Tag Archives: Atul Kulkarni

Movie Review: Raees (2017)

raees2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Raees (“Wealthy“) stars one of Bollywood’s most charismatic actors, a fact that the screenplay takes for granted. The story of a gangster’s rise to power lacks emotional depth, relying on the audience’s familiarity with Shah Rukh Khan’s dashing heroes of the past to fill in the blanks.

Raees (Khan) spent his childhood running liquor for Jairaj (Atul Kulkarni), a dangerous job given that Gujarat is officially an alcohol-free state. As a young man, Raees wants to branch out into his own boozy enterprise with his best friend, Sadiq (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), much to Jairaj’s resentment. A Mumbai don named Musa (Narendra Jha) helps Raees start his business after witnessing the Gujarati beat up a warehouse full of men while using a severed goat’s head as a weapon, all because someone dared to call the bespectacled Raees “four-eyes.”

As Raees’s illegal empire expands, he draws the attention of a straitlaced cop, Inspector Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who makes it his mission to put Raees out of business. This sets up a cat-and-mouse game that is never quite as clever as one hopes.

The nature of the criminal operations in Gujarat and Mumbai makes it difficult for Raees to keep his promise to his mother that no one should ever be harmed for the sake of business. Granted, most of the people Raees kills tried to kill him first, but he willingly puts his employees in danger during one fiery political protest. There’s some retroactive rephrasing to imply that what Mom really meant was that no innocents should be harmed, but that’s not what she said (at least according to the English subtitles).

This distinction is important, because Raees goes from emphatically rejecting violence to shooting up a room full of crooks without batting an eye. Raees himself doesn’t seem bothered by the morality of his actions, and no one holds him to task. It’s as though writer-director Rahul Dholakia expects Khan’s ardent fans to see him in the role of Raees and thus assume that his character’s actions are justified, no matter what they are.

In many gangster dramas, the role of the protagonist’s conscience often goes to his love interest, but Raees’s wife Aasiya (Mahira Khan) is a willing bootlegger. Mahira Khan is something special, teasing Raees with an irresistible smirk. She’s one of the film’s highlights, and she does a fine job in her musical numbers.

The movie’s showpiece song sequence to the tune of “Laila Main Laila” is eye-catching, juxtaposing Raees’s brutality against Sunny Leone’s shimmying. The best dancing in Raees, however, is Siddiqui’s Michael Jackson impersonation, a scene that is far, far too brief.

Khan, Siddiqui, and Ayyub are all good in Raees, but they could have been even better with a script that did more to develop their characters.

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Movie Review: Naam Hai Akira (2016)

NaamHaiAkira0.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Naam Hai Akira is an endurance test, a fight to stay in one’s seat and finish the film instead of leaving the theater to do anything else. The movie is a disorganized, demoralizing disaster.

Naam Hai Akira (known as just Akira in India) is a remake of a Tamil film by Santha Kumar called Mouna Guru, a hit remade in two other languages besides Hindi. I haven’t seen the original, so I have no idea if it’s as messy as its Hindi remake. However, Naam Hai Akira is directed and co-written by A. R. Murugadoss, the man who screwed up Ghajini, his remake of the great film Memento. I’m inclined to place the blame on Murugadoss.

Murugadoss’s film swaps the gender of the film’s protagonist, a move that would seem progressive, if, again, the director didn’t screw it up so royally. Akira (Sonakshi Sinha) is first introduced as an adult, kneeling in the woods with a gun pointed at her head. Then the movie flashes back either three years or fourteen years — the movie contradicts itself — to Akira as a pre-teen in Jodhpur.

Little Akira witnesses a pair of young men throw acid in the face of a teen girl who rejects their advances. Akira reports them to the police, who let the men go because of their families’ political connections. After the men cut Akira’s face in retaliation, her father (played by Atul Kulkarni, who needs to play dad roles more often) enrolls her in karate class so she can learn to defend herself.

Ah yes, self-defense classes — the go-to solution to the problem of violence against women by those who don’t want to admit that men are the problem. It goes hand-in-hand with the notions that women can prevent rape by not wearing mini-skirts or by invoking God’s name when begging not to be raped.

Akira has to walk by an all-girls dance class to get to her all-boys-but-one karate class, just in case we’ve forgotten what society expects of girls. When she and her dad spot the same men harassing other women, Dad encourages her to beat the crap out of them. She uses her karate superpowers to do so, in the process splashing the bottle of acid intended for her onto the face of the main perpetrator.

Akira’s punishment for daring to confront sexual harassment is to spend the rest of her childhood in juvenile detention. The lesson of the movie is that violence is the province of men, and women who choose to use it will be punished and ultimately forced to martyr themselves to maintain a social order in which they are eternal, powerless victims.

There’s a lot of boring stuff that has to happen before we get to that completely depressing conclusion. As an adult, Akira is forced by her brother Ajay to move to Mumbai to live with him, his nasty wife, and their mother. This isn’t really clear, but it seems as though Ajay and Mom think Akira was wrong to stand up to those men years ago, and that her use of violence is a sign of some kind of mental defect. That’s the only way to explain what eventually happens, but again, it’s not clear at all.

This despite the fact that Akira is completely timid. She hardly speaks, and she consents to anything anyone asks of her. She only retaliates if someone physically attacks her first.

When the plot catches up to that opening scene in the woods, it takes a series of unbelievable mishaps before Akira even thinks about trying to escape. She just sits there — gun pointed at her forehead — while her would-be killers discuss the phone call they just got from their boss. They want to confirm the plan with him, but their cell phone died, so they leave one guy behind to guard Akira and another prisoner. They call their boss from a payphone, but then their van breaks down. Then they ride a bike back to the guy with the gun.

The whole freaking time, Akira just sits there, waiting to die. Only when the other prisoner makes a break for it does she try to get away. Never has an action hero possessed so little initiative or sense of self-preservation.

That scene is par for the course. Everything is spelled out in excruciating detail. In another sequence, one character says (in essence), “We need to file a missing persons report and name Inspector Manik in it.” Cut to a shot in the police station with Manik and his crooked coworkers, one of whom says, “They filed a missing persons report and named Manik in it.”

There’s a whole other storyline about a quartet of corrupt cops, led by a detective played by Anurag Kashyap, who’s one of the only good things about this movie (Akira’s wardrobe is the other). So much time is spent on the cops that Akira’s barely in half of the movie. When she gets mixed up in their crime by mistake, it’s because of moronic reasons that depend on everyone being as stupid as possible.

It’s hard to find the cops all that menacing anyway, since they are terrible at covering up their crime, foolishly involving dozens of people instead of just killing those who know and dumping the bodies in another jurisdiction. This is Corrupt Movie Cops 101.

Nothing happens in Naam Hai Akira unless by happenstance or plain idiocy, and all of it takes frigging forever. Sinha could be a fine action star, but she needs a better movie than this. Good grief, it’s so awful.

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Movie Review: Dirty Politics (2015)

DirtyPoliticsZero Stars (out of 4)

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About three-quarters of the way through the movie, my hands grip my head as if trying to contain an imminent explosion. I scream, “What is happening?!” and tear at my hair. That sums up the entire experience of watching Dirty Politics.

The movie’s problems are immediately apparent, most obviously so in the way the film looks. The camera never stops moving. It doesn’t matter if the movement obscures the faces of the characters who are speaking: camera movement is paramount! The action can be dramatic, such as a crane shot from directly overhead that swoops down to ground level then back up again. It can be more subtle, such as persistent zoom-ins on actors’ faces.

In one shot, the camera rapidly zooms in to closeup and pulls back twice in the span of about three seconds. A judge says, “Court is adjourned,” and the camera pans from the judge up to a clock above his chair, even though there’s no significance to the clock or the time of day. Then the same shot is repeated a few minutes later, again for no reason.

I don’t blame cinematographer Panveer Selvam for this travesty of technique as much as I do director K.C. Bokadia, who also wrote this farce. Bokadia’s vision for Dirty Politics is obviously shaped by a fundamental misunderstanding of how to make movies.

The story opens in the middle of a search for missing dancer-turned-politician Anokhi Devi (Mallika Sherawat). We know this because the characters say the name “Anokhi Devi” about a hundred times in the first ten minutes. Characters are introduced in quick succession without a sense of where they fit into the larger story, and an absence of backstory is keenly felt.

Anokhi Devi’s appearance via flashback more than twenty minutes into the runtime doesn’t really clear things up. Her dancing grabs the attention of political party leader Dinanath (Om Puri). In exchange for sex, Dinanath promises to make her the party’s candidate in the next election. Naturally.

There’s a hullabaloo because a gangster named Mukhtiar (Jackie Shroff) wants the same candidacy. He gets a great introduction from Anokhi Devi’s secretary, Banaram (Rajpal Yadav), who announces his arrival at her house: “He’s Mukhtiar. A well-known goon of our area.”

Dirty Politics is full of hilariously ponderous lines. When Anupam Kher’s character Mishra — who is a CBI officer and a lawyer who’s sixty days away from retirement(!) — presents his case in court, the defense attorney responds: “He is very cleverly trying to make his points strong.” Eloquently said, man who doesn’t realize that he’s describing the very nature of his own job.

One can only imagine how Bokadia managed to rope so many talented actors into this doomed project. In addition to vets like Kher, Shroff, and Puri, Naseeruddin Shah his a role as an activist who steals the movie’s absurd closing scene. Govind Namdeo’s overacting is the height of comedy. Atul Kulkarni and Sushant Singh remind us why they are rarely called upon to play action heroes.

Shah’s character has a daughter whose sole narrative purpose is to be raped in order to blackmail him. There are only three women in the whole movie, and all of them are brutalized: two in order to intimidate their relatives, and Anokhi Devi for aspiring to a more meaningful purpose than that of Dinanath’s mistress.

Puri and Sherawat deserve some modest praise for fumbling through the most awkward sex scenes in cinema history. If Bokadia was counting on sex to sell Dirty Politics, he obviously didn’t watch any footage of his movie as it was being shot.

One can only fathom the sheer terror racing through the mind of editor Prakash Jha as he received each batch of footage. “How am I supposed to make a movie from this?” he asks himself. “There’s nothing to work with!” Hence how we end up with the exact same reaction shot of Jackie Shroff staring at a desk — his jaw muscles twitching — four times in succession.

Bonus: Everything you need to know about the lack of craft that went into making Dirty Politics, in just twelve seconds!

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Movie Review: Rang De Basanti (2006)

RangDeBasanti3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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It’s sort of depressing that the story of Rang De Basanti (“Color It Saffron“) still resonates nine years after its release. The movie’s calls for change remain largely unrealized, a testament to the power of the stagnation it rails against.

Rang De Basanti connects the present to the past through the efforts of a British documentary filmmaker, Sue McKinley (Alice Patten). She arrives in India hoping to film a recreation of the Indian independence movement of the 1920s-30s, inspired by the regret-filled diary entries of her grandfather, a jailer and torturer on behalf of the Empire.

Sue’s local contact, Sonia (Soha Ali Khan), introduces the filmmaker to her university friends, who reluctantly agree to participate in the project. Group leader DJ (Aamir Khan), sullen rich kid Karan (Siddharth), poet Aslam (Kunal Kapoor), and tag-along Sukhi (Sharman Joshi) slowly find themselves maturing as they inhabit the roles of their revolutionary forefathers.

Further change is thrust upon them when another pivotal role in the reenactment is filled by Laxman (Atul Kulkarni), a Hindu nationalist who has a particular problem with Muslims. His integration is uneasy, especially since his role requires him to work closely with Aslam, a Muslim.

When a tragedy hits close to home, the guys realize that the work of the independence movement won’t be complete until Indian democracy is transparent and devoid of corruption. They take matters into their own hands, adopting the violent methods of their forefathers.

Although Khan is the highest profile star in the cast, his role isn’t necessarily the most important. This is truly an ensemble picture, with every role fleshed out. Every member of the group — including Sonia — has a reason to participate in Sue’s project. They each require a kind of character growth best developed by delving into history.

Sepia-toned scenes from Sue’s documentary are woven into scenes from the present, showing the way that the lives of these contemporary young people parallel the lives of young people of the past. It’s a theme that resonates beyond the borders of India. Every democracy is founded on a struggle that modern citizens too often ignore, resulting in a failure to meet founding ideals. We can all do better.

It’s unfortunate that the poster for Rang De Basanti features only Khan, Siddharth, Kapoor, and Joshi, because every performance in the film is superb. Kulkarni portrays a difficult character with great empathy. Patten and Soha Ali Khan are resolute, their characters developing along with the young men. R. Madhavan is great in a supporting role as Sonia’s boyfriend.

Siddharth’s role is the meatiest, with Karan dropping his jaded act as the truth starts to torment him. Kapoor imbues Aslam with stoicism, and Joshi plays a great toady.

Even though it’s not a solo starring role, this is among Khan’s best performances. A highlight is a scene in which DJ confesses to Sue that he actually graduated from college five years ago, but fear of the future keeps him hanging around campus with his buddies. The scene serves the dual purpose of explaining why DJ looks so much older than the others. (Khan was already 41 when the film released, not that this would be his last time playing a college student).

Where Rang De Basanti falters is in its overuse of news footage in the final thirty minutes. It’s tricky, because the guys take drastic measures in order to inspire fellow citizens to action. But frequent shots of news broadcasts and opinion pieces slow down the narrative. Every random college student who vows to reform Indian democracy in a man-on-the-street interview distances the audience from the main characters. It interrupts the flow of emotions just when they should reach their peak.

That said, Rang De Basanti is a surefire tearjerker. It’s a sad reminder that no nation is as free or equal as it could be, but it’s an important message. The work may be hard, and it may be ongoing, but it is work worth doing, just as it was so long ago.

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Movie Review: Zanjeer (2013)

Zanjeer_poster2 Stars (out of 4)

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Movies about police officers who take the law into their own hands and beat the bad guys to a pulp are ubiquitous in Bollywood, thanks largely to the 1973 film Zanjeer (“Shackles”). While I haven’t seen the original Amitabh Bachchan film, I’ve seen plenty of variations on the same story in recent years, starring the likes of Salman Khan, Ajay Devgn, and Akshay Kumar. Given the ongoing popularity of the “supercop” sub-genre of action films, why would anyone risk remaking Zanjeer?

Director Apoorva Lakhia’s gamble doesn’t pay off. Perhaps fearing too much deviation from the original material, the remake of Zanjeer feels dated in its execution. The performances are corny, and the story structure doesn’t feel current. Lakhia would’ve been better off creating an entirely new movie, rather than being hamstrung by the old one.

Ram Charan makes his Hindi-film debut reprising Bachchan’s role as Vijay Khanna. Vijay is basically Batman: a boy whose parents are murdered in front of his eyes, who then grows up to be a vigilante. At one point in the film, Vijay’s girlfriend even wears a Batman t-shirt. The only difference is that Vijay is a maverick cop and not a masked superhero.

Vijay has such a reputation as a violent hothead that his interdepartmental transfer from Hyderabad to Mumbai merits cable news coverage (something that would never happen in real life). His first case in Mumbai involves investigating the murder of a man caught video-recording gasoline theft. The only witness is a beautiful Indian-American woman named Mala (Priyanka Chopra), in town for a friend’s wedding.

Mala is unbearably ditzy and annoying. Her role in the film is to be a lighthearted counterpoint to the always-serious Vijay, but she comes off as oblivious in the face of mortal danger from the organized crime unit that wants to kill her before she can testify. Chopra is a much better actress than this — as evidenced by her performances in Barfi! and 7 Khoon Maaf — so the blame rests on Lakhia’s shoulders for demanding such a grating performance from a talented actress.

In the course of his investigation, Vijay enlists the help of Sher Khan (Sanjay Dutt), a car thief whom Vijay pummels into renouncing his criminal ways. Vijay is similarly successful in recruiting the help of a journalist, Jay Dev (Atul Kulkarni), via threats and an absurd amount of swagger. No one writes lead characters this way anymore, so these scenes feel like out-of-touch throwbacks.

Then again, Charan seems unable to tone down his swagger, so maybe the scenes make sense. He doesn’t play a character so much as pose as one, as if no one told him they were telling a story and not just shooting the cover of the DVD. The fact that Vijay’s shirts are always unbuttoned halfway further serve to make him look more like a catalog model than a police officer. When Charan does act, it appears to require a lot of effort.

Dutt’s and Kulkarni’s roles are poorly integrated into the script, which is a shame. Their parts are eclipsed by Prakash Raj as the villain Teja, who chews scenery while dressed as a pimp. Raj is the best part of the movie, though a scene in which he and Mahie Gill spend thirty seconds meowing at one another is hard to take.

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