Tag Archives: Manav Kaul

TV Review: Ghoul (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Ghoul pulls no punches in its depiction of the dangers of state-sanctioned religious intolerance. The show’s monsters are scary, but not as terrifying as the vision of the future presented by writer-director Patrick Graham.

The miniseries comprises three episodes, each with a runtime between 40-45 minutes (excluding closing credits). In all, Ghoul is about as long as a feature film. I appreciated the built-in breaks, which occur at logical points in the plot. This is a perfect kind of storytelling format for a streaming video platform, and I won’t be surprised to see it become more common as filmmakers adapt to changing audience viewing habits.

Graham keeps the scares to a minimum in the first episode: “Out of the Smokeless Fire,” establishing a world where every day is a nightmare for those on the wrong side of new societal divisions. A fascist Indian government cracks down on homegrown terrorism by outlawing certain religious texts and practices, burning books and whisking away citizens believed to harbor anti-nationalist sentiments for “re-education.” The only people targeted in crackdowns are Muslims, although the show doesn’t specifically identify the government as Hindu nationalist.

Naive patriotism inspires Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte) to enlist in the military, despite being the daughter of an Islamic scholar (played by S.M. Zaheer). She’s convinced that the government’s harsh tactics truly are about national security and not religious oppression, as her father believes — so much so that she turns in her own father for re-education. Soon after, she’s posted at a secret government prison to aid the interrogation of notorious terrorist Ali Saeed (Mahesh Balraj), who is captured in the show’s opening, half-dead and surrounded by the corpses of his followers. But why would the military assign Nida, a junior interrogator, to such a high-profile case?

The last two episodes draw from any number of horror films in which the characters are trapped in a remote location with a monster, their terror turning them against one another when their survival depends on them working together. Few of the soldiers and prisoners get any meaningful character development other than Colonel Sunil Dacunha (Manav Kaul), whose idea it was to bring Nida in, and Lieutenant Laxmi Das (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee), Dacunha’s skeptical second-in-command.

Although the relative anonymity of the other soldiers signals their expendability, it also highlight’s the shows message that any agent of a fascist government is liable for its crimes. Not every soldier in Dacunha’s prison personally tortured prisoners, but all of them knew about it and did nothing to stop it. The jail’s cremation room is a stark visualization of the parallels to Nazism present throughout Graham’s screenplay.

When Ghoul‘s namesake creature finally appears, the story becomes quite scary, playing on the fears of those within the prison. Several of the soldiers, including Dacunha, are haunted by the way engaging in torture has warped their sense of morality — not enough to stop torturing people, unfortunately — allowing the monster to play on their guilt. The scares in Ghoul are more psychological than surprise driven, and there’s a considerable amount of blood.

Nida is plagued by her own guilt, and she has no allies in her new surroundings. Apte is compelling in the lead role, showing both Nida’s grit and vulnerability. Bravely, the series doesn’t downplay her commitment to the totalitarian government. She’s willing to follow orders until the moment she’s absolutely convinced that she’s been duped. Nor does Ghoul try to make Dacunha more sympathetic than he should be. Kaul depicts Dacunha as conflicted, but unquestionably a bad person. Ghoul knows which way its moral compass points, and it’s not afraid to show it.

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Movie Review: Tumhari Sulu (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Actors Vidya Balan and Manav Kaul carry Tumhari Sulu, a task made more difficult by the story’s lack of perspective. It’s hard to tell how first-time feature filmmaker Suresh Triveni expects the audience to feel about his characters and their journey.

Balan plays Sulu, a bored housewife who entertains herself by entering radio contests. Her husband, Ashok (Kaul), ekes out a meager paycheck managing a dysfunctional tailoring shop. Their eleven-year-old son Pranav (Abhishek Sharma) earns money on the side by selling dirty DVDs and magazines to his classmates.

Sulu’s more successful sisters delight in their sibling’s lower-middle-class status, chiding Sulu for not having a job while reminding her that her lack of a degree precludes her from getting a reputable gig, anyway.

When Sulu goes to the radio station to collect her latest prize — a pressure cooker — she notices an ad for a late-night radio show host. She finagles a meeting with the station manager, Maria (Neha Dhupia), who gives Sulu a shot, if only for the chance to laugh at the frumpy, naive housewife. However, Sulu’s sultry delivery is just what Maria is looking for, and a new radio star is born.

Triveni’s story — which he wrote and directed — takes a long time to get to this point without advancing the characters’ development. The plot meanders, never lingering long enough to develop any of the potential themes — topics like Sulu’s self-worth, women’s financial independence, or the challenges of a two-income household — beyond a surface level examination.

Even if one assumes that Triveni is leaving it to the audience to draw their own conclusions, he doesn’t give them enough information to do so, chiefly because the characters don’t have meaningful conversations. Sulu doesn’t take her husband seriously, and she has no friends to confide in. Without substantive dialogues — or even internal monologues — it’s hard to infer what is important to the characters, and there’s only so much meaning we can derive from their actions alone.

Triveni also takes for granted the notion that a family’s ability to function is ultimately a woman’s responsibility. When complications arise concurrent with Sulu’s new job, it’s implied that, even if the problem’s aren’t specifically Sulu’s fault, they are her responsibility to fix. Nevermind that Ashok’s work situation was hardly ideal or that Pranav was already a junior pornographer before Sulu started her radio gig.

As is the case with every movie starting Vidya Balan, she is Tumhari Sulu‘s greatest asset, always fun and engaging. Yet, Kaul’s performance enables Balan to be her best. During Sulu’s and Ashok’s happier moments, the pair are adorable together — an unexpected delight, given that Kaul usually plays villains. Dhupia is a great choice to play a hip radio station manager, but her character is too easygoing to be convincing, given the competitive nature of that industry.

Songs are weirdly integrated into Tumhari Sulu, and the inclusion of random parkour stunts into one of them almost hints at an insecurity about whether the film itself is exciting and cool enough to grab the audience’s attention. Perhaps a co-writer for Triveni would have mitigated some of the burden on Balan’s and Kaul’s shoulders.

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Movie Review: Jolly LLB 2 (2017)

jollyllb22.5 Stars (out of 4)

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In spite of a compelling performance by Akshay Kumar as Jolly LLB 2‘s flawed hero, narrative inconsistencies keep the well-intentioned black comedy from achieving its full potential.

Kumar plays Jolly Mishra — a different character from Arshad Warsi’s title character in the original Jolly LLB — an ambitious lawyer who yearns to be more than an errand boy for the more established attorney, Rizvi. In order to raise money to establish his own practice, Jolly assures a pregnant young widow, Hina (Sayani Gupta), that Rizvi will take on her case, collecting the fees from her up front and keeping them for himself.

Hina’s case is politically dangerous. She believes that her husband, Iqbal (Manav Kaul), was falsely arrested on terrorism charges and murdered by police, all for the sake of securing a promotion for notorious Officer Suryaveer Singh (Kumud Mishra). With crooked, wealthy Lucknow attorney Sachin Mathur (Annu Kapoor) defending Singh, every other lawyer knows that Hina’s case is a lost cause.

When Hina learns from Rizvi that he never agreed to take her case, she realizes that Jolly duped her, declaring as much in front of Jolly, his wife Pushpa (Huma Qureshi), and his father, who spent decades working as Rizvi’s legal secretary. Devoid of hope, Hina kills herself. Rizvi fires Jolly, and Jolly’s father tells his son he never wants to see him again.

Jolly is a complicated character. He’s a doting husband to drunken Pushpa and a loving father to their son, but he doesn’t work for any ideals higher than his own ambition. It’s impossible to pay penance for driving Hina to suicide, but Jolly takes on her case in the hopes of righting some of the wrongs he did by her and her family. Kumar’s grounded performance makes us believe that Jolly can become a better man by the end of the movie than he is at the beginning.

The case pits Jolly — who has the truth on his side — against the nakedly corrupt Mathur, who is sleazy in typical sleazy movie lawyer fashion. The presiding Judge Tripathy (Saurabh Shukla) isn’t explicitly corrupt, just distracted by his daughter’s upcoming nuptials.

Tripathy is the weak link in Jolly LLB 2. It’s hard to figure out how exactly he fits into the story. He’s not funny enough to provide true comic relief, but he’s clearly too light for a somewhat grim case involving suicide and extrajudicial police killings. He’s prone to drawing out conversations, leading to dull patches. Unlike the other characters, his balance is off.

The judge is also tasked by the script with driving the tension in the courtroom, but he’s not consistent in the way in which he does so. Tripathy believes or discounts witnesses’ testimony depending on the needs of the story at that moment, not because of any internal logic. Some of his other decisions are so blatantly provocative that it dispels the illusion of organic story flow. We can all but see writer-director Subhash Kapoor pulling the strings.

In Jolly LLB 2‘s favor, Kumar and Qureshi look great together and share a comfortable rapport. Rajiv Gupta is the film’s unsung hero as Jolly’s harried assistant, Birbal. Shukla’s dance sequence as Tripathy rehearses for his daughter’s wedding is pretty funny.

Jolly LLB 2‘s sentiment is admirable, especially at a time when citizens in India and around the world are desperate for reassurance that their justice systems aren’t fundamentally irreparable. The story just needed more refining to maintain a consistent tone throughout.

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Movie Review: Jai Gangaajal (2016)

JaiGangaajal2 Stars (out of 4)

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Who exactly is the protagonist in Jai Gangaajal (“Hail Holy Waters“)? International superstar Priyanka Chopra features on the poster, but her position as the clear hero is usurped by Prakash Jha, the film’s writer and director.

Jha himself plays Deputy BN Singh, a crooked cop in the crime-ridden hamlet of Bankipur. The town’s corruption is laid out in the movie’s protracted opening sequence. Power-mad politician Babloo Pandey (Manav Kaul) and his cartoonishly villainous brother, Dabloo (Ninad Kamat), operate with impunity under the protection of cops like Singh, who lives in a mansion more lavish than any public servant could afford on his salary alone.

When the police chief tries to clean up the force, Singh arranges his superior’s transfer. Little does Singh know that the new sheriff is no one to trifle with. Enter Police Chief Abha Mathur (Chopra), more than twenty minutes into the story, long after we’ve been bored by the usual scenes of goons strong-arming poor villagers into giving up their land to make way for some corporate building project.

Mathur’s devotion to law and order inspires a magical transformation within the police force. After watching Mathur — a woman! — beat the hell out of the Pandeys’ thugs with a stick, one awed officer tells her in all seriousness, “Sir, today I’ve found my self-respect.” Even Singh chaffs at Dabloo’s threat to damage his police uniform.

Yet there’s little else to Mathur’s character besides her belief in the rule of law, which never wavers no matter the circumstances. Her backstory is boiled down to a couple of lines of dialogue. We only see her out of her police uniform three times, and twice in the same all-black outfit. She’s like a justice robot who switches off when not on duty.

Singh, on the other hand, is a well-developed character who grows morally and emotionally throughout the film. Singh gets the better story arc and about the same amount of screentime as Mathur, so why isn’t Jha on the poster with — or instead of — Chopra?

The bait-and-switch of selling Jai Gangaajal as a Priyanka Chopra picture isn’t as bothersome as the fact that Jha the filmmaker had a chance to make a more interesting movie than the one he did. Imagine Chopra as the female version of the Bollywood supercop regularly played by men like Salman Khan, Ajay Devgn, and Akshay Kumar. Not a gritty, realistic cop like Rani Mukerji in Mardaani, but a full-on desi action hero divinely imbued with superhuman strength.

Chopra is tremendous in the action scenes in Jai Gangaajal, and she looks badass in her police uniform. She has a broad enough acting range to pull off bombastic dialogue without sounding silly. A female twist on the supercop would allow for exploration of the relationship between women and the justice system. One brief shot in Jai Gangaajal of Mathur hugging a girl she’s saved from kidnappers seemed positioned to lead the story in that direction, but Jha’s movie doesn’t follow that path.

Instead, Jha views all his female characters through the prism of sexual violence. When Dabloo gets in a physical altercation with a young woman he’s threatened to kill, he pauses to rape her first. Though Mathur is never directly threatened with rape, Dabloo make vulgar gestures and comments in regard to her appearance.

There have already been so many Bollywood made about corruption in small town India, and Jha’s boring, disorganized story doesn’t break any new ground.

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Movie Review: Wazir (2016)

Wazir2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Wazir (“Queen,” as in the chess piece) opens with a bang but fails to earn its too-tidy ending.

The setup of Wazir is not to be missed. A montage of happy moments introduces anti-terrorism officer Daanish (Farhan Akhtar), loving husband of Ruhana (Aditi Rao Hydari) and doting father of little Noorie. While running errands with his family in Delhi, Daanish spots a high-profile terrorist who was thought to be out of the country. Daanish pursues him, with catastrophic results. The sequence is fast, intense, and jaw-dropping.

Suspended from the force and guilt-stricken, Daanish befriends Noorie’s chess teacher, Panditji (Amitabh Bachchan). From his motorized wheelchair, Panditji teaches chess to children, all of whom outclass Daanish. Panditji informs his new student that the point of studying chess isn’t necessarily to win but to learn how to learn.

Panditji has an ulterior motive in befriending Daanish. One year earlier, Panditji’s adult daughter, Nina, died under mysterious circumstances in the home of the nation’s Welfare Minister, Izaad Qureshi (Manav Kaul). Qureshi says that Nina accidentally fell down a flight of stairs, but Panditji claims that he could tell from the look in Qureshi’s eyes that Nina was murdered.

A look in the eye is not much to go on. While the movie presents reasons to be suspicious of Qureshi, Panditji and Daanish don’t have access to the same evidence that the audience does. All the characters have to go on is Panditji’s gut feeling.

It’s hard to believe that Daanish would risk his life and career on the hunch of a man he only recently met. Even harder to accept is the participation of Daanish’s ranking officer (played in a cameo by John Abraham) in a crazy scheme that should result in his and Daanish’s court-martial at best, their deaths at worst.

The only reason that Daanish can take such risks based on so little information is that the story refuses to impose consequences on him. After brilliantly setting up Daanish as a man struggling with the consequences of a rash action, by movie’s end, he’s free to do whatever he wants in the name of what he considers justice. Never mind that he and John Abraham maim and possibly kill innocent people in the process.

In the course of the unsatisfying climax, the truth about Nina’s death is revealed in a way that feels too convenient. It doesn’t feel earned.

That said, the performances in the film are generally good, especially by Bachchan, who looks physically broken and world-weary. Akhtar is solid, but his character’s emotional range is limited by the plot (same for Hydari’s character). Abraham is good in his cameo, as is Anjum Sharma, who plays Daanish’s reliable friend and coworker, Sartaj.

Another selling point is Wazir‘s efficient runtime of just over one hundred minutes. The movie is exactly as long as it should be to sustain tension.

While imperfect as a whole, Wazir‘s thrilling opening action sequence is almost good enough to merit a trip to the theater. Almost.

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Movie Review: Kai Po Che! (2013)

Kai_Poche_film_poster4 Stars (out of 4)

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Kai Po Che! gets its title from a Gujarati phrase shouted in celebration during the annual kite festival in Ahmedabad. There’s reason to celebrate, as this is a great movie.

If Kai Po Che! has any flaw, it’s in the way the film begins. The film opens with a man named Govi picking up another man, Omi, upon his release from prison. Omi asks where Ishaan is, and Govi explains that Ishaan will meet them at the cricket stadium. Then a subtitle reads “Ten Years Earlier” to signal the real beginning of the story.

Opening with present day footage only to flash back to the real story is the trendy way to start a movie these days, but I suspect the technique will seem dated in the years to come. Rather than watching the story as it unfolds, the audience is forced to ponder questions throughout the whole movie, such as when and how Omi is going to wind up in jail. It’s distracting. However, I’m willing to forgive the opening because the technique is currently so common and because the rest of the movie is essentially flawless.

The three disparate friends — Govi (Raj Kumar Yadav), Omi (Amit Sadh), and Ishaan (Sushant Singh Rajput) — are united in their struggle to figure out what to do now that they’re adults. Straight-laced Govi plans to open a sporting goods store and cricket academy, if only he can get his two layabout buddies to cooperate.

The plan hinges on Ishaan, a cricket player with enough talent to be a local hero, but not enough to play in the big leagues. Having sailed through life on his athletic prowess and his family’s wealth, Ishaan is not in a hurry to grow up.

Omi is the most intriguing of the three. He’s devoted to Ishaan and resents when Govi chastises the cricketer for being lazy and selfish. Omi demands respect but does nothing to earn it.

As the business takes off — thanks to a loan from Omi’s shady politician uncle, Bittoo (Manav Kaul) — the three friends undergo some major changes. Govi starts a clandestine friendship with Ishaan’s younger sister, Vidya (Amrita Puri). Ishaan devotes his attention to developing the talents of a promising young cricketer, Ali (Digvijay Deshmukh). That leaves Omi on the outside, making him easy prey for ambitious Bittoo.

The friends’ lives are also shaped by real-life events that occurred in Ahmedabad in the early 2000s, including a devastating earthquake. The city is rife with religious and political tension between Bittoo’s majority Hindu party and the Muslim-favored party, lead by Ali’s father.

All of the circumstances allow for tremendous character growth, and the actors perform brilliantly. Yadav and Rajput get to have the most fun, with Govi growing (slightly) more rebellious just as Ishaan becomes more responsible.

Sadh is fascinating as Omi. Early in the film, while Omi is still firmly in Ishaan’s thrall, there’s a dimness in Omi’s eyes. While it’s obvious that Ishaan isn’t living up to his potential, it seems like Omi has reached his: Ishaan’s toady for life. Only when Omi feels himself pushed aside for Ishaan’s twelve-year-old protege does the spark alight in his eyes, and not in a good way.

The story is so well-paced and allows enough time to establish a real sense of place. Ahmedabad is shown as full of opportunity, if only nature and the people who live there will cooperate. Kai Po Che! is a nice tribute to the city and the notion of friendship that endures through dramatic changes.

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