Tag Archives: Anu Menon

Movie Review: Shakuntala Devi (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Director Anu Menon’s Shakuntala Devi — based on the life of the woman nicknamed “The Human Computer” — opens with a note: “Based on a true story as seen through the eyes of a daughter, Anupama Banerji.” Rather than organizing the narrative as a sequential depiction of the highlights of Shakuntala’s career, the most pertinent episodes of her life are woven into a story about the challenging relationships between mothers and daughters. Events in Shakuntala Devi jump between time periods and settings, the earliest being Shakuntala’s childhood in Bangalore in 1934 and the latest being London in 2001, when her daughter Anu threatened to file criminal charges against her over unfair business practices.

When Shakuntala was around five years old (played by Araina Nand), her family realized that she had a unique affinity for numbers, solving complicated equations entirely in her head despite having no education of any kind. (Scientists and Shakuntala herself were never able to fully explain how her arithmetic abilities worked.) Her father Bishaw (Prakash Belawadi) made little Shakuntala the poor family’s breadwinner, putting his pig-tailed daughter onstage to solve math problems submitted by audience members. Local shows around Bangalore turned into performances elsewhere in India, before Shakuntala finally moved to London on her own.

Though her anger at her father for depriving her of a normal childhood and education was always apparent, Shakuntala — played as an adult by Vidya Balan — harbored a simmering contempt for her mother (played by Ipshita Chakraborty Singh) for not standing up to Bishaw on her daughter’s behalf. That resentment drove Shakuntala to become rich and famous and informed her own style of parenting — and not necessarily for the better.

Anu was born from the marriage of Shakuntala and Paritosh Banerji (Jisshu Sengupta), a government employee in Calcutta. Their relationship developed after Shakuntala was already internationally acclaimed, having added a magician’s showmanship to her performances. She tried being a stay-at-home mom for a while, but soon the road beckoned. She took young Anu with her, assuming that a life of travel would make the girl into an independent explorer like her mother. That’s not how it worked out.

Being disappointed by men is a recurring theme in Shakuntala’s life. Whether it’s their frustration at not being “needed” by her or, as in the case of Paritosh, a refusal to give up his job and follow her on the road, her paramours’ commitment to traditional gender roles only hardened her resolve to break them. Yet the film is clear that Shakuntala shared equally in the blame for her failed romantic relationships. She never found a way to integrate her career and home life. She also hated to lose, which led to young Anu being used as a pawn in the war between her parents.

As Anu grows up, we see how Shakuntala’s stubbornness and inability to compromise impacted their relationship. Anu (Sanya Malhotra) turns out to be just as stubborn as her mother and is determined to be nothing like her, just as Shakuntala was determined not to be like her own mother. Through conflict — including the above mentioned criminal charges — Shakuntala and Anu come to some important realizations about accepting our loved ones for who they are and learning to see our parents as more than just our parents.

Malhotra has the challenge of playing Anu when she is a married woman, but also when she’s a young teenager living in London. As a teen, Malhotra’s performance risks being overshadowed by her unflattering (but authentic) early 1990s attire. She’s more effective as Anu grows up and is forced to truly reckon with her mother as an adult.

If the goal was to portray Shakuntala Devi’s best and worst qualities, they couldn’t have found a better performer than Balan to do so. Balan makes Shakuntala feel like someone you’d love to know but hate to live with. She’s also effectively portrays Shakuntala across multiple decades.

From the vantage point of 2020, the idea of going to watch someone solve equations on stage sounds quaint, but Balan imbues with her character with such charisma and flair that she successfully translates Shakuntala’s appeal for a contemporary audience.

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Movie Review: Waiting (2015)

Waiting3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Waiting was the closing night film at the 2016 Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.

Writer-director Anu Menon presents an unvarnished look at the lives of those with seriously ill loved ones in the smart drama Waiting.

A young wife, Tara (Kalki Koechlin), finds herself in the southern city of Cochin after her husband is injured on a work trip. The husband, Rajat (Arjun Mathur), suffered serious head injuries and lingers in a coma while doctors wait for swelling in his brain to subside.

Alone in a strange city at night, Tara turns to the only other person in the hospital cafeteria for comfort. Retiree Shiv (Naseeruddin Shah) can sympathize with Tara’s situation. His own wife, Pankaja (Suhasini Maniratnam), has been in a coma for eight months following a stroke.

Shiv patiently talks Tara through the torrent of emotions she’s experiencing: disbelief, anger, depression. He’s been through them all himself. Looking past Tara’s short temper and foul mouth, Shiv sees in her the daughter he and his wife never had.

Being together gives Shiv and Tara something they both need: a way to relieve their boredom. Having spent my fair share of time in hospitals in recent years, I can attest that the predominant feeling is not panic or sadness, but tedium. Everything happens slowly. Answers are vague and in short supply. The chairs are uncomfortable. The walk to the cafeteria isn’t nearly as long as you wish it would be to kill all the time you have on your hands.

Palling around gives the two spouses something to do. Shiv explains to Tara that her duty is to take care of herself while the nurses take care of Rajat. But time spent together allows them to put off answering the terrible question of what their own lives will be like if their spouses never wake up.

Dr. Nirupam (Rajat Kapoor) is the surgeon responsible for the well-being of both patients. His instincts are often correct, but he finds it expedient to project an air of confidence regardless of his level of certainty. He’s not exactly compassionate.

It falls to Dr. Nirupam to have a frank conversation with Shiv about Pankaja’s quality of life. The doctor says, “You have to ask yourself, what would she want?” Shiv replies, “She would want to get better.”

Sometimes people can’t get better, and the film addresses the challenge of accepting that fact. Menon doesn’t try provoke a reaction from her audience, instead presenting her characters in a natural way that sparks the audiences’ empathy. It’s sad without being melancholy.

Both lead actors are so strong in very different ways. Shah’s character is easier to sympathize with, but Koechlin makes Tara likeable and relatable, despite her brash exterior. Kapoor is solid as the film’s equivalent of a villain: a man who’s trying to do what he thinks is right, albeit in an off-putting way.

The straight-forward tone of Menon’s story makes it feel familiar to those who’ve spent time in hospital waiting rooms while also serving as a useful guide for those who haven’t. Waiting is a real achievement, and an enjoyable one at that.

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Movie Review: London Paris New York (2012)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Buy the soundtrack at Amazon

The starting point for debutant writer-director Anu Menon’s London Paris New York (LPNY, henceforth) was undoubtedly the allure of setting a story in the three glamorous title cities; the plot and characters surely came second. But when the movie isn’t being a glorified travel show, interesting characters add spark to this edgy love story.

There’s a lot demanded of leads Nikhil (Ali Zafar) and Lalitha (Aditi Rao Hydari), who, after a chance meeting in London, utter almost every line of the film’s dialog. The young adults have in common the fact that they are both on their own for the first time, their overprotective parents having reluctantly agreed to let them attend college abroad. When Lalitha misses her connecting flight to New York, the strangers decide to spend the day exploring London together.

They have the types of conversations only had by movie characters (have you ever asked someone you just met, “So what do you want to do with your life?”), but form a genuine connection. Nikhil promises to come visit Lalitha in New York. When Nikhil tracks Lalitha down in Paris two years later, we learn that he didn’t keep his promise.

Nikhil starts out pushy and entitled but is humbled as the story progresses. I didn’t care for Zafar’s smarmy delivery in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, which he toned down for LPNY. He’s strong in the dramatic scenes but at his best in lighter moments when he can flash his killer smile.

The best surprise of LPNY is Lalitha’s character. Unlike many female leads, who are really just vehicles for the emotional growth of the male main character, Lalitha is an equal partner for Nikhil. That means she’s equally responsible for the bad choices that drive the two apart.

Hydari strikes the right balance with Lalitha, a young woman of strong ideals but lacking some emotional maturity. Hydari’s best moment is when Lalitha turns a devastating realization into an opportunity for revenge, her coldness underscored by a deep hurt.

Zafar, who made his name as a rock star, wrote and performed all of the music for LPNY. The soundtrack is appropriately poppy for a film about young urbanites. The music features prominently during the three montages of the highlights of each city. Though I suppose it’s hard to avoid showing iconic sites like the London Eye and Times Square, the montages feel stale.

Even when it comes to the music, Hydari again steals the show. She bravely chose to sing her own parts on two songs, giving the numbers a more natural feel than when actors lip sync to voices not their own.

In the United States, LPNY has an MPAA rating of PG-13 due to references to sex and scenes of the characters drinking and smoking. LPNY is a bit grittier than a typical Bollywood rom-com, so it’s not appropriate for the whole family. But those old enough to appreciate it will be rewarded.

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