeatedly rebuffing Badrinath’s stalkery come-ons, Vaidehi consents to let him and his friend, Somdev (Sahil Vaid), find a groom for her elder sister, Kritika. Though Vaidehi explains that this act of kindness will not lead to a romance between her and Badrinath, he’s sure it will.

The relationship between Badrinath and Vaidehi is cute enough until she wounds his pride, prompting a chilling post-interval turn in Badrinath. He shows some violent tendencies earlier in the film in his role as his father’s bill collector, but the sense of entitlement that drives his actions in the second half adds an element of menace.

It’s almost as if Khaitan believes that Dhawan’s good looks make his character’s actions less dangerous. A boy that cute wouldn’t really hurt her, right? Dhawan already showed that he can play scary in Badlapur, and there are echoes of that performance in this film.

Another knock against Badrinath is his cowardice. This fear on the part of everyone in the family to stand up to Mr. Bhansal — even when they know he is morally wrong — taints all of the them, but Badrinath most of all as the main character. He simply has too far to grow within the constraints of the story.

Karan Johar’s role as producer of the film is a problem because his name evokes memories of his own movie about a son challenging his overbearing father: Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…. The hero of that film seems vastly more progressive than Badrinath, despite the fact that K3G came out sixteen years ago.

Throughout Badrinath Ki Dulhania, there’s a feeling that Vaidehi deserves better. She and Badrinath may look nice together on the dance floor, but he can’t offer her anything she can’t achieve for herself on her own terms. All the credit goes to Bhatt, whose natural charisma outshines her co-stars.

With such an imbalance among the characters, we’re left with just another movie about a overachieving woman who must choose whether to sacrifice her goals for the sake of a man who wants a trophy for learning how to use a microwave.

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Movie Review: Dear Zindagi (2016)

dearzindagi3 Stars (out of 4)

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Dear Zindagi (“Dear Life“) is one of those movies that’s terrific through the climax, only to close with a denouement that undercuts much of the good that came before. Its unfortunate ending contradicts the primary life lessons learned by a young commitment-phobe over the course of the film.

Kaira (Alia Bhatt) is at that point where the biologically ingrained self-centeredness of the teens and early twenties must, by necessity, make way for a more empathetic means of interacting with the world. In short, she’s stuck.

Already an accomplished cinematographer with dozens of commercials and music videos to her credit, Kaira wants to finally shoot her own feature film. The perfect opportunity comes her way via a handsome producer, Raghu (Kunal Kapoor), with whom she’s been cheating on her handsome restaurateur boyfriend, Sid (Angad Bedi).

Raghu offers Kaira the chance to be the lead cinematographer on a film he’s producing in New York City. To address any awkwardness in advance, he warns Kaira that his ex-girlfriend is also working on the project. Kaira seizes on this minor complication as a reason to blow up her budding romance with Raghu and her chance to make the film.

When a new renting rule gets Kaira booted from her apartment, she has no choice but to embark on a visit to her parents’ house in Goa. Her relationship with her folks is icy at best, though only from her end. Mom offers to make Kaira’s favorite foods, and Dad happily boasts about her professional accomplishments. There has to be a reason for Kaira’s attitude, even if we don’t know what it is.

With time on her hands, Kaira takes the opportunity to explore her failed romantic relationships by meeting with an unconventional therapist, Jehangir “Jug” Khan (Shah Rukh Khan). He pushes her to consider why she’s so concerned about what other people think about her–and what, if anything, it has to do with her parents. To paraphrase Jug, Kaira is letting her past blackmail her present at the expense of her future.

Dear Zindagi deftly destigmatizes mental illness and therapy. Kaira is not conventionally “crazy,” but she repeats patterns of behavior that make her and those around her unhappy. She also lacks the conviction that her life choices are valid, regardless of what others say. Solving those problems is a lot easier with help, and the film depicts a recognizable version of cognitive behavioral therapy, flavored with a liberal dose of Shah Rukh Khan charisma.

Kaira is a refreshing character, the flip side of the more common cinematic man-child forced into adulthood by the love of a good woman. The whole point of Kaira’s journey is that she has to do it for herself, not for anyone else. Bhatt’s appeal makes her a wonderful choice for the role. She shines during a lengthy monologue in which she recounts the source of her enmity with her parents. Director Gauri Shinde wisely keeps Khan offscreen while Bhatt speaks, the camera alternating between Kaira in Jug’s office in the present day and flashbacks to her as a young girl. It’s a credit to the director’s faith in Bhatt as a lead performer that she doesn’t rely on Khan’s presence as a crutch.

Shinde — who also wrote the film — makes a couple of decisions that do a disservice to her complicated, intriguing protagonist. A small complaint is that, in addition to all of Kaira’s more interesting flaws, she is also clumsy. After Twilight, clumsy heroines are a bore. Sure, there are a few lines about Jug’s ability to repair broken things and broken people, but they didn’t need to be visualized so literally.

More problematic is an ending sequence that brings back Kaira’s ex-boyfriends for her moment of triumph. It’s mostly an act of fanservice to give the audience a last glimpse of Kapoor, Bedi, and Ali Zafar, who plays Kaira’s handsome Goa fling. Without getting into specifics, what transpires in this sequence undermines much of Kaira’s self-actualization.

Challenging female characters are a rare breed in film, and Shinde wrote a really good one. That’s why it’s so frustrating to be forced to ultimately view Kaira through a male lens, instead of being able to regard her as she is, unfiltered. Dear Zindagi is a step in the right direction, but it stumbles just before the finish line.

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Movie Review: Udta Punjab (2016)

UdtaPunjab4 Stars (out of 4)

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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.

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Movie Review: Kapoor & Sons (2016)

Kapoor&Sons4 Stars (out of 4)

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Kapoor & Sons packs enough of an emotional wallop to leave one reeling. It’s going to be tough to beat when the Best of 2016 rankings come out.

The Kapoor family — father Harsh (Rajat Kapoor), mother Sunita (Ratna Pathak), elder son Rahul (Fawad Khan), and younger son Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra) — reunite at the bedside of ailing patriarch Amarjeet (Rishi Kapoor) when he suffers a heart attack just before his 90th birthday. The birthday provides a reason for the boys to linger for a few days in their childhood home.

All of the undercurrents of tension between the family members surface as soon as the boys come home. Harsh and Sunita are shorter with one another than they used to be, though they fall back into old patterns with their sons. Rahul is the golden boy, his room a shrine to his accomplished youth. Perpetual screw-up Arjun finds his bedroom re-purposed as his mom’s closet, overrun with purses and exercise equipment.

There’s trouble between the boys, too. Rahul waits for his brother to grow up, while Arjun harbors resentment toward Rahul, not just for his exalted status but by a suspicion that it may have come at Arjun’s expense. None of these concerns are addressed openly, leaving wounds to fester.

Two people make the trip home worthwhile. First, Grandpa Amarjeet, whose abundant love for his grandsons only grows when they teach him how to watch pornography on his iPad. Second, Tia (Alia Bhatt): a fun-loving neighbor who meets the boys separately and charms them both.

Kapoor & Sons is beautifully balanced, with funny moments juxtaposed against serious revelations. Writer-director Shakun Batra and co-writer Ayesha Devitre Dhillon set the perfect tempo, allowing subplots and relationships to develop at a pace that never feels rushed.

Behind all of the action is a beautiful, evocative score by Sameer Uddin. Of all the film’s wonderful qualities, the score may be the very best.

The acting in Kapoor & Sons is top-notch, the whole cast striking the right tone under Batra’s direction. Ratna Pathak and Rajat Kapoor are so strong as a couple whose marriage suffers after their kids have grown up and moved out. It’s wonderful to watch Alia Bhatt and Sidharth Malhotra grow as young actors.

Fawad Khan is hypnotic. His acting is graceful and grounded and stands out even when compared to the film’s other great performances.

Rishi Kapoor is terrific as well, equal parts funny and moving as an old man who just wants his family to be happy again. His makeup and prosthetics (designed by Greg Cannom) age the 63-year-old Kapoor effectively, without being distracting.

Two supporting performances of note belong to Sukant Goel as Arjun’s pal Wasim and Fahim Shaikh as Wasim’s bodybuilding brother, Boobly, who steals every scene he’s in.

Batra’s directorial debut Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu showed a ton of promise, though it was marred by a frustrating ending. Those frustrations are nowhere to be found in Kapoor & Sons, a mature, satisfying film. Well done.

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