I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with today’s surprise addition of the 2022 Hindi thriller Vadh, starring Sanjay Mishra and Neena Gupta. The new Original series Class — a Hindi remake of Netflix’s Spanish show Elite — debuts on the service tomorrow.
Netflix announced that Ranveer Singh’s Cirkus will be available February 16, and they released a trailer for a new documentary series about Yash Raj Films called The Romantics, which debuts on Valentine’s Day:
If you missed any of the new Indian shows and movies added to Netflix last month, be sure to check out my January roundup for What’s on Netflix.
Not much thought went into Mission Majnu, but the filmmakers probably figured they didn’t need to bother. Slap together a bunch of cliches from the historical patriotic genre playbook that’s so popular in Bollywood right now, and voilà! — Mission Majnu.
The film kicks off its spy story with a soapy romance set in mid-1970s Pakistan. Humble tailor Tariq (Sidharth Malhotra) falls for a stunningly gorgeous, blind woman Nasreen (Rashmika Mandanna). They get married over the objections of her father, who owns a garment shop that makes military uniforms and therefore knows just how little Tariq earns. Nevertheless, love prevails.
Little do Nasreen and her father know that Tariq is actually Amandeep Singh — an Indian spy who’s been living in Pakistan for an indeterminate period of time. We know very little about Tariq/Amandeep other than his father was a traitor, and so the son became a spy as a kind of penance for Dad’s misdeeds. His instructor at the academy R.N. Kao (Parmeet Sethi) — who serves for a time as India’s RAW chief — says Amandeep was the best student he’d ever had.
Amandeep is tasked with finding out information about Pakistan’s burgeoning nuclear weapons program. The film opens by saying that Pakistan started developing nukes in response to losing the war with India in 1971, painting Pakistan as over-reactionary sore losers. Moments later, the narrator clarifies that actually, Pakistan didn’t start its nuclear program until after India tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974 with Operation Smiling Buddha.
This is par for the course in Mission Majnu. India’s actions are always justified even when they are problematic, and any politicians who think about engaging in diplomacy with Pakistan are naïve wimps. Likewise, Pakistan is portrayed as fundamentally deceitful, and their sweets aren’t as good as Indian sweets. No level of insult is too petty.
With a viewpoint rooted in such simplistic nationalism, there can be no question as where Amandeep’s loyalties lie. Duty to country obviously has to win. There’s no tension or moral conflict regarding his marriage to Nasreen, unlike the emotional tug-of-war the main character faces in the much better historical spy drama Raazi (which came out back when movies with political nuance were still acceptable).
Nasreen isn’t much of a character. As written, she exists to give a Amandeep a reason to be emotionally conflicted (even though he’s not), but to never get in his way. Nasreen is perpetually smiling and supportive, grateful that someone was willing to marry her despite her blindness. She’s aware that her husband keeps secrets from her but she doesn’t press him about it, despite the enormous cost she (unknowingly) pays for those secrets.
Any intrigue in the story happens at a national level. Israel is just as worried about Pakistan developing a nuclear weapon as India and has its own spies on the case. But if Israel is mistaken about where the test is happening and bombs the wrong site, India will be on the receiving end of retaliation from Pakistan. Therefore, it’s imperative that India’s spies — which include Aslam (Sharib Hashmi) and Raman Singh (Kumud Mishra) in addition to Amandeep — get the correct location. But even this crisis is handled in a cheesy manor, with imminent destruction being averted just as a countdown from ten reaches one.
Malhotra is quite hammy in Mission Majnu. He plays up his “aw shucks” simple tailor act while goading Pakistan’s generals into bragging about the nuke program, then furrowing his brow and looking concerned when they divulge useful intelligence — as though they wouldn’t notice his abrupt change in demeanor mid-conversation. When Raman Singh shaves his beard and ditches the Muslim scholar garb he’s been wearing for ten years, no one in town cares. And don’t get me started on Aslam’s ridiculous method for reaching for a phone when assassins are after him.
Mission Majnu was cobbled together from tropes and cliches we’ve seen a million times before. Give the movie about as much thought as the filmmakers did — none at all.
Netflix announced earlier this week that it secured the rights to a slate of 18 Tamil movies and 16 Telugu movies that will stream on the service after their theatrical release. Netflix has long been criticized for its heavily Hindi-focused catalog, and this is a strong statement about the company’s desire to expand its Indian offerings into other languages.
This week’s other new direct-to-streaming Hindi film is the comedy Chhatriwali on Zee5.
I’m planning to review Mission Majnu and Chhatriwali next week. Today and tomorrow, I’m catching up on movies so I can vote in the annual Online Film Critics Society awards. The winners will be announced on January 23. This year’s list of nominees contains some really, really good movies, including RRR, which is nominated in three categories.
Posts will be sparse over Christmas break. In the meantime, please check out the MASSIVE update on all of the new Netflix Indian Originals coming in 2023 that I wrote for What’s on Netflix. Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year! — Kathy
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There are a lot of movies still to come to Netflix before the end of December, so head to my Netflix page to see the titles we already know about. I’m half-expecting to see one more big Hindi theatrical release debut on the service during Christmas break, but that’s just a hunch.
Writer-director Anvitaa Dutt makes must-see movies. First with 2020’s Bulbbul and now with her second feature film Qala, Dutt has shown an immaculate attention to visual detail and the ability to create lush color palettes that Sherwin-Williams would envy.
As in Bulbbul, Qala finds Triptii Dimri playing another naive young woman trapped in a gloomy mansion with someone who wishes her ill. Qala‘s story, however, lacks the depth and layers that made Bulbbul so memorable.
Qala (Dimri) is the only child of Urmila Manjushree (Swastika Mukherjee), a famous singer who is the widow of an even more renowned musician that died before his daughter’s birth. Qala had a twin brother who did not survive, with the doctor noting that sometimes the stronger of the two fetuses will take the nutrients meant for the other. Urmila spends the rest of Qala’s life punishing the girl for this.
The movie opens with Qala at the height of her fame. She’s the most popular singer in the burgeoning Calcutta movie industry in the 1930s, and she’s just earned her first gold record. She lives in a gorgeous art nouveau home from which she grants interviews to a room full of reporters clad in sage green suits. But her achievements still aren’t enough to win her distant mother’s approval.
Through flashbacks, we learn that music isn’t Qala’s passion, but something she does because her mother demands it. That changes when Urmila meets Jagan (Babil Khan, Irrfan’s son in his film debut), a self-taught singer who has no family of his own. Urmila immediately adopts him, hoping to make him into the most popular movie singer in Calcutta. She predicts that one day he’ll earn a gold record. Urmila stops instructing Qala in music and instead tries to find her a husband.
Urmila’s emotional abuse takes its toll on Qala, who has elaborate hallucinations that are interesting to look at but do little to inform her character. Beyond Qala’s psychological damage, there’s little to her personality, almost like she only exists in the scenes we see in the movie. Of course the extent of her mother’s control is extreme, but for Qala to be as devoid of desire or social awareness as she is strains credulity. She’s shown reading in one sequence. However, the point is not to show books as Qala’s window into the outside world, but instead for the audience to notice the symbolism of the title she’s reading.
Dutt is heavy-handed with her metaphors, especially during Qala’s hallucinations and one particular shot of a gargoyle (if you know, you know). Qala‘s message isn’t so subtle that it needs such obvious symbolism. There’s a theme about Qala using her fame to promote women in an industry that relies on women’s involvement on- and off-screen while simultaneously shaming them for it, but it’s only surface level. The film has no subplots.
Still, a period movie set in the worlds of classical and film music and directed by a filmmaker with such a distinct visual style is meant to be watched for more than just its story and characters. In addition to the stunning lighting, filters, costumes, and interiors, the beautiful songs by Amit Trivedi and background score by Sagar Desai demand constant attention from the viewer. Even with its flaws, Qala is an unforgettable sensory experience.
In other Netflix news, though the streamer hasn’t officially announced it, Pinkvilla reports that Sidharth Malhotra’s forthcoming movie Mission Majnu is releasing directly on Netflix on January 18, 2023. What’s on Netflix noticed that the Excel Entertainment movies will expire on December 15. Netflix just released a trailer for Randeep Hooda’s undercover series CAT, which debuts December 9.
I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Hulu with Wednesday’s addition of the Telugu film Iravatham. Disney+ Hotstar announced that Vicky Kaushal’s comedy Govinda Naam Mera will premiere directly on Disney+ Hotstar/Hulu on December 16.
Sometimes, getting everything you ever wanted just isn’t worth it. Monica, O My Darling — based on mystery author Keigo Higashino’s story “Burûtasu No Shinzou” — explores the dangers that lurk at the top of the socioeconomic ladder.
Jay (Rajkummar Rao) worked his way up from nothing to become an engineer. He’s just been named to the board of directors of Unicorn Robotics, and he’s engaged to Niki (Akansha Ranjan Kapoor), the bubbly daughter of Unicorn’s founder and CEO.
Jay’s also about to lose everything thanks to an affair with the CEO’s assistant, Monica (Huma Qureshi). She tells Jay she’s pregnant with his baby, which she wants to keep. She’ll happily stay quiet about it so long as he pays her.
Jay considers confessing his infidelity to Niki. But when Niki relays a story about a man who cheated on her cousin and says her family will likely kill him or send him to jail, Jay believes her and says nothing.
The thing about Jay is, he’s ambitious but not ruthless. Not in the way rich people are. Not in the way his jealous future brother-in-law Nishi (Sikander Kher) is.
Nishi arranges a meeting with Jay and Arvind (Bagavathi Perumal) — the company’s head of accounting — at a seedy motel. (Special kudos to whoever is responsible for the delightfully bizarre animal art on the walls of the motel.) Apparently, Monica has told all three men that they are the father of her baby and demanded money from each of them. Nishi’s solution is to kill Monica and have Jay and Arvind dispose of the body. If they’re all involved, then none of them will rat on the others. There’s no way regular guys like Jay and Arvind would come up with something so dastardly on their own.
Of course, there are hiccups in the plan’s execution. People die, and Jay falls under suspicion from an unusual detective, ACP Naidu (Radhika Apte).
The tone of Monica, O My Darling isn’t that of a straightforward mystery, but it’s not as colorful and brash as another Netflix Original comic thriller, Ludo. Director Vasan Bala strikes a balance where the film feels simultaneously realistic and unrealistic. The audience is aware they’re watching a film — in particular in scenes when a frame appears around the edges of the screen to mimic the shape of an old TV console and the men imagine Monica scheming like a movie villain — but the stakes feel high nonetheless.
Perhaps the best example of this is in the film’s fight scenes. There are only a few fights in Monica, O My Darling, but they are the movie’s most emotionally impactful sequences. The fight choreography is loose to the point that it appears at first like the actors are just goofing around. As the fight drags on, the gravity of the situation builds and becomes oppressive.
The casting in Monica, O My Darling is outstanding. Rao is the perfect normal guy and Qureshi an ideal vamp. Perumal provides great comic relief. Sukant Goel is creepy as Gaurya — a childhood acquaintance of Jay who wants to be more important than he is. Kher and Apte chew through their scenery like a couple of sharks. They are so fun to watch.
The mystery driving the story forward is compelling, but the payoff is a little unsatisfying. It doesn’t meet Aristotle’s standard of “surprising yet inevitable.” Nevertheless, Monica, O My Darling is an engrossing film with a killer soundtrack. It’s a wonderful followup to Bala’s previous feature film: the excellent karate movie Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (“The Man Who Feels No Pain.”)