Tag Archives: Kay Kay Menon

Movie Review: Vodka Diaries (2018)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Vodka Diaries is uneven as a mystery, yet Kay Kay Menon fans will find plenty to like in the talented actor’s lead performance.

Menon plays Officer Ashwini Dixit, a detective in the small mountain resort town of Manali. He and his wife, Shikha (Mandira Bedi), share a playful antagonism, though their relationship often takes a backseat to his career.

A young woman’s murder leads Ashwini to Vodka Diaries, a swanky hotel’s awkwardly named nightclub, populated by half-a-dozen or so additional characters who wind up involved in the investigation. The introductions of the new characters are poorly integrated into the main story, with Ashwini’s storyline progressing on an entirely different track that only meets with the other plotlines after a half-hour has passed.

It’s not just the length of time that makes the parallel story tracks a problem. The other characters — including a bickering young couple and two friends on a first date — are either uninteresting or annoying (specifically the cloying hotel manager, played by Sooraj Thapar). The only character we assume will be important to the plot going forward is a woman played by Raima Sen, whose defining characteristic is her mysteriousness. But without clear reasons for their presence in the story, the attention paid to these other characters feels like an interruption, pulling our attention away from Menon’s performance.

Thankfully, that all changes when multiple supporting characters are killed, putting the spotlight back on Ashwini as he tries to connect their deaths to the initial murder. Around the same time, it becomes apparent that something is seriously wrong with Ashwini–as his sporadic, violent hallucinations increase in frequency and severity (punctuated by effectively jarring sound design courtesy of Jitendra Chaudhary). Ashwini and the audience are equally confused about what is real and what isn’t.

Vodka Diaries is unquestionably Kay Kay Menon’s movie, and he is compelling throughout. The film’s opens with a scene of Menon’s character running through the snowy countryside, and if that was all there was to Vodka Diaries, it would still be riveting stuff.

With her role in Ittefaq last year and now this, Mandira Bedi has become the go-to actor to play a cop’s wife. It would be fun to see Bedi turn her current specialization into a starring role, perhaps as a wife who learns so much by talking to her detective husband about his job that she starts secretly solving crimes on her own. I know I’d pay to watch that.

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Movie Review: The Ghazi Attack (2017)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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This is a review of the Hindi version of The Ghazi Attack.

The novelty factor of an Indian submarine movie is plenty of reason to watch The Ghazi Attack, though the film itself is only so-so.

Set in 1971, when Bangladesh was East Pakistan, the film follows an Indian submarine as it tracks the Pakistani sub PNS Ghazi through the Bay of Bengal. The story is based on real-life events, though both countries differ on what actually happened.

Tensions are high as Pakistan cracks down on suspected Bengali militants in East Pakistan. India sends an aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal to disrupt the seaward supply route, and Pakistan dispatches the Ghazi in response. With all of its vessels otherwise occupied, the Indian Navy sends its own sub — the S21 — to investigate.

The S21 isn’t the Navy’s first choice, because its captain — Ranvijay Singh (Kay Kay Menon) — has a reputation for a hair-trigger. Singh is under orders not to fire on the Ghazi, but the admiral (played by Om Puri) doesn’t trust the captain. The admiral sends Lt. Commander Arjun Verma  (Rana Daggubati) on the mission to stop Singh from starting a war, no matter what.

Cynicism regarding institutions is expected in Hindi movies, with the government, the police, and the judiciary frequently portrayed as inept or callous, if not outright hostile to ordinary citizens. The Navy brass aren’t depicted that way in The Ghazi Attack. The admiral and his staff take a wide view of the conflict that seeks to minimize civilian casualties by avoiding war, if possible.

Captain Singh is cut from the same cloth as many Bollywood heroes: a man of action whose inherent righteousness empowers him to define morality as it suits him. He sees his only job as killing the enemy — the enemy being anyone in a Pakistani military uniform.

Singh’s sense of purpose stems from personal revenge, not any virtuous higher calling. He’s not fundamentally at odds with his military superiors — he just sees them as overly cautious — but his vendetta against Pakistan compels him to ignore the chain of command. Anyone harmed in his pursuit is collateral damage.

Verma’s presence serves not only as a check on Singh’s actions but provides an alternative moral point-of-view. Verma risks his own life to rescue two refugees from the wreckage of a merchant vessel sunk by the Ghazi: a little girl and a doctor named Ananya (Taapsee Pannu).

As debutant director Sankalp Reddy’s film progresses, Singh’s “shoot first” morality is unexpectedly endorsed as the preferred code of conduct, at least in terms of dealings between India and Pakistan. Singh is not only willing to risk the lives of the soldiers under his command in order to sink the Ghazi, he doesn’t care what happens as a result of his actions: not to himself, and not to the hundreds of thousands of civilians who would be endangered in the event of all-out war.

Things get downright silly when Indian patriotism is weaponized. The captain of the Pakistani sub (played by Rahul Singh) is driven into a blind rage just by hearing the Indian National Anthem.

Despite the movie’s questionable moral compass, The Ghazi Attack is enjoyable, thanks to compelling performances by Menon and Daggubati. Atul Kulkarni also deserves kudos as Executive Officer Devraj, a man whose personal views have more in common with those of Verma, but who trusts Singh enough to follow his dangerous orders. Pannu is wasted as a token female character who doesn’t even get to use her medical expertise when a pivotal emergency cries out for a doctor’s assistance.

It’s especially fascinating to see the kind of technology that powered Indian Naval submarines in the early 1970s. Maneuvers are executed by turning wheels and opening valves, which all looks ancient by contemporary post-digital standards (even though military submarine technology was already more than half-a-century old by the time of the events in the film). It’s a poignant reminder of the uniquely challenging conditions under which sailors wage war.

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Movie Review: A Flying Jatt (2016)

AFlyingJatt3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A Flying Jatt is a throwback to a time when superhero movies could be colorful and silly instead of grimly serious. It’s so much fun.

One nice feature of genre films is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Drawing on classic examples like Christopher Reeve’s Superman films and Michael Keaton’s Batman allows writer-director Remo D’Souza to add specific cultural influences to a formula that is proven to work. For years, filmmakers have tried to create an Indian superhero from scratch, but none has been as successful as D’Souza is here.

Tiger Shroff plays Aman, a martial arts instructor with low self-esteem. He’s lived in the shadow of his heroic, deceased father for so long that he feels no one can see him for who he is. That goes for both his disappointed mother (Amrita Singh) and Kirti (Jacqueline Fernandez), a chipper fellow teacher with whom he’s secretly in love.

Aman’s mom and Kirti aren’t his only problems. The school’s music teacher, Goldie (Sushant Pujari, without the curly hair he sported in ABCD), is trying to woo Kirti. More importantly, an industrialist named Malhotra (Kay Kay Menon, with a perm) wants to tear down the colony where Aman’s family lives, including a sacred tree bearing a Sikh Khanda symbol.

Aman isn’t as religious as his mom, so he’d rather sell their land to Malhotra to avoid a confrontation. Mom’s refusal prompts Aman to visit the tree one rainy night to beg God to protect his mother. There he finds a large Aussie named Raka (Nathan Jones of Mad Max: Fury Road) poised to take down the tree with a chainsaw at Malhotra’s behest.

The two men engage in a fight, during which Raka slams Aman against the tree’s Khanda symbol. Lightning strikes, imbuing Aman with superpowers and launching Raka far away into one of Malhotra’s piles of toxic waste. Raka emerges from the sludge hand-first — a la Jack Nicholson’s Joker — as a monster who feeds on pollution.

In keeping with his character development, Aman doesn’t automatically embrace his superhero status. His brother, Rohit (Gaurav Pandey), is the first to fully understand what has happened to Aman, triggering a funny scene in which Rohit and Mom take turns stabbing a sleeping Aman just so they can watch his wounds heal immediately.

Mom and Rohit enthusiastically select a costume for Aman and study old Superman films for tips on proper flying techniques. However, Aman is still the same timid guy he always was, scared of dogs and too nervous to fly more than a few feet above the ground. Televised reports of his successful hostage rescue are equal parts inspiring and embarrassing.

Ultimately, it’s Rohit that makes the point to both Aman and the audience that real heroes are those who stand up to evil without superpowers to protect them. This is a family-friendly film, so messages about bravery and environmental stewardship are made explicit for the benefit of kids. D’Souza lays the environmentalism on pretty thick, but it fits with the tone of the film.

D’Souza delivers on his vision for A Flying Jatt, turning limitations into strengths. Fight scenes that rely heavily on slow-motion and harnesses emphasize the movie’s retro vibe. A Flying Jatt doesn’t have a big Hollywood budget, but it doesn’t need one.

I was unimpressed by Shroff in his two previous films, but he’s really good in this. His physical gifts are on display again — both in terms of his impressive martial arts skills and abs — but he’s also funny and vulnerable. It took a well-written character to allow Shroff to show his charming side.

Pandey’s endearing performance is essential to the film’s success. Rohit not only guides Aman through his hero’s journey, but he has motivations of his own. Envious of his brother’s abilities, Rohit dons the Flying Jatt costume — only to have their mother mistake him for Aman and break a coconut on his head.

Instead of the sexy characters Fernandez often plays, Kirti is cute, her playful punches among the only things that still hurt Aman after his transformation. Kirti wears glasses, which in a typical movie would require removal via a makeover sequence, so that she could finally realize how pretty she is. In A Flying Jatt, the only time she takes them off is for dance numbers, which is more a practical matter than an aesthetic one. When Aman finally tells Kirti that he thinks she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, she’s still wearing her glasses.

For a movie aimed at a family audience, A Flying Jatt is a little long. The song “Beat Pe Booty” feels more appropriate for the closing credits than the run-up to the climax. Failing to pit Shroff against Pujari in a dance battle is a missed opportunity (but maybe there’s room for it in a sequel?).

D’Souza never disappoints as a choreographer, but he’s become a really good director as well. I loved the dance flick ABCD, and now he’s created a terrific superhero movie. The world needs the kind of fun films that D’Souza makes.

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Movie Review: Singh Is Bliing (2015)

SinghIsBling2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Singh Is Bliing is an imperfect but entertaining action comedy, and one of Prabhu Deva’s better directorial ventures. The movie offers one of the year’s best comic performances, from an unlikely source.

Akshay Kumar stars as Raftaar Singh, a totally different character from the one he played in 2008’s Singh Is Kinng. The two movies have nothing to do with each other, except that calling Singh Is Bliing a sequel provides a reason for Kumar to play a Punjabi Sikh again, as if one needs a reason.

Raftaar is a typical Bollywood layabout, far too old be mooching off his parents (Kumar is 48). He’s got a pair of lackeys — Pappi (Arfi Lamba) and Pompi (Anil Mange) — who follow him about. Raftaar’s father gives his son an ultimatum: take a job with Dad’s buddy in Goa, or marry an overweight woman, which is apparently a form of punishment.

Dad’s buddy (Pradeep Rawat) assigns Raftaar and his boys the task of guarding Sara (Amy Jackson), daughter of the boss’s friend, who also happens to be an international arms dealer. The problem is that Sara only speaks English, and Raftaar and his friends only speak Hindi.

They hire a translator, Emily (Lara Dutta), who immediately steals the whole film. Dutta is hilarious. Emily gets so into her role that she starts imitating Raftaar’s mannerisms, not just translating his words. She busts out some funky dance moves in a bar after matching Raftaar shot-for-shot.

A particularly clever song sequence sees one of Raftaar’s romantic daydreams about Sara made manifest. Pappi and Pompi notice Raftaar staring into space and decide to join him in his dream, dragging Emily in with them. As the boys provide the background music, Emily serves as Raftaar’s romantic surrogate, herself wooing Sara as she sings in English what Raftaar has just sung in Hindi. It’s very funny and smart.

Unfortunately, the rest of the plot isn’t as intelligent. Multiple story threads fail to come together in a satisfactory way. The big villain of the film — an arms dealer named Mark (Kay Kay Menon) who is a rival of Sara’s father — is a total afterthought, and his few scenes are poorly integrated into the rest of the story. He doesn’t steer the plot until the very end of the film, so Raftaar and Sara are in little serious danger for the bulk of the picture.

This is a shame, because Menon is a skilled scenery chewer. Sporting a ponytail, Menon channels Terry Silver from Karate Kid III, enhancing the similarity by shouting “I like it!”

In a surprising reversal of gender norms, Jackson gets to perform the best fight choreography, while Kumar plays Raftaar as brave but bumbling. Jackson is perfectly suited for action roles, but her acting and dancing could use some work if she wants to branch out. Kumar is likable as ever.

Though Singh Is Bliing isn’t overtly misogynistic like some of Prabhu Deva’s earlier films, there’s a disappointing sequence of victim blaming. Raftaar instructs a pair of women being manhandled by a pair of lecherous men to fight back. He takes the idiotic view that women can prevent sexual assault simply by slapping their attackers.

When the ladies kick their attackers into submission, Raftaar feels vindicated in his opinion (never mind that the two attackers know that Raftaar is waiting to pummel them should they overpower the women).

Later, Sara annihilates a room full of goons, and Pappi and Pompy credit her success to Raftaar’s speech. It’s unclear if this is meant to be a joke, but the statement is followed immediately by a shot of some dancers — one of whom had earlier been punched in the face — hitting the fallen goons, seeming to validate Raftaar as deserving of credit.

Though Singh Is Bliing falls short of its potential, surprisingly fun performances by Dutta, Menon, and butt-kicking Amy Jackson keep the sequel from ever being dull.

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Movie Review: Rahasya (2015)

Rahasya3 Stars (out of 4)

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Rahasya is a solid police procedural, with an intriguing pool of suspects in the murder of a teenage girl. Inspired by a real case, the movie elucidates the way ordinary secrets can come back to haunt us.

The mystery begins when the body of 18-year-old Ayesha Mahajan (Sakshi Sem) is discovered by the family maid, Remi (Ashwini Kalsekar). Sometime between 11 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., Ayesha was murdered in her own bedroom, her throat slashed.

It seems obvious to police Inspector Malwade (Nimai Bali) that Ayesha was murdered by her father, Dr. Sachin Mahajan (Ashish Vidyarthi). Dr. Mahajan was angry at discovering his daughter’s sexual relationship with a Muslim neighbor boy, Riyaz (Kunal Sharma), and he killed her in drunken fit of rage, Malwade assumes. Never mind that Riyaz is nowhere to be found, and that the other member of the household staff, Chetan (Manoj Maurya), also absconded during the night.

The case draws the interest of Central Bureau of Investigation agent Paraskar (Kay Kay Menon), who finds the answer offered by the police too convenient. Specifically, he doubts that Sachin could have slashed Ayesha’s throat so precisely given how drunk he was.

Paraskar’s investigation — with the help of his dutiful assistant, Parvez (Abhinav Sharma) — uncovers additional motives that shine the spotlight on everyone from staff members to neighbors. It also puts Paraskar in the crosshairs of the real killer.

Menon’s captivating performance is the main reason to watch Rahasya. Writer-director Manish Gupta knows this, so he employs closeups of Menon’s face liberally, encouraging the audience to focus on his star. Detective Paraskar’s initial quirkiness is short-lived, allowing the character to establish an identity distinct from all the Sherlock clones out there. He’s meticulous and principled, chasing down each lead while ignoring his wife’s suggestion to just take a bribe and be done with it.

The mystery itself is compelling, with each suspect and theory laid out in turn. Only during Paraskar’s final reveal do things slow down. Right when the audience wants the answers, director Gupta delays with flashbacks and interruptions by the suspects. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it is frustrating.

Gupta’s spin on a true crime story highlights the dangers of jumping to conclusions. While everyone is innocent until proven guilty, those with the strongest motives may be those you least suspect.

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Movie Review: Baby (2015)

BABY_poster_20152.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A lot happens in Baby, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. A choppy story structure and underdeveloped characters make Baby feel like a TV mini-series shoehorned into movie format.

Writer-director Neeraj Pandey’s broad vision pays dividends in certain ways. Globetrotting Indian counter-terrorist operative Ajay (Akshay Kumar) follows his targets to visually interesting places like Turkey, Nepal, and Saudi Arabia. Ajay’s luckier than his poor boss, Feroz (Danny Denzongpa), who only appears in scenes set in office buildings.

Ajay’s first mission — in which he tracks a rogue special agent to Istanbul — starts the movie on a promising note. Ajay extracts enough information to thwart a bomb blast, and the rogue operative foreshadows future attacks before killing himself.

The attacks are the work of a radical Muslim cleric in Pakistan, Maulana Mohammed Rahman (Rasheed Naz). Ajay must disrupt Maulana’s network — which includes a local recruiter, a jailed militant (Kay Kay Menon), and a corrupt businessman (Sushant Singh) — to get to Maulana.

What makes the plot so jarring is that Ajay’s participation is the only connecting thread between operations. (Feroz coordinates the missions, but he never gets to leave his office.) Ajay is alone on his first mission in Turkey, while his subordinate, Jai (Rana Daggubati), foils the bomb plot in India. New flunkies join Ajay for his next mission, and he gets a female sidekick, Shabana (Taapsee Pannu), for the mission after that. It’s only after the militant escapes from jail that Jai reenters the story, after an absence in real-time of over an hour.

Segmenting the story this way keeps Ajay from forging strong connections with his people, thereby lowering the stakes. Would Ajay care if Jai died? It’s not like Jai is his partner or a trusted friend. He’s just a guy who shows up when called on and disappears when he’s not needed.

Worse still is Ajay’s forced family narrative. He shares two scenes early on with his wife (Madhurima Tuli) and two kids, but the kids are never seen again after that. The wife — whatever her name is — reappears for a spy-movie cliché scene, in which she calls to reminds him about their daughter’s birthday while he’s in the middle of frisking a suspect.

It’s another example of the low stakes for Ajay. His family is never endangered by his job, and he hardly thinks about them. In fact, he’s rarely in any real danger at all. The terrorists don’t realize he’s onto them, so they go about their business until he shows up. If they were tracking him in return, it would’ve raised the tension.

The movie’s lengthy 150-minute runtime also keeps Baby from being a truly thrilling thriller. Though effective early on, Pandey employees the same tension-building camerawork patterns repeatedly, making scenes that should be intense predictable.

Kumar is well-suited to anchor this kind of film. He plays the role straight, allowing Anupam Kher to lighten the mood as a reluctant hacker. Kumar also cedes the movie’s most exciting fight scene to Pannu, who is terrific in her minor role.

Despite the film’s bloated runtime, its villains are woefully underdeveloped. Menon’s character doesn’t have any dialogue after his opening scene, which is a shame given some great non-verbal acting he does during his character’s escape from prison. The cleric Maulana spouts some ideology early on but is likewise mute for most of the rest of the movie.

The silent villains may be a deliberate choice on Pandey’s part. De-emphasizing the terrorist’s ideology brings to the forefront a political opinion expressed by both Feroz and Ajay. Feroz explains to the Prime Minister that, when young Indian Muslims choose to fight for Pakistan, it’s India’s fault for making them feel unwelcome in their own country. That inclusive sentiment is one that any government that values diversity should take to heart.

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Movie Review: Haider (2014)

Haider4 Stars (out of 4)

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Classic works of art earn the designation because of their ability to connect with audiences long after their creators are dead. Filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj demonstrates why William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a classic by updating the play as Haider, a film that presents Hamlet‘s essential truths in a way that is fresh and compelling.

Bhardwaj changes the story’s setting from the royal court of Denmark to Kashmir in 1995. The film supplies more than enough information for international audiences to understand the social and political conflict present in the region at the time.

The city of Srinagar is officially under Indian control, though militants wishing for the region to unite with Pakistan offer armed resistance. Hilal (Narendra Jha), a doctor, secretly performs surgery on a militant leader, citing his oath to preserve all life. His wife, Ghazala (Tabu), is afraid. As the army officer Pervez (Lalit Parimoo) puts it, “When the elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.” Ghazala knows she and Hilal are the grass, not the elephants.

A masked informer tells the army that Hilal is harboring a terrorist. The doctor is carted off and his house destroyed.

The doctor’s son, Haider (Shahid Kapoor), returns to Srinagar to find his house a smouldering ruin and his mother giggling in the company of his fraternal uncle, Khurram (Kay Kay Menon). Ghazala and Khurram protest that the situation is not what it looks like, but Haider isn’t buying it.

Haider’s personal quest to discover what happened to his father takes place within an environment of increasing turmoil. There’s a lot of money and power to be had, thanks to Indian government initiatives to track down militants. Pervez, Khurram, and even the two guys named Salman who own the local video store are eager to cash in. Information is the most valuable currency, so no one can be trusted.

A lack of trust also lies at the heart of Haider’s troubled relationship with Ghazala. Flashbacks showing a happy household give way to memories of emotional manipulation and simmering resentment.

Kapoor and Tabu are brilliant together. That mistrust bubbles under the surface of every conversation, breaking through just when they seem on the verge of sharing a tender moment. Yet their bond is overpowering. He is her only son, she his only remaining parent.

Each of the principal characters is driven by complicated motives. Menon is duplicitous and opportunistic, but he genuinely loves Ghazala. Ghazala — though she doesn’t wish for her husband’s death — enjoys being doted on by Khurram. She fruitlessly tries to explain to Haider that parents are adults with their own needs and feelings that have nothing to do with their children.

Caught in the middle is Arshee (Shraddha Kapoor), Haider’s childhood sweetheart. With Haider back in town, she’s ready to get married. She doesn’t realize that Haider’s path of vengeance likely precludes a wedding.

What’s interesting about the female characters in Haider is the way they have both more and less autonomy than the male characters. The women can move freely about town, without the ID checks and pat downs the men endure at every turn. Arshee publishes articles critical of the Indian government in the local paper.

Yet their futures are still governed by men. Arshee’s brother, Lucky (Aamir Bashir), and her father, Officer Pervez, have the power to cancel her engagement to Haider. While Hilal is considered officially missing but not deceased, Ghazala is designated a “half-widow,” unable to mourn and remarry, forced to wait.

The genius of Bhardwaj’s creation is the way it so successfully tells both the story of Hamlet and the story of Kashmir. Bhardwaj turns Shakespeare’s story into the ideal tool to illuminate a complicated, controversial part of India’s past and present, all while maintaining the tone and spirit of the original.

Bhardwaj is also responsible for the film’s masterful background score and soundtrack. The sound design in the movie is spot on, with frequent quiet periods to enhance the effectiveness of the music.

There’s one dance number in the movie, and it seems designed to make all future Bollywood dance numbers look superfluous and bland by comparison. Haider stages a musical performance to try to intimidate his uncle, and it’s spectacular. Kapoor is a skilled individual dancer, but here his talents are used as an integral part of the story.

Every performance is tremendous. The cinematography uses Srinagar’s abundant snow as a backdrop for breathtaking shots. The music is spectacular. Haider is a movie that begs to be seen.

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Movie Review: Raja Natwarlal (2014)

RajaNatwarlal2 Stars (out of 4)

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One of a movie’s most precious resources is time. Filmmakers have a matter of minutes to establish characters and set up the plot, and then only an hour or two to resolve the story in a satisfying way. Raja Natwarlal allocates far too much time to a romance that needs no explanation and too little time on a complicated heist that does.

Director Kunal Deshmukh and writer Parveez Sheikh rely heavily on genre shorthand. Emraan Hashmi plays Raja, a small-time con artist with a heart of gold. When a heist goes wrong, he turns to a mentor — Yogi (Paresh Rawal) — who gives him two rules: don’t question my orders, and don’t fall in love.

The second rule is a problem because Raja has a girlfriend, an exotic dancer named Ziya (Humaima Malik). We know that Ziya is the most important thing in Raja’s life because the film devotes four song-and-dance numbers to their relationship, plus a fifth during the closing credits.

So much time is wasted on Raja and Ziya dancing in the club, in the rain, and on a tour of Cape Town that the details of the big heist Raja and Yogi are trying to pull off get glossed over.

Raja and Yogi both want revenge against wealthy, corrupt cricket enthusiast Varda Yadav (Kay Kay Menon). They concoct a plan to steal Yadav’s money by tricking him into thinking he’s buying a cricket team.

Yogi gathers a crew of three or four sidekicks who get barely any introduction and virtually no lines of dialogue. This isn’t Ocean’s Eleven or The Italian Job. This is just Raja, Yogi, and some other guys.

By the end of the con, the crew has mysteriously ballooned to more than a dozen guys. There’s no explanation of who they are or how they are recruited, apart from a hitman played by the shamefully underutilized Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. Predictably, one of the anonymous new guys is a mop-topped teenage computer hacker.

With so many heist film clichés in play and without any sense of how the con is unfolding as it’s happening, it never feels like Raja is any danger. Every event seems like it’s either part of a master plan or confirmation of Yogi’s fear that love really has turned Raja into a mush-brained schmuck.

It doesn’t help that Yadav isn’t a threatening villain. He only gets one scene of violence. A corrupt police officer named Singh is more menacing, but his integration into the plot is weak.

Scenes with Officer Singh highlight another problem: how do all the characters seem to know so much about Raja’s schemes? When Raja and his initial partner, Raghav (Deepak Tijori), mistakenly steal a bunch of cash from Yadav early on, Yadav and the cops find out about it almost immediately. How?

They probably found out while Raja was singing and dancing with Ziya in the strip club for the second time, which is actually the film’s third dance number in the opening twenty minutes (Raja gets a solo number as well). That’s an awful lot of time wasted on dancing that could’ve been spent on plot development.

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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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Movie Review: ABCD: Any Body Can Dance (2013)

Anybody-can-dance3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Indian production houses have recently been fumbling with attempts to make movies targeted at urban teens with disposable income. ABCD: Any Body Can Dance is the first film to really hit its target audience. It’s vibrant and fresh without feeling condescending.

ABCD follows a familiar formula. An adult with something to prove whips a scruffy bunch of kids into shape, helping them grow as individuals and as a group of friends. It’s Chak De India, but with dancing instead of field hockey. This isn’t a knock on ABCD. The formula works, so why not use it? A good formula executed poorly results in a bad movie. Thankfully, ABCD is well-executed.

Prabhu Deva anchors the film as Vishnu. Booted as the lead choreographer at Mumbai’s most popular dance studio to make way for a flashy new choreographer from New York, Vishnu contemplates returning to his native Chennai. His friend and fellow dance teacher, Gopi (Ganesh Acharyaas), talks Vishnu into staying in town for a few more days, during which time Vishnu spots some talented young people dancing at a religious festival.

The dancers are divided into two rival factions headed by Rocky (Salman Yusuff Khan) and D (Dharmesh Yelande). Rocky’s crew immediately accepts Vishnu’s offer to mentor them, but D’s crew needs more convincing. Vishnu must get Rocky and D to set their egos aside for the group to have any chance of beating Vishnu’s former studio, JDC, in the national televised dance competition, “Dance Dil Se” (“Dance From the Heart”).

Vishnu’s new school gets a boost when a former student, Rhea (Lauren Gottlieb), defects from JDC after the head of the school, Jahangir (Kay Kay Menon), makes a pass at her. Menon is great as the slimy director of the studio. Gottlieb, a former competitor on So You Think You Can Dance in the U.S., does a nice job in her debut role in a Hindi film. Obviously, she’s an incredible dancer.

The dancing is ABCD‘s selling point, and it does not disappoint. All of the routines — from flashy stage numbers to solo performances in the rehearsal space — are really entertaining. The 3D effects added to the big routines don’t add much, but they aren’t distracting either.

For the most part, the acting is solid. All of the younger cast members — many of whom made their names on dance competition shows in India — do a great job, as does Prabhu Deva. Ganesh Acharyaas overacts as Gopi, turning what could’ve been a warm character into a source of distraction. Also distracting is Pankaj Tripathi in a minor role as a politician in a neck brace who speaks in an inexplicably bizarre voice.

Another problem in ABCD is the lack of development of all but a few characters. There are about a dozen additional dancers in the Vishnu’s group, and only a few of their names are spoken in the movie. Director Remo D’Souza could’ve dispensed with a needless anti-drug subplot to at least give the supporting characters names.

Something about the ethnic makeup of the dancers at JDC struck me as funny. The Mumbai school, which performs a style that is mostly Western contemporary, is made up of Indian boys and white girls. There isn’t a single Indian girl in the company. There’s no explanation for why this is, nor does it keep JDC from being the most popular dance group in India. It’s weird.

What I especially enjoyed about the dancing in ABCD is the way the numbers refrain from objectifying the women in the cast, treating them as equal members of the company. There are no item girls in ABCD. It’s refreshing.

If anything, the men in the cast are the ones being objectified. The dance crew is mostly made up of young, fit dudes who spend a lot of time with their shirts off. As a woman who sees a lot of Hindi movies, it was nice to be the target audience for a sexy dance number for a change.

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