Tag Archives: Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub

Movie Review: Tubelight (2017)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Much of the critical consensus around Little Boy — the 2015 American movie upon which Tubelight is based — condemns the movie as an offensive form of religious chauvinism. Armed with that foreknowledge, I expected Tubelight to be a disaster. Thankfully, it is not. Though flawed, it’s an enjoyable and touching examination of the lives of loved ones left behind during times of war.

Tubelight resets Little Boy‘s story from World-War-II-era California to the small mountain town of Jagatpur in far northern India during the Sino-Indian War of 1962. Americans can be forgiven for not remembering this conflict, as it happened at the same time as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Tubelight also recasts the titular “little boy” from the original film with 51-year-old Salman Khan. Khan plays Laxman, a mentally handicapped adult whose nickname “Tubelight” refers to the long time it takes for him to catch on to concepts. His younger brother Bharat (Sohail Khan, Salman’s actual younger brother) is his bodyguard and cheerleader, encouraging Laxman to believe in himself, even if no one else does. The pair feature in a song number about brotherly love made awkward by the siblings’ stiff dance moves.

The most uncomfortable aspect of Tubelight is the degree to which the town condones the bullying of Laxman. Young and old alike feel free to laugh at Laxman for even minor gaffes, and everyone seems okay with this. It’s sad.

Besides Bharat, Laxman’s only defenders are kindly Maya (Isha Talwar) and scholarly Banne (Om Puri). It falls on them to look after Laxman when border tensions between India and China inspire Bharat to enlist. As the conflict escalates, Laxman struggles with his loneliness and inability to bring Bharat home.

In order to keep Laxman busy, Banne encourages him to practice living by Gandhi’s principles, such as conquering fear and loving one’s enemies. Laxman thinks doing so will increase the strength of his belief, thereby empowering him to will his brother’s return. He puts Gandhi’s values into action when a widowed mother named Liling (Zhu Zhu) and her young son Guo (Matin Rey Tangu) move into a house on the outskirts of town. Though Indian by birth, their Chinese ethnicity marks them as outcasts. Laxman overcomes his own trepidation to befriend the little boy, earning him the ire of many townsfolk.

The indulgence by Banne and other villagers of Laxman’s fantasy that he can change things if he just believes hard enough feels wrong. Laxman isn’t a child who will one day come to understand that people were humoring him. He simply isn’t capable. Liling is the only person who reasons with Laxman honestly, trying to explain things in terms he can grasp. She stresses that bad things don’t happen because of a lack of faith, and that self-belief is important for its own merits, not because it can work miracles.

Moments like the conversation between Liling and Laxman give Tubelight authenticity. While Laxman may be particularly ill-equipped to handle something as horrible as war, everyone feels helpless when their loved ones are in danger. For all his intellectual shortcomings, Laxman is quicker to appreciate the distinction between individuals and governments than the rest of Jagatpur. He sees Guo and Liling for who they are, not as representatives of some hostile foreign power.

Such surface-level hatred is personified by the town bully, Narayan (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub). He’s an effective villain because his racism and xenophobia are reflexive and just understated enough that people are willing to follow him. He hears that a Chinese family has moved to town, and his instinct is to attack them. The speed with which he reacts makes it seem as though it is the natural way to react. It’s chilling.

Little Matin Rey Tangu is charming as Salman’s sidekick. They share a funny scene in which Laxman confesses his lies, only to run away before he can face the consequences. Zhu Zhu gives a solid performance, and watching her dance is a treat. Om Puri and Sohail Khan are great in a scene in which they discuss how Laxman will cope without Bharat.

Salman is overall pretty good, but he’s at his best during moments of heightened emotions, such as when Laxman is afraid for his brother or when he’s protecting Guo. His earnestness drives home the importance of rejecting racism and xenophobia as a way to free ourselves from fear and spreading peace.

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Movie Review: Raees (2017)

raees2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Raees (“Wealthy“) stars one of Bollywood’s most charismatic actors, a fact that the screenplay takes for granted. The story of a gangster’s rise to power lacks emotional depth, relying on the audience’s familiarity with Shah Rukh Khan’s dashing heroes of the past to fill in the blanks.

Raees (Khan) spent his childhood running liquor for Jairaj (Atul Kulkarni), a dangerous job given that Gujarat is officially an alcohol-free state. As a young man, Raees wants to branch out into his own boozy enterprise with his best friend, Sadiq (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), much to Jairaj’s resentment. A Mumbai don named Musa (Narendra Jha) helps Raees start his business after witnessing the Gujarati beat up a warehouse full of men while using a severed goat’s head as a weapon, all because someone dared to call the bespectacled Raees “four-eyes.”

As Raees’s illegal empire expands, he draws the attention of a straitlaced cop, Inspector Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who makes it his mission to put Raees out of business. This sets up a cat-and-mouse game that is never quite as clever as one hopes.

The nature of the criminal operations in Gujarat and Mumbai makes it difficult for Raees to keep his promise to his mother that no one should ever be harmed for the sake of business. Granted, most of the people Raees kills tried to kill him first, but he willingly puts his employees in danger during one fiery political protest. There’s some retroactive rephrasing to imply that what Mom really meant was that no innocents should be harmed, but that’s not what she said (at least according to the English subtitles).

This distinction is important, because Raees goes from emphatically rejecting violence to shooting up a room full of crooks without batting an eye. Raees himself doesn’t seem bothered by the morality of his actions, and no one holds him to task. It’s as though writer-director Rahul Dholakia expects Khan’s ardent fans to see him in the role of Raees and thus assume that his character’s actions are justified, no matter what they are.

In many gangster dramas, the role of the protagonist’s conscience often goes to his love interest, but Raees’s wife Aasiya (Mahira Khan) is a willing bootlegger. Mahira Khan is something special, teasing Raees with an irresistible smirk. She’s one of the film’s highlights, and she does a fine job in her musical numbers.

The movie’s showpiece song sequence to the tune of “Laila Main Laila” is eye-catching, juxtaposing Raees’s brutality against Sunny Leone’s shimmying. The best dancing in Raees, however, is Siddiqui’s Michael Jackson impersonation, a scene that is far, far too brief.

Khan, Siddiqui, and Ayyub are all good in Raees, but they could have been even better with a script that did more to develop their characters.

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Movie Review: Phantom (2015)

Phantom2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Phantom is a revenge fantasy inspired by the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai. As political wish-fulfillment, the movie is entertaining enough, but it isn’t truly satisfying.

Phantom opens with a short primer on the attacks that includes harrowing actual news footage. Then the film’s hero, “Jude” (Saif Ali Khan), makes his entrance in unheroic fashion. He engages in a road rage car chase through Chicago that ends in him punching a man who falls to his death in the Chicago River.

“Jude” is an alias of Daniyal Khan, a dishonorably discharged Indian Army officer on a secret mission to assassinate the four masterminds of the 26/11 attacks. His mission first takes him to London, where he meets his contact, Nawaz (Katrina Kaif).

Nawaz has a complicated job description. She works for the not-so-subtly-named US military contractor Dark Water, coordinating security for refugee camps run by Medicine International, who she may also work for.

Daniyal kills the man Nawaz is hired to identify — a high-ranking terrorist trainer — and she is furious for being dragged into his deadly scheme. Still, when she gets a coded phone call from Daniyal, she agrees to help him in his next mission: exterminate David Coleman Headley in jail in Chicago.

While Daniyal receives off-the-record assistance from India’s intelligence agency, their counterparts in Pakistan conclude that the deaths of such prominent terrorists are connected. The Pakistani agents try to identify the man responsible, but Daniyal is always one step ahead of them.

Phantom has an apt tagline: “A story you wish were true.” The notion of one man, freed from political constraints, taking out not one, but four of the most wanted terrorists in the world is immensely appealing. Getting to join him for the ride — with all its accompanying car chases, fist fights, and espionage — makes it even better.

Still, there’s a nagging feeling throughout the film: it couldn’t happen like this. It took ten years and a whole team of US special forces soldiers to kill Osama Bin Laden. One guy with no advanced military training taking out four terrorists in the span of a few months?

It all comes too easy for Daniyal. His most perilous moments consist of him bobbling something in his hand and being delayed by a stalled auto-rickshaw. There’s no one on the ground tracking him; the Pakistani agents gather their information on him remotely. As a result, the movie lacks tension.

Director Kabir Khan wisely resists forcing a love story into the narrative. Daniyal has bigger fish to fry, and Nawaz is rightfully wary of him. Focusing on the two leads as professionals, not lovers, also frees Khan and Kaif to give grounded performances.

One other performance needs special acknowledgement. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who plays the Indian intelligence officer who masterminds the mission, deserves some kind of lifetime achievement award for persevering in the face of nonsense. This time, he’s forced to give a corny speech, urging Indian naval officers to pluck up their courage and buck orders for the sake of this one man — this one man! — who was willing to risk his life for India.

Ayyub’s speech is part of a third act that is cheesier than the rest of the film. Fortunately, Director Khan ends Phantom on a contemplative note that befits the seriousness of the events that inspired it. We can wish for an easy path to justice, but we can never take it lightly.

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Movie Review: Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015)

tanu-weds-manu-returns-poster2 Stars (out of 4)

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Tanu Weds Manu Returns is the feel-bad romantic comedy of the year. Lighthearted moments are undercut by a cynicism about the institution of marriage that leaves one feeling melancholy at best, depressed at worst.

2011’s Tanu Weds Manu was a conventional romcom about a pair of opposites: wild-child Tanu (Kangana Ranaut) and steadfast Manu (R. Madhavan). Tanu Weds Manu Returns (TWMR, henceforth) picks up after the first four years of their miserable marriage.

Tanu is so desperate to get out of her marriage that she has Manu committed to a London mental institution. She later feels bad, calling Manu’s friend Pappi (Deepak Dobriyal) to rescue her husband while she flies back to India.

The couple wind up at their respective family homes in different cities (the geography in TWMR is confusing for international audiences). Tanu flirts with her parents’ tenant, Chintu (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), and unwisely reconnects with her short-tempered ex-boyfriend, Raja (Jimmy Shergill). Manu notices a college athlete who is the spitting image of Tanu, only with a pixie cut. He stalks Kusum (also Ranaut) until she relents, and they start dating.

Manu falling for his wife’s younger lookalike is a cute story setup, but it gets creepier the more serious the relationship becomes. Pappi warns that the new relationship is a bad idea — especially since it begins before Tanu and Manu are officially divorced — but he doesn’t call Manu’s obsession what it is: weird.

It hard to know who to root for in this movie. Tanu and Manu are both incredible jerks to each other. Tanu is arrogant and lacks empathy. Manu is selfish but wishy-washy. He doesn’t even possess enough will to make his climactic decision on his own, without prompting.

Worse, TWMR makes the characters’ circumstances so dire that its impossible to resolve the story in a satisfying way. There are really only a handful of things that one spouse could say to the other that would permanently destroy their marriage. When Tanu is at her most pitiable, Manu says one of those things to her. It’s crushing to watch.

Director Anand L. Rai and writer Himanshu Sharma give themselves only two possible outcomes: either Tanu and Manu get back together, or Manu weds Kusum and says good-bye to Tanu forever. Neither option feels good, and both are bad for Kusum.

Kusum is the movie’s redeeming element. She’s an independent tomboy, but she’s also sweet and honest. She’s reluctant to get romantically involved with anyone because, if the relationship negatively affects her athletics, it will make it that much harder for other girls from her village to get scholarships in the future. That Manu pursues her anyway is a sign of his selfishness.

Ranuat’s acting abilities are widely acclaimed, and it’s fun to see her pull off two very different roles in the same movie with such ease. Dobriyal is also entertainingly twitchy as Pappi. Manu’s not much of character as it is, and Madhavan doesn’t add much.

In addition to an unsatisfying story, international audiences will be hampered by poorly translated subtitles. Minor spelling errors — such as writing “apologies” instead of “apologize” — hint at greater problems in translating the humor from Hindi to English. The crowd of mostly native Hindi speakers at my showing laughed uproariously to lines that, in English, read as utilitarian.

Watch Tanu Weds Manu Returns for Kangana Ranaut. Just don’t expect to have a lot of fun while doing it.

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Movie Review: Dolly Ki Doli (2015)

DollyKiDoli1 Star (out of 4)

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Was footage accidentally left out of Dolly Ki Doli? That’s the only way to account for a climax and resolution that come completely out of left field.

Sonam Kapoor plays Dolly, “The Plundering Bride” as she’s known by the police. She flits around the outskirts of Delhi, marrying eligible bachelors and drugging and robbing them on their wedding night. She arranges marriages with men of various religions and traditions, requiring her to change her appearance and mannerisms to appeal to each family she’s marrying into.

Dolly is a seductress only in a fantasy sense. She never so much as allows her grooms to kiss her, delaying their affection with excuses* until the drugs she’s administered have taken effect.

While Dolly’s swindled grooms — including nouveau riche braggart Sonu (Rajkummar Rao) and horny loser Manjot (Varun Sharma) — are jerks, so is she. Dolly works with a group of fellow cons who pose as her family, and her fake brother, Raju (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), is in love with her. Dolly knows this, and she ridicules Raju for it.

Dolly’s pride derails their criminal enterprise. After being rejected as a prospective bride by Manjot’s mother for being too tall, Dolly insists on pursuing Manjot in order to take revenge on his family. This mistake lands her in the clutches of police officer Robin Singh (Pulkit Samrat), who has his own reasons for pursuing Dolly. The history between Robin and Dolly isn’t developed enough for the film’s final act to feel remotely believable.

While Kapoor imbues Dolly with a fun vibe, that’s the thief’s only positive attribute. She lacks chemistry with her potential beaus, and she lacks character depth. Dolly says that she’s a thief because she’s good at it. That’s a valid enough reason, but the movie gives no sense of what ambitions Dolly has for her future, when she can no longer keep up the con.

I’m still not sold on the acting abilities of Samrat and Sharma, who got their big breaks in 2013’s Fukrey. Ayyub is earnest as lovelorn Raju, but the script gives his character no room to grow.

What Dolly Ki Doli does show is what a terrific actor Rajkummar Rao is. Sonu tracks down Dolly not for revenge but because he genuinely loves her. He stares at her with such devotion and longing that one secretly hopes Dolly will return to him. It’s a quality performance that deserved a better film.

* – I’d like to thank Dolly Ki Doli‘s subtitles for me teaching me a nauseating euphemism for menstruation I’d never heard before. When Dolly puts off one of her grooms by saying she’s having “ladki problems” (“girl problems”), the subtitles read, “I’m chumming.”

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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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