Tag Archives: Ayan Mukerji

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: Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013)

YJHD2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Writer-director Ayan Mukerji’s debut movie, Wake Up Sid, was a nuanced coming-of-age film grounded in realism. While Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (“This Youth is Crazy”) is also a coming-of-age film, it plays out as a male fantasy in which selfishness is rewarded, and there are no consequences for bad behavior.

The regressive storyline that dominates the second half of Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (YJHD, henceforth) is a disappointment, given how much the film has going for it. It’s packed with blockbuster-caliber dance numbers, gorgeous scenery, and a strong first half, anchored by Deepika Padukone. But all that can’t make up for the inattention paid to the film’s core relationships and the lack of development of the ostensible lead character, played by Ranbir Kapoor.

YJHD‘s story structure is confusing because, until the mid-point of the movie, Padukone’s character, Naina, is the lead character. She narrates an extended flashback of a mountain trek vacation eight years earlier, when she was eager to ditch her nerdy image and have an adventure before starting medical school. On the trip, she reunites with some high school classmates — Aditi (Kalki Koechlin), Avi (Aditya Roy Kapoor), and Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor) — and falls in love with Bunny. The trip ends, and the friends go their separate ways.

When the action returns to the present day, Naina’s lead status ends with her mailing invitations to Aditi’s wedding. Bunny takes center stage when he accepts the invitation and returns to India after eight years abroad, having had minimal contact with his friends in the meantime (and apparently no contact with Naina whatsoever). The rest of the story is about Bunny finally realizing — at age 30 — that other people have feelings, too, and that perhaps he shouldn’t be so selfish.

There’s a great scene in Wake Up Sid in which slacker Sid (also played by Ranbir Kapoor) finally cleans the apartment he shares with Aisha (Konkona Sen Sharma), hoping to impress her. Instead, she chides him for expecting praise for something he should’ve been doing all along.

In YJHD, however, when Bunny admits that perhaps he should’ve called home more often — instead of ignoring his family and friends while enjoying his globetrotting lifestyle — Aditi, Avi, and Naina all but throw him a parade. Bunny’s stepmother assures him that it’s okay that he missed his father’s funeral, since all his father ever wanted was for Bunny to follow his dreams. As charming as Bunny is supposed to be, it’s hard to accept that there are no consequences for him spending thirty years as a self-interested jerk.

In contrast to Bunny’s virtual lack of moral development, Naina undertakes some serious soul-searching. On the trek, Naina forces herself to take risks, if only to confirm that she really is a homebody at heart, and that that’s okay. When she confesses to Bunny that socializing is more difficult for a nerd like her than it is for a popular guy like him, he responds, in essence, “Why? You’re fine the way you are.” It’s meant to be reassuring, but it speaks to the fact that Bunny can’t empathize with her feelings of social isolation.

During their eight years apart, Naina finishes med school and apparently has no other romantic relationships. It’s as if she put her life on hold until Bunny decides that he wants to grow up. When he does, she accepts him without reservations. Naina must work to become a better person, but Bunny is written as though his value is inherent and obvious. He just has to say the magic word, and he becomes a prize worth having. It’s lazy writing, and it’s a bit sexist.

YJHD also has trouble defining the friendships between the characters. The first half of the film is about Naina earning her spot as the fourth member of the group of pals, but she never interacts with all four of them together in the second half. When Aditi suggests to Avi and Bunny that they celebrate on the eve of her wedding, no one mentions including Naina. Naina gives a toast to her “best friend,” Aditi, but they have few scenes together where it’s just the two of them. Naina loses her status as a friend in the second half, reduced to the role of Bunny’s love interest.

The final shot of the film confirms Naina’s demotion from lead character in the first half to isolated love interest in the second. Naina and Bunny embrace, and the camera moves in to a closeup of Bunny’s beatific face, cropping Naina out of the frame entirely.

There are some really terrific dance numbers in YJHD — all in the first half of the film — including a show-stopping number featuring Madhuri Dixit. As talented an actor as Kapoor is, his performances in the dance numbers are where his star qualities really shine through. All of the four main actors do a nice job, and Kunaal Roy Kapur is funny as Aditi’s dorky fiance, Taran. The trekking scenes in Manali are lovely.

As one might ignore a lousy story for the sake of seeing the exciting stunts of a blockbuster action flick, it’s perfectly acceptable to see Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani for the entertaining dance numbers and beautiful scenery alone. The film’s story is definitely not its selling point.

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Movie Review: Wake Up Sid (2009)

wakeupsid3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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I’m always apprehensive when the lead character in Hindi film is a rich kid. In a typical masala movie, the rich kid has great-looking friends, a hot car and becomes a vice president at a huge corporation right out of college. It’s a life that many filmmakers assume that the rest of us wish we were living.

Wake Up Sid is more sophisticated than that. Although the main character, Sid, has a cool car, his life seems like that of a real person, and not some fantasy character.

As the film begins, Sid (Ranbir Kapoor) celebrates taking his final exams with his two best friends, Laxmi (Shikha Talsania) and Rishi (Namit Das). In a rare display of realism in casting, Sid’s friends — and the rest of his classmates — aren’t all potential Miss Indias or cool dudes. They look like regular college kids. Laxmi is smart but struggles with her weight, and Rishi is an average-looking guy eager to propose to his girlfriend.

While partying, Sid meets Aisha (Konkona Sen Sharma). It’s her first day in Mumbai, where she hopes to become a journalist. Sid shows her the town after agreeing that they will nothing more than friends. He bails on his job at his dad’s bathroom fixture company to help Aisha get settled in Mumbai.

Then Sid learns that he’s failed his exams, while Laxmi and Rishi have passed and graduated. He vents his anger against them and his parents as well, who kick him out of the house and cut him off financially. He moves in with Aisha, only to discover that he has no ambition and no life skills. For the first time, Sid has to learn responsibility and find a direction.

The film ends the way you expect it to, but the way it gets there is refreshing. Early in the movie, there’s little to like about Sid. He’s fun, but he’s spoiled and ungrateful. His tense relationship with his mother feels especially realistic; he’s mean to her in a way that only an angry teen (or in Sid’s case, a spoiled twenty-year-old) can be.

As his character develops, Sid learns empathy from Laxmi, the value of friendship from Rishi, and self-sufficiency from Aisha. Sid’s maturity is so stunted that he celebrates every minor step toward independence as though he just discovered electricity.

Director Ayan Mukerji is patient enough to give the audience an accurate picture of who Sid is and then takes the time to show Sid’s incremental progress, without the movie ever feeling slow. There are a few musical montages, but no unnecessary dance numbers to stop the movie’s momentum.