Tag Archives: Jisshu Sengupta

Movie Review: Shakuntala Devi (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Director Anu Menon’s Shakuntala Devi — based on the life of the woman nicknamed “The Human Computer” — opens with a note: “Based on a true story as seen through the eyes of a daughter, Anupama Banerji.” Rather than organizing the narrative as a sequential depiction of the highlights of Shakuntala’s career, the most pertinent episodes of her life are woven into a story about the challenging relationships between mothers and daughters. Events in Shakuntala Devi jump between time periods and settings, the earliest being Shakuntala’s childhood in Bangalore in 1934 and the latest being London in 2001, when her daughter Anu threatened to file criminal charges against her over unfair business practices.

When Shakuntala was around five years old (played by Araina Nand), her family realized that she had a unique affinity for numbers, solving complicated equations entirely in her head despite having no education of any kind. (Scientists and Shakuntala herself were never able to fully explain how her arithmetic abilities worked.) Her father Bishaw (Prakash Belawadi) made little Shakuntala the poor family’s breadwinner, putting his pig-tailed daughter onstage to solve math problems submitted by audience members. Local shows around Bangalore turned into performances elsewhere in India, before Shakuntala finally moved to London on her own.

Though her anger at her father for depriving her of a normal childhood and education was always apparent, Shakuntala — played as an adult by Vidya Balan — harbored a simmering contempt for her mother (played by Ipshita Chakraborty Singh) for not standing up to Bishaw on her daughter’s behalf. That resentment drove Shakuntala to become rich and famous and informed her own style of parenting — and not necessarily for the better.

Anu was born from the marriage of Shakuntala and Paritosh Banerji (Jisshu Sengupta), a government employee in Calcutta. Their relationship developed after Shakuntala was already internationally acclaimed, having added a magician’s showmanship to her performances. She tried being a stay-at-home mom for a while, but soon the road beckoned. She took young Anu with her, assuming that a life of travel would make the girl into an independent explorer like her mother. That’s not how it worked out.

Being disappointed by men is a recurring theme in Shakuntala’s life. Whether it’s their frustration at not being “needed” by her or, as in the case of Paritosh, a refusal to give up his job and follow her on the road, her paramours’ commitment to traditional gender roles only hardened her resolve to break them. Yet the film is clear that Shakuntala shared equally in the blame for her failed romantic relationships. She never found a way to integrate her career and home life. She also hated to lose, which led to young Anu being used as a pawn in the war between her parents.

As Anu grows up, we see how Shakuntala’s stubbornness and inability to compromise impacted their relationship. Anu (Sanya Malhotra) turns out to be just as stubborn as her mother and is determined to be nothing like her, just as Shakuntala was determined not to be like her own mother. Through conflict — including the above mentioned criminal charges — Shakuntala and Anu come to some important realizations about accepting our loved ones for who they are and learning to see our parents as more than just our parents.

Malhotra has the challenge of playing Anu when she is a married woman, but also when she’s a young teenager living in London. As a teen, Malhotra’s performance risks being overshadowed by her unflattering (but authentic) early 1990s attire. She’s more effective as Anu grows up and is forced to truly reckon with her mother as an adult.

If the goal was to portray Shakuntala Devi’s best and worst qualities, they couldn’t have found a better performer than Balan to do so. Balan makes Shakuntala feel like someone you’d love to know but hate to live with. She’s also effectively portrays Shakuntala across multiple decades.

From the vantage point of 2020, the idea of going to watch someone solve equations on stage sounds quaint, but Balan imbues with her character with such charisma and flair that she successfully translates Shakuntala’s appeal for a contemporary audience.

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Movie Review: Manikarnika — The Queen of Jhansi (2019)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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As pure spectacle, the historical epic Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi is top notch, with thrilling battles, dazzling sets, and gorgeous cinematography. However, its narrative fails to make meaningful connections between the protagonist and her supporting characters.

The film is based on the life of Rani Lakshmi Bai, nee Manikarnika, who ruled the Indian state of Jhansi in the 1850s. (A note at the start of the movie admits to taking some cinematic liberties with the story.) From her youth, Manikarnika (Kangana Ranaut) was raised on patriotic ballads that sang of spilling one’s blood for the sake of the motherland. She was taught to fight with swords and to tame horses.

That feistiness is just what the bachelor King of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao (Jisshu Sengupta), needs in a potential bride, according to his advisor Dixit Ji (Kulkhushan Kharbanda). Jhansi is one of the last independent kingdoms that hasn’t ceded to rule by the British East India Company or been taken over outright. Gangadhar is a pragmatist, but he’s not happy kowtowing to the Brits. He marries Manikarnika, renaming her Lakshmi Bai in the process. When British officers come to the palace to pay their respects, Manikarnika refuses to bow to them. Gangadhar is delighted.

Manikarnika is unwavering in her judgement of right and wrong. Her character grows as her elevated position allows her to witness a greater spectrum of British cruelty, and she takes responsibility for counteracting it. Ranaut plays Manikarnika as clear-eyed and determined. Her posture is taut, as though she’s always ready for a fight. She’s only at ease when she’s with Gangadhar, who loves her and admires her spiritedness.

Trouble comes not just from the British lurking outside the gates, but from a traitor within: Gangadhar’s brother, Sadashiv (Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub). The Brits have promised to name Sadashiv king if he helps depose Gangadhar. Granted, it would be a title in name only, without the limited independence Jhansi currently enjoys.

When the tension between Manikarnika and the Brits turns to all-out war, the movie is at its best. Co-director Krish (more on him to come) previously directed Telugu historical epics, and it shows in the scale of the world he creates. The battles are impressive in scope and require a lot of skilled horsemen and other extras. CGI effects — from injured animals to explosions — are well-integrated, and the fight choreography is exciting.

The plot isn’t complicated, since the Brits are obvious bad guys and the good guys just have to fight them. However, it’s not always clear exactly who the good guys are or how they fit into courtly life in Jhansi or the larger Indian political landscape. When Dixit Ji first proposes a marriage contract with Manikarnika, she’s sword-fighting with three characters who I thought were her brothers–but perhaps weren’t (one of them is played by Atul Kulkarni in a microscopic role). Also present are her biological father and the man who raised her, who is some kind of politician, maybe? She eventually helps one of her probably-not-brothers take the throne of another kingdom, and it would’ve been nice to know why.

There are several female supporting characters who are either from her original home (like Kashi Bai, played by Mishti), from a nearby village, or appointed to take care of her in Jhansi. All are so underdeveloped and shown so fleetingly that they blur together.

This shoddy organization is largely a result of a behind-the-scenes battle for the director’s chair. Krish left the film when it was nearly finished — purportedly pushed out by Ranuat — who re-shot portions of the film herself and recast Ayyub in a role originally played by Sonu Sood. Ranuat is the first co-director listed in the end credits, ahead of Krish, who is credited by his birth name, Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi. According to Krish, many of the scenes filmed with Mishti and Atul Kulkarni were left out of the final film. Perhaps those scenes would have helped to flesh out the characters and their relationships with Manikarnia.

One other complaint is the direction of the characters playing the British officers. The dialogue delivery throughout the film is quite slow, but the British officers speak with an especially unnatural cadence. It’s so strange that I was surprised to discover that Richard Keep, who plays the villain General Hugh Rose, is actually English. I’m not sure which of the co-directors deserves the blame for that, but it’s an unfortunate distraction in a movie that really has a lot going for it.

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Movie Review: Mardaani (2014)

Mardaani3 Stars (out of 4)

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There’s a great shot early in Mardaani (subtitled as “Fighter,” literally “Manliness“). The face of Crime Branch Inspector Shivani Shivaji Roy (Rani Mukerji) is silhouetted against the lights of Mumbai traffic. Her profile takes up half the screen; she’s as much of a part of the city as the traffic itself. She exists in the light, and it’s her sworn duty to bring the criminals of the underworld into that light.

The criminal enterprise Mardaani focuses on is sex trafficking, particularly the trafficking of underage girls. Onscreen statistics at movie’s end emphasize the alarming frequency with which Indian girls are abducted and sold into prostitution.

Like all movie detectives, Shivani doesn’t play by the rules, but she’s respected by her colleagues and quick with a dirty joke. She lives with her husband, Bikram (Jisshu Sengupta), and their niece, Meera. Shivani is also a sort of foster parent to a 12-year-old street vendor named Pyari (Priyanka Sharma), whom she rescued from poverty and placed in a reputable orphanage.

(The niece, Meera, is superfluous to the story except in that she establishes Shivani as a maternal figure and provides an explanation for why Pyari doesn’t live with Shivani.)

When Pyari goes missing, Shivani stumbles onto a sophisticated ring of drug dealers and child traffickers lead by a young man named Karan (Tahir Bhasin), who prefers to be called “Walt” in homage to the Breaking Bad character Walter White. The stakes rise as Shivani gets closer to Karan, and their mutual pursuit hinges on who will slip up first.

Mukerji is believable whether she’s playing bubbly and beautiful or jaded and tough, and she’s great again in Mardaani. She handles action scenes with ease, and she’s funny during scenes in which Shivani jokes with her fellow officers, Jafar and Morey.

Director Pradeep Sarkar and writer Gopi Puthran don’t diminish Shivani’s femininity even though she’s in a typically masculine role. Shivani is a working woman with a family. She makes tea and wears her hair long. But she can chase down a criminal on a moped, and she gets to say cool lines like, “With a lot of love and patience I’ll squash you to a pulp.”

Sarkar and Puthran also deserve praise for their handling of an uncomfortable scene shortly after Pyari’s kidnapping. Pyari and the other girls are sprayed with a firehose and made to strip in front of their captors. The sequence is simply business, and the girls are treated like animals being judged on their way to auction. There’s nothing titillating in the way the scene plays out, which is an important distinction that other filmmakers have missed.

This “just business” approach to trafficking is enhanced by Bhasin’s performance as Karan. His unruffled detachment lends him an air of danger that keeps even his own underlings in line.

The movie occasionally falls into preachiness, as when Shivani explains to a police captain why rescuing girls from force prostitution is a good thing. The soundtrack is melodramatic and corny, at times, though the rock score during chase scenes fits nicely.

In Mardaani‘s climax, Shivani goads her opponents with the same kind of bravado exhibited by other notable Hindi-film cops, all played by men. However, she doesn’t position herself as the arbiter of divine justice (as opposed to a character like Singham in Singham Returns). Obviously she guides events, but Shivani remains aware of her duties as a public servant. It’s a more realistic approach to the single heroic cop story, and it’s more satisfying because of it.

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