Tag Archives: Hansal Mehta

Movie Review: Simran (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Simran is unfairly stacked against its main character, putting her in a no-win situation while expecting her to sustain the film’s humorous tone.

Kangana Ranaut plays Praful Patel, a housekeeper at an Atlanta hotel. She lives with shop-owner parents, and she’s been saving money for seven years in order to buy her own condominium. Few Bollywood films feature working-class Indian-Americans, so it’s gratifying to see such characters onscreen for a change.

On a bachelorette weekend in Las Vegas with her cousin Amber (Aneesha Joshi), Praful gets lucky playing Baccarat, winning enough to indulge in some high-end shopping and dining. Her second round doesn’t go as well, forcing Praful to keep gambling in order to try to win her money back. She mistakes a cash infusion from loan shark Mr. Bugs (Jason Louder) for a gift, endangering not just her future plans but her very life.

The tone of Simran is generally comical, especially as Praful explores Vegas before and after her big win. As in Queen, Ranaut is delightful to watch as a fish-out-of-water, goofy and awestruck. The difference between her character in Queen and Praful is that Praful has greater self-confidence (though it’s not always warranted). When it comes to romance, she says: “Having boyfriends isn’t a character flaw. Having boyfriends is a talent.”

In the grand tradition of Bollywood movie parents, Praful’s folks’ only desire is for her to get married — again. Her first marriage didn’t work out, and she’s now happily independent. While her parents’ latest target — MBA student Sameer (Talvar‘s Sohum Shah) — is a nice guy, Praful isn’t keen to settle down.

The rift between Praful and her parents goes beyond her unwillingness to wed. It’s so deep that it undermines the whole tone of the film. There isn’t a single moment of affection between Praful and her domineering father. He says that he wishes he never brought her to America from Gujarat, castigating Praful for being worthless in the same breath that he asks her for money to pay the electric bill. Praful’s mother is of no help.

When Praful’s efforts to pay off Mr. Bugs get her into further trouble, there’s no one she can turn to. Her parents don’t like her. Sameer doesn’t believe her. Praful’s housekeeping co-workers help in what limited ways they can, but they’re just as broke as she is. Cousin Amber is rich, but for some reason she disappears in the second half of the film. Praful is utterly alone.

From a narrative standpoint, it’s unfair to ask Praful — the film’s only multi-dimensional character — to supply all the laughs when the audience can see how hopeless her situation is. Ranaut’s compelling performance fosters so much empathy for Praful that it becomes impossible to laugh at her plight. As Simran progresses, it becomes depressing and surprisingly violent. It’s as though director Hansal Mehta failed to consider how the audience would feel while watching the movie. I’m not sure if Simran is the story he thought he was telling.

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Movie Review: Aligarh (2016)

Aligarh4 Stars (out of 4)

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Aligarh was featured at the 2016 Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.

Director Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh can be summarized as a film about a professor who loses his job for being gay, but the story is less about the issue and more about the man who reluctantly becomes the face of a civil rights movement.

64-year-old Professor Siras (Manoj Bajpayee) arrives at his apartment on the campus of Aligarh University on a foggy night in 2010. The young man driving the rickshaw brings the professor’s bags upstairs for him but doesn’t come down. The camera lingers voyeuristically outside the building. Moments later, two men — one holding a video camera and one holding a billy club — sneak into the apartment. We hear shouts from within.

The next day, a Delhi journalist named Deepu (Rajkummar Rao) spots a local news item about an Aligarh professor suspended for his involvement in a gay sex scandal. With the recent overturn of India’s Section 377 law that criminalized homosexuality, this seems like a clear violation of Professor Siras’ civil rights.

In Aligarh, Deepu discovers that neither the professor nor his friends share the reporter’s zeal for justice, hoping instead that the matter will go away on its own. The element of the case that piques Deepu’s interest — the videotaped violation of the professor’s right to privacy — is the same one that makes the professor hesitate. He’s an intensely private person, and speaking about the violation publicly will only invite more attention.

When waiting for the issue to blow over ceases to be an option, Siras opens up to Deepu. Siras resists referring to himself as gay, wondering how a person’s being can be encompassed by a three-letter word. He explains that he was attacked not for his sexuality but because of internal university politics. Outing him as gay was just the most expedient method to get him expelled from a conservative, predominantly Muslim school.

The interactions between Deepu and Siras are a delight to watch for how different the two men are. Deepu talks loudly and fidgets in his seat. He even listens aggressively, hunched forward, recorder in hand. By contrast, Siras sits still as a stone. He drinks slowly. He speaks slowly. He is not in a rush.

Out of respect to its protagonist, Aligarh‘s story unfolds at an unhurried pace. There’s an economy of camera movement, with Mehta and cinematographer Satya Nagpaul favoring still shots. Minutes are spent in closeup on Siras’ face as he cries while singing along to an old movie song.

Bajpayee is impossible to ignore in any scene, and Mehta puts the actor’s particular gift to good use. A court hearing regarding Siras’ reinstatement features the two opposing lawyers in the foreground arguing precedent, but one’s attention is drawn to the professor sitting in the corner behind his lawyer, dozing off from boredom.

Rao is one of Mehta’s favorite actors, and with reason. He’s terrific yet again as a young man with a great deal of empathy, but lacking a bit in wisdom. Pairing him opposite an actor as gifted as Bajpayee is magic.

Just as Siras opens Deepu’s eyes to a broader view of humanity, Aligarh provides an important lesson in understanding why a person may choose not to fight. Siras’ sexual orientation is only one part of him, and in the decades that he’s been forced to keep it hidden, he’s cultivated other aspects of his life that give him joy, such as poetry, music, and teaching. He fears that defending the attack on one aspect of his personality could put the other parts at risk. Deepu and the activists who rally to the cause are slow to realize that what’s best for Siras the gay man may be different than what’s best for Siras the professor.

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Movie Review: Shahid (2012)

Shahid4 Stars (out of 4)

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The best and worst aspects of humanity are on display in Shahid, a biographical film based on the life of the lawyer Shahid Azmi. Azmi’s assassination while defending an innocent man against terrorism charges embodies the personal and social costs of choosing quick, easy solutions at the expense of the truth.

Rajkummar Rao plays Shahid, whose own past mirrors the lives of the men he defends in court. As a teen, Shahid witnesses the gruesome murders of his neighbors in a religious riot in his Muslim neighborhood. Feeling powerless, he joins a militant Islamist training camp, only to flee after a few months.

Upon his return home, Shahid is arrested when his name is found in a terrorist’s diary. Torture and coercion at the hands of the police result in Shahid’s imprisonment for seven years.

In jail, Shahid finds his calling. Two fellow prisoners — a kindly professor and a reformed militant — recognize Shahid’s intelligence and steer him away from the terror recruiters in the jail. Professor Saxena (Yusuf Hussain) tutors Shahid and War Saab (Kay Kay Menon, who is delightful in every scene) finances Shahid’s studies.

On the outside, Shahid finishes his law degree and discovers how easy it is to manipulate the legal system. Shahid’s first case of note involves a computer repair man named Zaheer who lends his laptop to a friend. Unbeknownst to Zaheer, the friend uses the laptop to plan a terror attack, and Zaheer is implicated in the crime.

Despite having no direct evidence tying Zaheer to the crime, the prosecutor, More (Vipin Sharma), drags the trial on for years. Shahid’s persistence results in Zaheer’s eventual release and earns Shahid a reputation as a defender of unjustly persecuted Muslims. Shahid himself is violently targeted while defending a man wrongly accused of participating in the Mumbai terror attacks of November 26, 2008.

What stands out in the two trials depicted in the film — the real Shahid earned seventeen acquittals in his brief career — is how weak the state’s cases are. More’s stalling tactics are outrageous. In the second case, the prosecutor’s arguments are easily disproved.

Why would a government spend so much time and money to convict innocent men when those resources could’ve been spent trying to catch the real perpetrators? The prosecutor in the second case, Tambe (Shalini Vaste), reveals the answer when she says that even citizens who weren’t personally endangered during the attacks now feel scared in their own homes. The government needs to convict someone — anyone — so that the people will feel safe again.

As flawed as the justice system is, its agents aren’t depicted as monsters. Prosecutor More has one of the sweetest moments in the film. Following an intense argument with Shahid, More spies a sandwich in Shahid’s briefcase and tries to goad the young lawyer into splitting it with him, dissolving Shahid into giggles.

Shahid himself is far from perfect. He’s a lousy husband to his wife, Mariam (Prabhleen Sandhu), a former client. He refuses to address the persistent threats made against him, keeping his family in the dark even though their lives are in danger, too.

The character closest to perfect is Shahid’s devoted brother, Arif (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who’s great in the film). Arif covers for Shahid when he joins the militants and encourages him to study law, even if it means Arif must support the family financially by himself. When Arif finally blows up at Shahid, it seems deserved.

Director Hansal Mehta uses the camera to emphasize how the justice system can diminish an individual. During Shahid’s initial interrogation, he huddles on the floor naked, the camera positioned at the ceiling to make him appear tiny compared to the police officer towering above him. In his first difficult days in prison, Shahid tells Arif to stop coming to visit him. Arif is fully in focus while Shahid stands behind a screen, the camera partially fulfilling Shahid’s wish to fade into obscurity.

Rao navigates skillfully through all the ups and downs in Shahid’s life. Rao’s infectious smile comes to Shahid’s face easily and often during the character’s first trial and initial courtship of Maryam. As the story progresses and the cycle of unjust imprisonment of innocent men persists, Shahid’s smile all but disappears.

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Streaming Video News: April 30, 2014

Director Hansal Mehta’s biographical drama Shahid is now available for streaming on Netflix. I tried to watch this in the theater last year, but the English subtitles were incomplete on the print released internationally. Thankfully, the subtitles on Netflix are in perfect condition, so I’m looking forward to finally watching this.

Chicago South Asian Film Festival 2013

The fourth annual Chicago South Asian Film Festival begins on Friday, September 20. The three-day festival kicks off with a gala U.S. premiere of Oass, a challenging drama about child trafficking. Click here to read my review of Oass.

Other films of particular interest to Hindi-film fans include the world premiere of Club 60, the U.S. premiere of Chor Chor Super Chor, and a screening of Shahid, which opens in theaters in India on October 18.

The festival closes on Sunday night with a screening of director Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Click here to read my review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Some of the artists attending CSAFF 2013 include directors Hansal Mehta (Shahid), Abhinav Shiv Tiwari (Oass), and Sanjay Tripathy (Club 60), as well as actors Priyanka Bose (Oass) and Farooq Shaikh (Club 60).

This year, the CSAFF added a great new feature for those unable to attend the fest in person: the CSAFF Online Film Festival. A dedicated Vimeo channel allows fans to screen several of the short films featured at this year’s festival online. It’s a great way to expand the reach of a super film festival.