Tag Archives: Ashutosh Gowariker

Movie Review: Mohenjo Daro (2016)

MohenjoDaro1.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Even without context, Mohenjo Daro isn’t a very good movie, but it’s especially disappointing when considered within the landscape of recent Indian films and with regard to director Ashutosh Gowariker’s past achievements.

Gowariker’s story takes place in the ancient Indus Valley city of Mohenjo Daro, around 2,000 years B.C. Hrithik Roshan plays Sarman, a nearby farmer with a mysterious connection to the city that he doesn’t understand.

Sarman’s uncle Durjan (Nitish Bharadwaj) caves to Sarman’s relentless begging and allows his nephew to go to the Mohenjo Daro, albeit with warnings about the city’s many dangers. At forty-two, Roshan is too old play a character so immature that he opens the “only in case of life or death” package that his uncle gives him as soon as Durjan is out of sight.

When Sarman arrives at the metropolis he finds a place governed by greedy politicians fearful of the merciless senate leader Maham (Kabir Bedi) and his bully of a son, Moonja (Arunoday Singh). Maham orders a tax increase, even as farmers struggle with diminishing yields due to Mahan’s damming of the river.

Sarman is fed up and ready to head home when, wouldn’t you know it, he spots a beautiful woman who makes him change his mind. (Conveniently, everything of import in Mohenjo Daro happens at exactly the right moment.) The woman is Chaani (Pooja Hegde), daughter of the head priest (Manish Chaudhary) and The Chosen One of Mohenjo Daro.

Chaani presents all kinds of problems in the story (none of which are Hegde’s fault). Right after Sarman admonishes his buddy and traveling companion Hojo to stop ogling women, Chaani shows up in an outfit that demands ogling. Her backless, floor-length dress has slits all the way up both thighs, a cutout to expose her navel, and a pushup bra. So, it’s bad when other men leer at women, but not when Sarman does it?

Then there’s the part about Chaani being The Chosen One. A prophesy at the time of her birth decreed that she would make a decision that would usher in a new era for Mohenjo Daro, but she never makes such a decision. She’s just a bystander as the people forget about her divine destiny and declare Sarman the savior of Mohejno Daro.

With very little written or archeological evidence to go by, Gowariker was free to style his version of Mohenjo Daro as he wished. The results are bizarre, not in a fanciful way but in an impractical one. In addition to feathers and several kilos of metal beads, Chaani’s elaborate headdress has slices of geodes that hang next to her face. One can only imagine how annoying it must have been for Hegde to have slabs of rock clanking against her cheek in nearly every scene. And don’t get me started on helpful city guard Lothar’s (Diganta Hizarika) 1980s side-ponytail.

There are weird visual nods to classic Christian stories from Hollywood, too. In flashbacks, Maham is styled like an evil Jesus. Narendra Jha as the crazy prophet Jakhiro looks like Charlton Heston’s Moses from The Ten Commandments.

The lack of historical data was an opportunity to create something visually stunning, but Mohenjo Daro just isn’t. Worse, it looks really bad when compared to last year’s historical epic, Baahubali: The Beginning. In every respect — costuming, CGI, fight scenes, musical numbers — Mohenjo Daro looks like a lackluster version of Baahubali, with a less compelling story.

The bland, obvious plot is perhaps the most shocking element of Mohenjo Daro. Gowariker has a great track record for writing and directing engrossing stories that subtly convey his political ideals. Lagaan had poor, rural Indians literally beating the British at their own game. Swades showed how innovation and dedication to community can circumvent the slow movement of government. Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey saw young Indians pushed to violence by oppressive British rule. In Jodhaa Akbar, Roshan played a progressive emperor who embraced multiculturalism.

Gowariker ditches the nuance and character motivations of his previous films for cliched populism. Sarman declares that The People are fed up paying the senate’s taxes, and The People cheer in unison, somehow instinctively knowing that this outsider is the savior who can lead them out of poverty, and causing them to forget about the crew of murderous hill goons Maham employs as bodyguards, a la Tyrion Lannister.

It’s too easy. The idea that all of India’s (or anywhere’s) problems could be solved if the masses would rise up as one behind a charismatic leader is lazy and unsatisfying, whether the action takes place in the modern day or thousands of years ago. It absolves the masses of having to do the hard work that was such an important part of Lagaan, Swades, and Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey. Just wait around for a messiah — but not the woman we thought was The Chosen One. This other guy instead.

Even the manner in which the story is presented is ham-handed. A. R. Rahman provides a score full of uncharacteristically garish musical cues. The single corniest moment sees one character tell another, “something something something YOUR FATHER,” followed by a noisy instrumental blast and a zoom to closeup on the listener’s face.

There are also none of the culture-clash elements from Gowariker’s previous films present in Mohenjo Daro. Sarman is an outsider, but it’s not really a problem. He adapts to life in the city almost immediately, making friends and falling in love without a hitch. Then again, there’s not enough to Chaani’s character to make her a complicating factor. She’s there to look pretty, which Hegde does exceedingly well.

The actors aren’t to blame for Mohenjo Daro‘s shortcomings. No one is particularly good or bad, although I did enjoy Singh’s performance as the thwarted heir apparent more than I have some of his past work. This will be one of Roshan’s most forgettable roles.

There’s not enough substance here to tell if Mohenjo Daro could have been more than it is. It’s just the unfortunate product of a talented filmmaker who appears to have lost his way, sublimating his ideals for pandering that pleases no one.

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Opening August 12: Mohenjo Daro and Rustom

One of the biggest box office showdowns of the year happens on August 12, 2016, with the release of two very different period films. The Indus Valley-set Mohenjo Daro stars Hrithik Roshan and is directed by Ashutosh Gowariker. It’s their first reunion since Jodhaa Akbar.

Mohenjo Daro opens in nine Chicago area theaters on Friday: AMC River East 21 in Chicago, Century 12 Evanston/Cinearts 6 in Evanston, Regal Round Lake Beach Stadium 18 in Round Lake Beach, MovieMax Cinemas in Niles, Muvico Rosemont 18 in Rosemont, AMC South Barrington 30 in South Barrington, Marcus Addison Cinema in Addison, Regal Cantera Stadium 17 in Warrenville, and AMC Loews Woodridge 18 in Woodridge. It has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 35 min.

The weekend’s other new release is Rustom, set in Bombay in 1959 and based on a true crime story. It stars Akshay Kumar, Ileana D’Cruz, and Esha Gupta.

Rustom opens on Friday in six Chicago area theaters: River East 21, MovieMax, South Barrington 30, Cantera 17, Woodridge 18, and Century Stratford Square in Bloomingdale. It has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 28 min.

Dishoom gets a third week at the Cantera 17.

Other Indian films showing in the Chicago area this weekend:

Movie Review: Swades (2004)

Swades4 Stars (out of 4)

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Swades is one of the first Bollywood films I watched. At the time, I absolutely loved it. Hundreds of movies later, I wanted to see if it still holds up. Happily, it does.

In short, Swades is the story of a NASA scientist who realizes that the meaning he’s been searching for lies not in the stars but in a small village in India. It’s about belonging to a community where one can have a dramatic impact on the lives of its members. It’s shamelessly inspirational, and effectively so.

Shahrukh Khan gives what is probably my favorite of his performances as the scientist, Mohan. Wracked by guilt for having failed to visit his childhood nanny in India in the twelve years since his parents’ deaths, Mohan takes a two-week leave from his weather satellite project to find his nanny, Kaveri Amma (Kishori Balal), and bring her back to the States.

Mohan finds Kaveri Amma now living in a rural village with Gita (Gayatri Joshi), Mohan’s childhood friend and herself an adult orphan. Kaveri Amma is an integral member of the community, dispensing childcare tips and looking after Gita’s eight-year-old brother, Chikku (Smith Seth), while Gita teaches at the local elementary school.

Kaveri Amma refuses to leave until Gita finds a husband, and Gita refuses to find a husband until she can secure the future of the school, whose building the village council would prefer to use as their own headquarters. Mohan’s vacation stretches to five weeks as he helps Gita, falling in love with her in the process. The longer he stays, the more he realizes what a difference he can make in a community where power outages are the norm and the Internet seems like the stuff of science fiction.

Swades is directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, who specializes in long runtimes. Yet, even at 189 minutes, the movie is so well-paced that it never feels slow. Within twelve minutes, Mohan is on his way to India. He learns of Gita’s problem with the village council at the hour mark. At two hours, he meets a destitute farmer who goes without a meal so that Mohan, his guest, may be treated according to custom, spurring Mohan to reconsider his plan to return home. New wrinkles appear in the plot at exactly the right times.

Mohan occupies an interesting position in the village. Despite his ethnic heritage and having spent his childhood in Kaveri Amma’s care, his years in America have made him an outsider. His advocacy for reform — greater access to education, especially for girls, and integration of the castes — appeals to the more liberal members of the village, but not the conservative council members. With time, Mohan becomes more of a diplomat and less of a dictator.

That process gets at the heart of Swades. Mohan finds his place in a community, using his powers to influence but not to force change. Mohan admits that his parents’ deaths closed him off to social opportunities in America. When he finally realizes around age thirty that he wants to belong, all of his peers have married and moved on with their lives, leaving him behind. Moving to India gives him a fresh start.

The theme of belonging is overshadowed by a nationalist tone that is sort of unnecessary, even if it was a popular movie convention of the time. Originally espousing American values like tolerance and ingenuity, Mohan falls blindly under his home country’s spell. His decision to stay is scored by the lovely but over-the-top populist song “Yeh Jo Des Hai Tera.” He tells his Indian-American co-worker at NASA, “You’ll have to come there and see things. Otherwise, you’ll never understand.”

This turn at the end undercuts Mohan’s rationale for returning to India. Rather than leaving NASA to use his skills to help his new friends and loved ones, the movie frames Mohan’s return as that of an ethnic Indian succumbing to the irresistible pull of his homeland. It’s a nice sentiment, but one that doesn’t ring especially true with what we’ve seen to that point.

That said, such patriotic sentiment is not unique to Swades, and it doesn’t diminish the universality of the desire for friendship, love, and a place to belong. Thanks to a terrific soundtrack by A. R. Rahman, touching performances, and a great screenplay — contributed to by a young Ayan Mukerji, who went on to direct Wake Up Sid and Yeh Jawaani Hai DeewaniSwades stands the test of time. It remains one of my favorite Hindi films.

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Movie Review: Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey (2010)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Sixty-three years after the end of the British Raj, it’s clear that the Brits were in the wrong in their oppression and exploitation of South Asians. At the time, however, both sides — the oppressors and the oppressed — felt victimized when they were on the receiving end of a violent attack. One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.

Oscar-nominated director Ashutosh Gowariker’s latest, Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, tells the story of one act of rebellion during the Raj: the Chittagong Uprising of 1930.

At the time the movie takes place, groups of freedom fighters, impatient with the slow progress of Ghandhi’s passive resistance, opt for violence as a means of ousting the British from India. In Chittagong, the local resistance group is led by Surjya Sen (Abhishek Bachchan), a schoolteacher who uses his meager salary to organize a small group of fighters.

Surjya is able to expand his plans to drive the Brits from Chittagong when a simple act brings a large group of new recruits his way: the army takes over the local soccer field to use as a camp. The town’s teenagers, outraged at being evicted from their pitch, ask for Surjya’s help in reclaiming it.

Surjya hatches a plan to simultaneously take over strategic points in town, including the telegraph office, the armory and army barracks. He’s aided by two female recruits, Kalpana (Deepika Padukone) and Pritilata (Vishakha Singh), who engage in reconnaissance by posing as maids.

Before the plan can be executed, Surjya must train his army of gangly teens. Though the boys are committed to the cause, they’re still kids and not eager to martyr themselves. As one boy observes, what good is freedom if you’re not alive to enjoy it? The first half of the movie covers the group’s preparations, and the second deals with the raid and its aftermath. (Given that the British didn’t leave India until seventeen years later, I suspected the raid wouldn’t be a complete success.)

Stills at the beginning of the movie state that the plot is taken directly from written accounts of people involved in the Chittagong Uprising. Gowariker chooses realism over big-screen clichés in his portrayal of the moving story. Characters act like real young people faced with mortal danger for the first times in their lives would: scared and confused instead of fearlessly self-assured. The absence of timely motivational speeches is refreshing.

That realism makes the movie engaging and the story of their rebellion that much more inspiring. A lifetime spent watching movies with happy endings makes you believe that maybe these plucky kids really can drive out their oppressors and go back to playing soccer. But, from our experience with the characters, we know that isn’t possible, even if the teens think it is.

The performances are solid throughout. Bachchan, Padukone and the other adult characters are riveting, as they begin to realize how they’ve endangered the teens in their care. The teens are endearing, both awkward and noble as they muster up all the courage they’ve amassed in their limited amount of life experience. The soundtrack is catchy, yet appropriate for the somber story.

I just finished reading the book Three Cups of Tea, about one American’s attempts to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In it, he recounts a story of American military helicopters flying low over an open air girls’ school, the resulting wake knocking over and breaking the school’s only blackboard.

Civilian casualties and night raids on houses get all of the publicity, but we can never know what small act — like taking over a soccer field or, perhaps, destroying a blackboard — might be the final straw that pushes a young person to violence. I wonder how our own treatment of the civilians under our care will be viewed 63 years after we leave Afghanistan.

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Worst Bollywood Movies of 2009

There are a number of factors I considered when selecting candidates for Worst Bollywood Movie of 2009. Movies featuring racist jokes, such as Kambakkht Ishq and All the Best, obviously made the list. Incoherent plots brought Wanted and De Dana Dan to my attention, whereas Main Aurr Mrs. Khanna ignored traditional story structure and skipped the climax all together.

Ek — The Power of One deserves mention for its ridiculous title, which translates in English to “One — The Power of One”.

What’s Your Raashee? was easily the biggest disappointment of the year, coming from Ashutosh Gowariker, the filmmaker responsible for great flicks like Lagaan, Swades and Jodhaa Akbar.

2009 was a particularly bad year for Akshay Kumar. In addition to Kambakkht Ishq and De Dana Dan, he also starred in the bland supernatural thriller 8×10 Tasveer. His two other releases during the calendar year, Blue and Chandni Chowk to China, were fine but forgettable.

Because of their spectacular misunderstanding of human emotions and dubious moral messages, I thought about giving the award to either Kal Kissne Dekha or London Dreams. Kal Kissne Dekha suggested that one’s value is dependent upon one’s ability to save lives via superhuman powers, while London Dreams excused abhorrent behavior so long as it was committed in pursuit of a selfish goal.

But the ultimate winner had to be the most annoying, most cliché-riddled movie of the year, the worst of the worst. And the winner of Worst Bollywood Movie of 2009 is: Do Knot Disturb.

Do Knot Disturb, which deserves the honor based on its stupid title alone, contains all of the bad clichés that dominate Hindi comedies at the moment. The plot is based on a series of misunderstandings which could be clarified if the characters actually had conversations with one another. The jokes are written based on volume instead of quality, under the mistaken belief that what was funny the first time is even funnier the sixth, seventh and eighth time.

Case in point, the high-pitched screaming match between characters played by Govinda and Ritesh Deshmukh. The characters get spooked by something and start shrieking in girlish voices. The gag isn’t original, but it’s not inherently annoying. But in Do Knot Disturb, the characters scream dialogue at each other in those high-pitched voices for the next ten minutes of the movie.

After one minute, the gag had already stopped being funny. After ten minutes, it was unbearable. I actually walked out of the theater and only convinced myself to return out of a sense of journalistic duty. By virtue of having watched all but one minute of the movie, I can say that Do Knot Disturb is the worst Hindi film of 2009.

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Movie Review: What’s Your Raashee? (2009)

whatsurrashee1.5 Stars (out of 4)

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What if Stanley Kubrick had directed Mannequin? That’s what Ashutosh Gowariker’s venture into the realm of the romantic comedy feels like: an auteur squandering his talents in a genre he’s ill-suited for.

What’s Your Raashee? is a typical masala movie, in spite of being written, produced and directed by Gowariker, who was nominated for an Oscar for Lagaan.

Harman Baweja, stars as Yogesh, a recent MBA grad living in Chicago. He’s summoned home to India under the pretense that his father has had a heart attack.

His dad is actually fine. The family just needs Yogesh to get married and collect his inheritance from his grandpa in order to pay off elder brother Jitu’s debts. An astrologer predicts that Yogesh will get married in ten days time, so he’d better pick a girl quick.

Despite being smart enough to have earned an MBA from the University of Chicago, Yogesh doesn’t try to find another solution to the family’s money problems. He just goes along with their absurd scheme, following their command not to tell Grandpa about it, lest he view Jitu unfavorably.

Yogesh and his Uncle Devu cull the list of prospective marriage candidates to twelve women, one from each zodiac sign. All of the girls are played by Priyanka Chopra. Thankfully, Yogesh acknowledges their similarities in appearance, lest he come across as dimmer than he already seems for having agreed to his family’s moronic plan in the first place.

Priyanka Chopra deserves a lot of credit for even attempting to play twelve characters in the same movie. That she’s able to give them all distinct personalities and physical presences — showcased in a dance scene featuring all twelve characters on screen at the same time — is impressive.

But overall the movie disappoints, falling into the same traps as the worst Bollywood romantic comedies. There are two unnecessary, annoying side plots — one involving Uncle Devu, the other involving some gangsters — that drag the movie out and aren’t resolved in a satisfying way despite the movie’s nearly 210 minute runtime.

The movie is further dragged out by too many songs. Most of the women get their own song and dance numbers, even some of the girls Yogesh is obviously not going to marry. The routine associated with the Libra character, in which Yogesh plays a robot/puppet, is the worst number I’ve ever seen in a movie musical, Hindi or English.

There’s no reason why a romantic comedy, Bollywood or otherwise, should be more than two-and-a-half hours long. What’s Your Raashee? didn’t need to be either. Without the annoying side plots and cumbersome dance numbers, the movie would’ve been an hour shorter, making it an enjoyable if unexceptional movie.

Instead, it’s a movie best suited for watching on DVD, with your finger hovering over the fast forward button.

Opening September 25: What’s Your Raashee?

Ashutosh Gowarikar’s latest film, What’s Your Raashee? (“What’s Your Sign?”) opens in theaters this weekend. It may hold special interest for Chicagoans, since parts of the film were shot in the Windy City, earlier this year.

In What’s Your Raashee?, Harman Baweja plays a guy looking for love among twelve different girls, all played by Priyanka Chopra. (In your face, Eddie Murphy!) Baweja and Chopra previously starred together in the embarrassing Love Story 2050. The runtime for their latest film is listed as 3 hrs. 12 min.

What’s Your Raashee? opens on Friday, September 25 in the Chicago area at the Big Cinemas Golf Glen 5 in Niles, AMC South Barrington 30 in South Barrington and AMC Cantera 30 in Warrenville.

Of last weekend’s two new Hindi films, Dil Bole Hadippa! bested Wanted in U.S. earnings: $351,457 to $217,432. Both films return for a second week at the Golf Glen 5 and South Barrington 30. The Cantera 30 is only bringing back Dil Bole Hadippa!.