Tag Archives: Mohnish Bahl

Movie Review: Panipat (2019)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Panipat on Netflix

Panipat: The Great Betrayal — director Ashutosh Gowariker’s attempt to cash in on Bollywood’s current historical action flick trend — is a slog.

Panipat is made for a Hindi-speaking audience well-versed in Indian history, and it poses several challenges for audiences outside that demographic. If Panipat were a book, it would come with several maps, some family trees, and an extensive glossary. Absent those supplementary materials — and with subtitles that leave many important Hindi words untranslated (at least in the Netflix version) — I’ll do my best to explain what happens using terms that I think are close, if not completely accurate.

The film opens in the mid-18th Century, with the Maratha Empire finally defeating the Nizam Sultanate after a two-year-long campaign, shoring up its hold on the midsection of what is now modern-day India. The Emperor’s wife, Gopika Bai (Padmini Kolhapure), worries that military commander Sadashiv (Arjun Kapoor) is so popular that the people will push for him to be made head of state over her son, Vishwas (Abhishek Nigam). She convinces the Emperor, Nana Saheb (Monish Bahl), to take Sadashiv off the battlefield and appoint him Finance Minister.

Being a soldier, Sadashiv only knows how to solve problems by force. He attempts to shore up the empire’s dwindling finances by sending threatening letters to all the ancillary kingdoms that are behind on their tax payments. This upsets a Mughal noble, Najib-Ud-Daulah (Mantra), who asks the Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali (Sanjay Dutt) for help.

With Afghan forces headed south, Sadashiv agrees to lead the undermanned, under-resourced Maratha army north to stop them, since no one else wants to. The Marathas and the Afghans make alliances with the neighboring kingdoms on their respective journeys, culminating with a decisive battle at the fort of Panipat.

Most of the film is a slow road trip punctuated by natural disasters. Before that are the film’s prettiest scenes, set at the beautiful Maratha palace. The decor is vibrant, the grounds are beautifully landscaped, and the architecture is grand. Designer Neeta Lulla’s costumes are stunning.

At the palace, Sadashiv marries his spunky childhood sweetheart Parvati (Kriti Sanon), who joins him on the excursion. Sanon gives the best performance in the film, but her character is a transparent attempt to appeal to a modern audience. Parvati is a commoner who marries a royal. She’s the empire’s first woman doctor! She fights with a sword! Sadashiv begs her not to kill herself if he dies in battle, just to make Panipat seem more progressive than Padmaavat.

Kapoor’s performance is not particularly charismatic, but neither is Sadashiv as a character. He’s inflexible to the point of causing many of the empire’s problems — first with his heavy-handed letters and later with his refusal to negotiate with Abdali. Sadashiv insists that he’s fighting to protect all of Hindustan from Muslim invaders, even though Hindustan at the time was not a unified nation but a collection of kingdoms, some of which were ruled by Muslims.

Sadashiv serves primarily to illustrate Panipat‘s pro-Hindu viewpoint. The contrast between Sadashiv and Abdali is almost comical. Sadishiv fights in the heart of the battle while Abdali stays safely at the back. The Maratha army follows Sadashiv and endures starvation because they believe in his cause, while Abdali’s soldiers flee and his throne is usurped in his absence. Even Kapoor’s acting is calm and resolute compared to Dutt’s over-the-top delivery.

Panipat portrays the Afghans as essentially cavemen. Unlike the light, bright Maratha palace, Abdali rules from a dimly-lit, windowless great hall. Servants wearing fur cloaks carry platters laden with hunks of roasted meat. When Maratha Prince Vishwas is caught in battle by an Afghan soldier, the soldier is shown in close-up snarling like an animal.

Besides being problematic, Panipat just isn’t that interesting. Perhaps in the name of historical accuracy, the plot favors comprehensiveness over economy. Seemingly every lesser kingdom and minor noble is given a shout out, no matter how insignificant their part in the events that are the focus of the film. The result is a sprawling cast of characters who blur together. By the time any of them does something that affects the plot, I’d already forgotten who they were.

Perhaps this cast sprawl is less of a problem for the Indian audience for whom Panipat is obviously intended. I also understand if the English subtitles used in the original theatrical release chose to leave some Hindi words intact, as those subs are as much for moviegoers across India as they are for viewers outside of the country. I’m not sure if Netflix kept the original subtitles for its streaming release or created new ones, as is the practice of some streaming services.

But Panipat is a particular case where Netflix should have used the opportunity to make the film’s English subtitles as accessible as possible to its global audience. By not translating words like Peshwa, Gadir, and Wazir, it’s hard to understand the hierarchy of the region at that time. Even the geography is unclear, as Sadashiv seems to use Hindustan and the Maratha Empire interchangeably.

Again, maybe Indian audiences with the prerequisite cultural and historical knowledge found Panipat easier to understand than I did. As it is, it’s as uncompelling as it is inaccessible.

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Movie Review: Force (2011)

force3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Buy or rent the movie at Amazon or iTunes

Force is a damned fun movie, successfully integrating Bollywood’s signature “everything under the sun” approach to storytelling into an exciting action film.

Force opens with a man we later learn is named Yash (John Abraham) being thrown out of a window and over a cliff’s edge. He scales the cliff, only to collapse — body riddled with bullets — at the top. Taken by his friends to a hospital, his consciousness wavers as a surgeon begins to operate. Yash remembers… a montage?

Specifically, it’s a song montage featuring a beautiful woman named Maya (Genelia D’Souza). The song’s lyrics list the qualities any Bollywood heroine must possess: “The looks and complexion, the gait and attitude.” Maya certainly fits the bill.

The flashback takes us through Yash’s unconventional meet-cute with Maya, scaring her as he beats up drug dealers by throwing a motorcycle at them. Maya assumes — as do we — that tattooed, beefed-up Yash is a thug himself. A series of misunderstandings reveal Yash to be an undercover narcotics officer.

Acting on tips from an informant, Yash assembles a team of officers to help him obliterate the local drug trade: the veteran, Atul (Mohnish Bahl); the rookie, Mahesh (Ameet Gaur); and the loose cannon, Kamlesh (Kamlesh Sawant).

Meanwhile, Yash struggles with his desire to let Maya into his life. Atul’s wife, Swati (Sandhya Mridul), chides him for using Maya’s safety as an excuse to push her away. Swati explains that the wives of police officers know what they are getting into, and that it’s okay for Yash to allow himself to love. Cue the requisite romantic song number featuring Maya in a formal gown atop a sand dune!

However, Yash and his crew don’t realize that their successful operation opened the door for a new gang to take the drug trade in a more violent direction. Aided by his brother, Anna (Mukesh Rishi, best known as Bulla from Gunda), the sadist Vishnu (Vidyut Jammwal) returns from faking his death abroad to make the lives of Yash and his crew into a living hell.

Jammwal’s martial arts background makes him such an asset in action films. His skills enable impressive fight scenes that don’t rely upon wires and stunt doubles. Note how much longer the camera lingers on Jammwal during action sequences as compared to the quick cuts when Abraham fights.

Director Nishikant Kamat does some smart work in Force — aided by cinematographer Ayananka Bose and editor Aarif Sheikh — especially when it comes to storytelling efficiency. For example, when Yash and his crew concoct their plan to take out the gangs, the dialogue is delivered as though it is part of one continuous conversation, yet the camera cuts between the various groups of people involved at different points in the plan’s development. The first shot shows Yash receiving partial instructions from his boss; the second features Yash conveying the next set of instructions to his crew; then back to the boss, and so on. The audience knows that everyone involved is up to speed, without having to hear the same instructions twice.

Most impressive of all is a haunting song sequence that juxtaposes a funeral with violent action. As a mournful hymn builds to a crescendo, the camera cuts between mourners crying next to a pyre and Yash’s crew taking bloody revenge. It’s absolutely riveting, one of my favorite Hindi film song sequences of all time.

Force balances its darker elements with lighter ones, too. D’Souza is bubbly in the very best sense of the word, and her character gives Yash plenty of reasons to smile, bringing out Abraham’s softer side as a result. Swati, Atul, and the other members of the crew are sympathetic and well-developed, fleshing out the world in which Yash lives.

And then there’s that fight scene where Yash’s and Vishnu’s shirts simultaneously rip off for no good reason. Who wouldn’t be charmed by that?

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Movie Review: Jai Ho (2014)

JaiHo0.5 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the DVD at Amazon
Buy the soundtrack at Amazon

Jai Ho is as lazy and lacking in self-awareness as a movie can be. It ignores its own shallow grasp of morality to promote the message of every recent Salman Khan movie: the answer to government corruption is a single, violent man.

Just how shallow is the take on morality in Jai Ho, a remake of a Telugu movie (Stalin) based on a Hollywood movie (Pay It Forward)? The notion of “paying it forward” — you help three people, then they each help three more people, and so on — is developed by a middle schooler in the Hollywood version, and by a man in his late forties in Jai Ho.

Of course it’s good to do nice things for other people. But the characters in Jai Ho talk about it so damned much, it’s as though the filmmakers think they invented the idea. “Generosity and helpfulness can benefit individuals and society? Who knew? Write forty minutes of dialogue to belabor the point!”

The title character, Jai (Salman Khan), who’s apparently a professional doer-of-favors, following his expulsion from the army, tries to popularize the notion of “paying it forward.” Everything is fine until his mom tells him that some people may not wish to participate, and that he shouldn’t be disappointed by that.

Jai’s realization that his idea may not be universally embraced causes him to lose his mind. In a blind rage, he attacks a guy harassing a street urchin. The guy just happens to be connected to a corrupt politician who winds up trying to murder Jai’s family. The situation is resolved by Jai fighting dozens of guys single-handedly and Suniel Shetty plowing through traffic in a tank.

Let’s get this straight: Jai’s responds to learning that there are mean people in the world by going on a violent rampage, endangering his family and friends and any unfortunate motorists who get in the way of Suniel Shetty’s tank. Way to make the world a better place, Jai!

What’s even more depressing is that violence really is Jai’s only recourse to stop the corrupt bureaucrat, played by Danny Denzongpa. The only evidence of systemic political change as a result of Jai’s gory heroics is that another politician — played by Mohnish Bahl — decides to look the other way.

The movie relies on emotional pandering in place of solid storytelling. Producer-director Sohail Khan trots out handicapped kids anytime he wants to bring the audience to tears and soldiers when he wants to stoke the fires of patriotism. Lest the audience fail to grasp the cinematic shorthand, there are musical cues and sound effects to let them know what emotions they are supposed to feel.

As with most of Salman Khan’s recent roles, his character’s only flaw at the beginning of the movie is that he doesn’t yet have a girlfriend. Daisy Shah is shoehorned into the story to fill the love interest role, even though she has nothing to do with the main plot. She’s never imperiled because of her relationship with Jai, she doesn’t partake in Jai’s do-gooder scheme, and she disappears during the climax.

There is exactly one good thing about Jai Ho, and that is Naman Jain as Jai’s young nephew, Kabir. He’s legitimately funny, and he’s by far the best actor in the bunch. Jai Ho should’ve made Kabir the main character, borrowing more from Pay It Forward and less from Stalin. That might’ve been a good movie.

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