Tag Archives: Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub

Movie Review: Arjun Patiala (2019)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

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In the course of spoofing Bollywood cop movies, Arjun Patiala takes a grim turn that it doesn’t reckon with, making it no fun to watch.

Arjun Patiala” is the title of a movie being narrated to a producer played by Pankaj Tripathi, whose only requirement is that sexy actress Sunny Leone be cast in the film. The director (Abhishek Banerjee, who was great in Stree) works Leone into his narration of his movie about an upright Punjabi policeman.

The director’s description is visualized onscreen as the movie within the movie begins. Arjun (Diljit Dosanjh) finally achieves his childhood dream of becoming a police chief. On his first day in command of Ferozpur station, he disciplines two young men for sexually harassing a woman and helps lovely beautician Baby (Leone) evict some tenants from her salon.

When he first speaks with Baby — and any other good-looking woman who needs his help — Arjun imagines holding a microphone and serenading her. The other men in the room can see it, but Baby can’t. It’s one of various visual gags that remind the audience that this is just a movie. There’s also on-screen text providing additional information about the characters, but it’s written in Hindi and not translated in the English subtitles.

Such sight gags keep the audience emotionally distant from the story — which is probably good, given what’s to come.

Arjun is tasked by his superior officer (played by Ronit Roy) with eradicating crime in the district. Arjun asks Ritu (Kriti Sanon) — a gorgeous local reporter he wants to marry — to explain to him and his sidekick Onida (Varun Sharma) exactly how the local crime syndicates are organized, since apparently the police don’t know.

To this point, Arjun Patiala is a good-natured spoof of cop flicks. It maintains a lighthearted tone throughout, but the plan Arjun concocts to clean up his district is disturbing and at odds with the tone. Arjun starts by having a low-ranking criminal named Sakool (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) shoot and kill one of the underworld bigwigs. This sparks a string of retaliatory murders until there are no criminals left to commit any crimes.

There’s nothing comical about the way the murders are carried out. One guy is stabbed with a fork, and another is poisoned. There are montages of mass killings by machine gun. Arjun and Onida sit next to one of Sakool’s victims as he breathes his last, waiting until the crook is dead to call the station — giving Sakool time to get away and making it seem as though the cops arrived too late to stop the murder.

This wanton slaughter is only acceptable if one believes the criminals are not really people, as Arjun and Onida clearly do. It’s a grotesque endorsement of unchecked police power, especially since the goal is not mass incarceration but extermination.

Ritu suspects that Arjun is behind the bloodshed and is bothered by it, but she’s conflicted by her love for him and doesn’t seriously pursue it. One would hope that she’d be more dogged–not just as a journalist, but also because she was orphaned as a result of gun violence. The movie doesn’t pause to consider that the dead criminals might have children, too. When the story tries to make the case that the politicians are the real villains, it just makes the extrajudicial killings feel all the more cruel.

The dark turn doesn’t work because the characters don’t seem to realize it’s happened. Arjun, Ritu, and Onida are all generally cheerful from start to finish, which feels weird as the body count rises. Dosanjh, Sanon, and Sharma all give likeable performances, so the tonal shift does a disservice to them, too.

With a smaller death toll or more appropriate tone changes, Arjun Patiala could’ve been a perfectly enjoyable comedy. As it is, there’s not enough quality to make up for its disagreeable aspects.

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Movie Review: Mission Mangal (2019)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

Mission Mangal (“Mission Mars“) got worse the more I thought about it. While in the theater, I rolled my eyes at the film’s outdated takes on gender roles, but I found it generally enjoyable. Upon further reflection, the enormity of the opportunity missed to present an inspirational, empowering story feels too big to ignore.

In 2014, India became the fourth country to reach Mars, and the only one to do so on its first try. Photos of sari-clad women engineers in the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) gained global attention, forcing people around the world to challenge their preconceptions of what a scientist is supposed to look like.

A fictional story inspired by that real-life feat, Mission Mangal feels less revolutionary that the actual event. The contributions of women engineers are viewed through a patriarchal lens that insists on centering male characters. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, since the man playing the film’s main male protagonist — Akshay Kumar — is also one of the movie’s producers.

Kumar’s female co-lead is Vidya Balan, whose character Tara is introduced first. She bustles about the house on the morning of a rocket launch, praying for success, cooking breakfast, and trying to rouse her teenage children. Her husband Sunil (Sanjay Kapoor) asks her to bring him a cup of tea instead of getting up to get it himself, despite knowing how pressed she is for time.

The launch goes awry, due to Tara’s misjudgement in her role as Project Manager. Her boss Rakesh (Kumar) takes the blame and is reassigned to a project considered doomed from the start: getting an Indian satellite into orbit around Mars. Rakesh tells the head of ISRO (played by Vikram Gokhale) that he suspects it’s his superior’s way of telling him to finally retire, marry, and start a family, but Rakesh loves India and science too damned much to do that. The conversation is a message to the audience that Rakesh will undergo zero character development during the course of the film.

Eager to make up for her mistake, Tara joins Rakesh’s Mars team. Their first problem is how to get the satellite out of Earth’s gravitational pull using a minimal amount of fuel. Tara cracks it by equating it to cooking: oil stays hot enough to fry food even after the gas is turned off, meaning their rocket need only burn fuel in intervals, not continuously. The ISRO board approves, and suddenly the project doesn’t seem doomed after all.

Rakesh and Tara round out their team with various specialists, including four women who each fill a spot on the film’s limited spectrum of possible female life options. Eka (Sonakshi Sinha) is single and eager to move to the United States. Kritika (Taapsee Pannu) is married to a soldier. Varsha (Nithya Menen) is married and pregnant. Neha (Kirti Kulhari) is initially described by Rakesh as attractive — gross, he’s her boss — but she is de-sexualized as soon as her colleagues learn that she is Muslim and divorced. She becomes a surrogate daughter to one of the two men on the team, Ananth (H. G. Dattatreya), whose own adult son lives abroad. There’s also Parmeshwar (Sharman Joshi), a superstitious virgin who gets too much screentime.

As the team’s timeline and budget shrink, they must innovate ways to get their satellite to Mars cheaper, lighter, and faster than any space organization has done before. We see how their careers and personal lives intersect — except for Rakesh, who only exists when in the presence of his colleagues.

Tara’s work-life balance subplot is the most developed and the most frustrating. Tara is responsible for managing her household by herself. Her husband Sunil is emotionally disconnected from his children. He refuses to do tasks he considers beneath him, such as waiting in line to pay an electricity bill. The film doesn’t challenge his behavior, instead presenting it as just another problem for Tara to work around. His position as head of the family is unquestioned, despite his unfitness for the role and his disinterest in it.

Sunil’s behavior fits with an overall viewpoint on gender parity that — despite its progressive veneer — makes Mission Mangal feel as though it was written by a Tim Allen sitcom character. Sunil doesn’t pay the electric bill and the family loses power, and it’s treated as a joke, instead of either a failing that jeopardizes the family’s quality of life or a deliberate act of negligence to get him out of having to do it in the future. He’s gotta be a good guy at heart since he lets his wife work, right?

This attitude infects the workplace as well. Rakesh views Tara’s ingenuity as cute, making her demonstrate their propulsion idea by frying bread in the boardroom. When she suggests using parts from an abandoned ISRO project as a way to save money, Rakesh grins to his boss and says, “Women, sir. They don’t waste anything.” There’s a needless fight sequence in which the women engineers hit some goons with their purses that is not as funny as the filmmakers think it is.

Kritika’s and Varsha’s husbands are supportive of their wives’ careers, but they appear only in cameos (by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub and Purab Kohli, respectively). They aren’t in the movie long enough to balance out the more regressive characters — which includes Parmeshwar, who spends the whole time hitting on his colleague, Eka.

Maybe things would’ve felt more balanced if there had been more than one woman (Nidhi Singh Dharma) on the writing or directing staff. The story moves along at a decent clip, and the characters are well-acted. The space travel elements are explained in novel ways for a general audience, and Mission Mangal‘s computer-generated effects are decent. Still, the source material is too good to result in a film this mediocre.

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Movie Review: Article 15 (2019)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A big city bureaucrat appointed to oversee a small town police department gets tangled in a web of politics, caste, and greed in the dynamite thriller Article 15.

Ayan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is the ideal audience avatar. He rolls into the town of Laalgaon, telling his girlfriend Aditi (Isha Talwar) over the phone that the place looks like something out of an ’80s movie. He notes the freshness of the country air. It’s a world apart from the large cities — domestic and international — that Ayan is used to.

Besides the predictable culture shock, there’s something strange about the town. Despite what Ayan said about the fresh air, there’s a pall over the town that bathes it and its inhabitants in sickly yellow or gray tones (per cinematographer Ewan Mulligan). Ayan meets a former classmate, Satyendra (Aakash Dabhade), who is evasive and twitchy instead of the cheerful friend Ayan remembers. The rest of the cops — led by Ayan’s second-in-command, Bhramadatt (Manoj Pahwa) — are eager to close the case of two Dalit (lower caste) girls who were reported missing days earlier and found murdered. Only Ayan seems interested in the whereabouts of a third girl reported missing with them.

At first, Ayan is too smug to see what’s really going on, buoyed his sense of worldliness and the power accorded his position. He accepts Bhramadatt’s assessment of the murders as “honor killings” committed by the girls’ fathers, and he’s dismissive of Gaura (Sayani Gupta), the sister of the third missing girl. Only when he discovers that Bhramadatt is stalling him on the results of the postmortem and when his own men are attacked by Dalit activists does Ayan realize that he’s missing crucial pieces of the puzzle.

Laalgaon is governed by a rigid, complicated interpretation of the caste system. There are layers within layers, so that everyone ranks slightly above or below someone else. It reinforces social systems governing occupations, food handling, even whose shadow is allowed to fall on whom.

Money perpetuates the caste system in town, even though using it to discriminate against certain groups is officially prohibited by Article 15 of the Indian Constitution. By marginalizing the lowest castes, the people at the top ensure a steady supply of what is essentially slave labor. American audiences will notice similarities to how the white power structure here replaced lost laborers following the abolition of slavery, as explained in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th. The activist group in the Article 15 is in part a sort of militant labor union, and when they strike, the film shows in disgusting detail how dependent the town is on the workers who do the “dirty” jobs no one else wants.

Some people in Laalgaon have transcended certain aspects of their caste, such as Jatav (Kumud Mishra), who became a police officer with Bhramadatt’s help, even though his father was a school janitor. The status elevation turned Jatav into one of the most vocal critics of those below him, and his fear of falling back down the ladder keeps him subservient to those above. His eventual realization that turning his back on his people only made things worse is hard-earned and painful.

The scene that best captures the all-encompassing nature of Laalgaon’s power dynamics involves Bhramadatt and Jatav. As both men sob, Bhramadatt shakes Jatav, accusing him of ingratitude and endangering their very lives by aiding Ayan’s investigation. (More than one character states that the worst that will happen to Ayan is he’ll be transferred, while the locals who help him will be killed.) Though Bhramdatt ranks higher socially than Jatav, both serve the rich and politically connected at the top. Seeing these gray-haired men so terrified drives home how precarious their lives have always been in a place governed by something other than the rule of law.

Pahwa and Mishra are the standouts in a film full of amazing performances. Gupta is resolute in the face of a system designed not to help people like her. Same for Ronjini Chakraborty as the junior Medical Examiner who knows the truth of what happened to the murdered girls. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub’s portrayal of the Dalit revolutionary leader is terrific.

Aditi tells Ayan at one point that she doesn’t want him to be a hero, she wants him to be the man who doesn’t wait for the hero to arrive. That sentiment governs the way Khurrana plays Ayan. There’s a problem to solve, and Ayan does it without a lot of flash, using the skills he has at his disposal. Khurrana’s understated performance suits the movie perfectly.

Article 15 has a few moments that feel a little preachy, but they’re born of director Anubhav Sinha’s and writer Gaurav Solanki’s passion for the film’s message of justice. Their movie is thoughtful and relevant, with jaw-dropping surprises. Article 15 is a must-see.

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Movie Review: Thugs of Hindostan (2018)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Despite its novelty as a rare Bollywood seafaring epic, Thugs of Hindostan is done in by  predictable character development and a familiar plot focused too heavily on its male protagonists.

The film begins promisingly enough, with Ronit Roy playing the leader of the last Indian kingdom to resist takeover by the British East India Company in 1795. After instructing his young daughter Zafira (played by fierce little Deshna Dugad) on the importance of protecting her homeland, King Mirza plans to attack the Brits at dawn, but the Company’s merciless lead officer Clive (Lloyd Owen) attacks first. Only Zafira escapes with the help of the royal family’s devoted bodyguard, Kattappa…er, Khudabaksh (Amitabh Bachchan).

Fast-forwarding eleven years introduces the swaggering trickster Firangi (Aamir Khan). Firangi’s name means “foreigner,” explaining his willingness to pit Indians against Indians and Brits against Indians, all in the name of making a buck. He has no allegiance to the burgeoning resistance movement threatening the Company, making him the perfect spy to gather information on behalf of Clive’s second-in-command, Officer Powell (Gavin Marshall, who coordinated the circus acts for Dhoom 3, which also starred Khan and was directed by Thugs director Vijay Krishna Acharya).

The rebel leader “Azaad” (“Free”) is really Khudabaksh, assisted by grown up Zafira (Fatima Sana Shaikh), who’s become a deadly fighter. The name Azaad is confusing, because it’s hard to tell when the rebel army shouts the word if they’re cheering for the man specifically or the concept of freedom, generally. This is significant because the first character we see in the movie is Zafira as a girl. Thugs should be her revenge saga, but Khudabaksh appears to get all the credit for attacking the Brits — unless the masses really are cheering for freedom and not just for him. Either way, crown princess Zafira winds up playing second fiddle to her bodyguard.

As is the case for many Hindi films, the challenge in Thugs is weighing the needs of the story against the needs of the stars. The stars’ needs clearly trump the narrative in this case. Without Khan or Bachchan — and perhaps with an actress with a longer resume than Shaikh’s — Zafira would be the main character. But one feels a calculus governing the whole plot, and that’s ensuring that the biggest stars get the most screentime. For example, Khan must be onscreen for three-fourths of the movie (I’m estimating), Bachchan for less (but he gets more dramatic entrances), etc. That limits the scope of what other characters are able to do and diminishes their importance.

That calculus is responsible for the absurdly lazy incorporation of Katrina Kaif’s dancer character Suraiyya into the plot. She’s summoned out of the ether as the screenplay demands, with no attempt to make her feel like a person who exists when she’s not onscreen. She’s a character designed for item numbers, nothing more. It’s a shame because Kaif is captivating in her brief dialogue scenes, and there had to have been some way to further utilize the grace and athleticism she displays in the songs “Suraiyya” and “Manzoor-e-Khuda”.

Shaikh is likewise underutilized, despite having the most compelling emotional arc. She and Kaif share a nice moment in which their characters discuss the dangers of revolutionary action (after telling Khan’s chatterbox character to shut up). The film’s high point is a touching scene in which Zafira mourns her family, and Khudabaksh sings her to sleep as he did when she was a girl. The film is lessened for putting Zafira’s thirst for vengeance second to the question of whether Khan’s Captain Jack Sparrow-lite character will finally become a good person (of course he will).

One point in Thugs of Hindostan‘s favor is that they cast British actors who don’t sound ridiculous speaking Hindi, which is not common practice in Bollywood. There are good supporting performances by Roy, Sharat Saxena, and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub as Firangi’s psychic sidekick. Ila Arun has the only other female role of note, giving a funny turn as Jaitumbi, a potion-maker with a crush on the much-younger Firangi.

Thugs of Hindostan has one of the biggest budgets of all time for a Bollywood film, and it gets quite a lot of value for the money. Battle scenes are fun and clever, set against stunning backdrops. The leather armor worn by Zafira and Khudabashk is gorgeous, designed by Manoshi Nath and Rushi Sharma. Dance numbers are grand in scale.

High production values coupled with decent story pacing are enough to maintain interest while watching Thugs of Hindostan, even if its narrative deficiencies make it ultimately forgettable.

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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 spread 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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