Tag Archives: Movie Review

Movie Review: Pari (2018)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Despite its sometimes disorganized story structure, the horror film Pari: Not a Fairytale (“Fairy: Not a Fairytale“) views maternity and childbirth through a compelling sinister lens.

Debutant director Prosit Roy’s movie opens with a boring scene of two single people — Arnab (Parambrata Chatterjee) and Piyali (Ritabari Chakraborty) — chitchatting on a rooftop after being set up by their parents. They aren’t very interesting, and any information about them that may eventually prove relevant could have been introduced later.

The movie should have started with the next sequence. Arnab’s parents drive him home from the meeting on a rainy back road. Their discussion of a possible marriage proposal intensifies, and a distracted Dad accidentally hits an old woman, killing her.

As the police investigate the deceased’s identity, they find a frightened young woman named Rukhsana (Anushka Sharma) chained inside a ramshackle barn. Rukhsana has had no contact with the outside world, hidden by her mother — the dead woman — from a nameless man who wants to kill her.

Early on, Pari is largely a collection of horror movie must-haves, like sudden loud noises and people appearing abruptly in frame. There’s no finesse in how the jump scares are applied. There’s also a surprising amount of gore, which seems to exist only to prepare the audience for more blood to come — although that later gruesomeness reinforces the movie’s themes, while the early stuff doesn’t.

The story hits its stride when Arnab becomes Rukhsana’s reluctant caretaker. She’s been so sheltered that she eats out of the garbage bin, not knowing that there is food in the refrigerator, because she doesn’t know what a refrigerator is. Arnab isn’t sure if Rukhsana’s mystery man is real, but he accepts that her fear of him is.

Of course the man is real, and he’s hunting Rukhsana. Professor Quasim Ali (Rajat Kapoor) is obsessed with stopping a doomsday cult from disseminating the bloodline of the djinn Ifrit. The professor takes more than a little pleasure in destroying those he suspects are connected to the djinn.

In Pari, Ifrit’s influence is tied to the female reproductive cycle, the sanguine nature of which drives director Roy’s visual style. Roy and his co-writer Abhishek Banerjee use Ifrit’s influence as a mechanism to explore the unique physical connection between mothers and their offspring. The gore associated with this aspect of the story — in the form of injuries visited upon the female characters — makes sense, evoking the bloody nature of childbirth.

Another theme related to that mother-child connection is its corollary: the lack of a physical connection between father and child, and how that frees men to abandon their unborn progeny at will. Professor Ali personifies society’s desire to punish women for out-of-wedlock pregnancy (consensual or not).

Kapoor’s performance as the professor is the spookiest element of Pari. He coolly partakes in murder and torture as an ordinary part of doing business. The dull opening scene featuring Chatterjee and Chakraborty is a blip, with both of them getting better and better as the story progresses. Sharma commands the screen, as always, though it would’ve been fun to spend more time with her character as Rukhsana discovers the modern world.

For all of its flaws, Pari is a film with a lot of interesting ideas. Just don’t expect too many scares.

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Movie Review: Veere Di Wedding (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Veere Di Wedding (“Friend’s Wedding“) released to higher expectations than usually precede Bollywood buddy comedies, yet its four female leads rose to the challenge, turning out a warm, relatable, and very funny movie.

Well, relatable if you overlook how obscenely rich the characters are, driving around in cars that cost as much as a house (at least here in the Midwest). The only speaking character who isn’t wealthy is a maid who appears in one scene, crying after being beaten by her abusive husband. Her wounds are addressed in a couple of lines before she’s forced to participate in the excitement of one of the rich friends’ upcoming nuptials. It’s one of the film’s few off moments.

The friend getting married is Kalindi (Kareena Kapoor Khan), one of a quartet of lifelong buds that includes stuffy lawyer Avni (Sonam Kapoor Ahuja), stay-at-home mom Meera (Shikha Talsania), and drunkard Sakshi (Swara Bhaskar). Reuniting in Delhi for the wedding gives the women a chance to cut loose, but also resurfaces buried conflicts, primarily between the adult children and their parents.

There isn’t really a villain in Veere Di Wedding. The conflict is driven by complicated family dynamics, a boundless well that keeps the plot moving and gives everyone in the audience something to identify with. Kalindi became estranged from her father (Anjum Rajabali) following her mother’s death. Avni’s mom (Neena Gupta) is desperate for her daughter to wed. Meera married a white man named John (Edward Sonnenblick) against her dad’s wishes. There’s tension in Sakshi’s household over demise of her short-lived marriage.

The family of Kalindi’s fiance, Rishabh Malhotra (Sumeet Vyas), is the most colorful source of drama, often literally so. Eager to fill the void left by Kalindi’s mother, Rishabh’s dad (Manoj Pahwa), mom (Ayesha Raza), and aunt (Alka Kaushal) take over the wedding planning, their tacky, kaleidoscopic taste in decor and attire sending Kalindi into a daze. Kapoor Khan’s glazed expressions as they parade garish garment choices in front of her are hilarious.

Yet Veere Di Wedding is careful not to make too much fun of the Malhotra family. Kalindi herself says that she knows how important the pomp and circumstance are to Rishabh’s family, rejecting Rishabh’s offer to tell his family to back off.

That’s what’s amazing about this movie: the characters are so nice. The four friends will do anything for one another. Rishabh and Meera’s husband John are loyal and supportive partners, as are Kalindi’s uncle Cookie (Vivek Mushran) and his boyfriend Keshav (Sukesh Arora). Conflict is borne from hurt feelings and stubborn grudges, not from any inherent malice. The resolution to a subplot involving Kalindi’s well-intentioned stepmother Paromita (Ekavali Khanna) is especially touching.

That good nature makes Veere Di Wedding a joy to watch. Hype over the film’s bawdy language and (tame) masturbation scene is overblown. It’s important that female movie characters be given as wide a range to inhabit as male characters, and Veere Di Wedding does so in an uplifting, unthreatening way. It’s a welcome change to see topics such as sexual compatibility and the changes that happen to a woman’s body following childbirth discussed from a female perspective in a mainstream Bollywood film. Farah Khan’s choreography of the song “Tareefan” — in which white men are treated as eye candy instead of white women — is noteworthy, too.

What gives Veere Di Wedding lasting appeal beyond its present cultural significance is that it really is charming, thanks to the performances by the lead quartet. Kalindi’s bewilderment in the face of her in-laws stands in contrast to Avni’s stuffiness, which is at odds with Sakshi’s constant insobriety. Even maternal Meera goes wild on the dance floor. Kapoor Khan, Kapoor Ahuja, Bhaskar, and Talsania each bring something different to the table, and their efforts combine to make a movie that’s a real treat.

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Movie Review: Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Hindi cinema loves a vigilante, that one good man who fights against a corrupt system. Bhavesh Joshi Superhero takes that template in a fresh, contemporary direction, addressing problems that are uniquely Indian but tie in with struggles being fought around the world.

After the government crushes their political opposition group, young activists Bhavesh (Priyanshu Painyali) and Siku (Harshvardhan Kapoor) take their fight for justice to YouTube. Wearing paper bags over their heads, they confront lawbreakers for infractions like public urination and traffic violations, while their videographer buddy Rajat (Ashish Verma) records the encounters.

Years of small-scale victories but no systemic change take their toll on the trio, emotionally and also physically when the occasional video subject decides to fight back. Siku and Rajat are ready to move on, accepting a broken social contract as an annoying inconvenience in their otherwise comfortable middle class lives. Unemployed Bhavesh resents his friends for quitting before the fight is won.

Things come to a head when Bhavesh uncovers evidence of a scam to divert water from the municipal supply. He doesn’t have all the pieces to the puzzle, but he’s willing to take risks to find them. Siku’s too preoccupied with a potential job transfer to Atlanta and how that will affect his relationship with his girlfriend Sneha (Shreiyah Sabharwal) to care.

India’s water infrastructure problems are uniquely complicated, and basing the story’s big crime around it roots the film in a specific place. Yet the characters’ frustrations are relatable to anyone who isn’t rich.

It’s an especially interesting choice by writer-director Vikramaditya Motwane — whose impressive resume includes Udaan, Lootera, and Trapped — and his co-writers Abhay Koranne  and filmmaker Anurag Kashyap to set up a class conflict within the main trio. Siku is an engineer and Rajat a journalist, so they have options that Bhavesh does not. Bhavesh sympathizes with the underclass because he’s a member of it. Champions of workers rights across the globe face the same challenge: how to motivate members of the middle class for whom matters like access to water or healthcare are merely academic, not an urgent need.

Much of the press leading up to the film’s release focused on Harshvardhan Kapoor, the son of a prominent acting family, in his second movie after a disastrous debut (at least from a box office perspective). He’s perfectly fine in this, as are Verma and Sabharwal. The movie’s villains are likewise well acted, although I found their relationships a little complicated due to my unfamiliarity with job titles within the Indian bureaucracy.

The real surprise is Priyanshu Painyuli as Bhavesh. He pivots easily from Bhavesh’s exuberance during happy times to his simmering rage when things start to fall apart. Bhavesh is frequently lit in red to emphasize his righteous anger and revolutionary spirit, and Amit Trivedi’s dynamic score sets the perfect tone.

Even though Bhavesh Joshi Superhero draws from Bollywood’s vigilante legacy, it makes the case that social movements aren’t a solo effort. They require a group of people working together. One person may sacrifice more than the others, but you can’t change the world alone.

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Movie Review: Raazi (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A young Indian spy marries into a Pakistani military family in the gripping period thriller Raazi, the latest in a string of hit performances by leading lady Alia Bhatt.

Bhatt plays Sehmat, a Delhi college student in 1971 summoned home at the behest of her father, Hidayat (Rajit Kapur), to receive two shocking pieces of news. First, Hidayat reveals that he has just months to live. Second, as a spy himself, Hidayat has spent years cultivating a friendship with Pakistani Brigadier Syed (Shishir Sharma), who hinted that the military is planning an attack against India. In order to uncover the plot, Hidayat fixed Sehmat’s marriage to Syed’s son, Iqbal (Vicky Kaushal), so that she may act as a spy in her father’s stead.

The movie’s very title (“Raazi” translates to “Agree”) informs us that this isn’t an order but a plan that requires Sehmat’s consent. Hidayat’s fatherly instincts kick in, and he encourages her to go back to college just hours after his revelation. There’s also a sense from Hidayat and other characters of his generation that young people deserve to make their own choices — in contrast to their own youth when the buildup and aftermath of Partition forced them to act out of necessity.

Sehmat agrees to the marriage plan, assuring her father that she’s acting out of an inherited sense of patriotism, not obedience. She undertakes a month of training under Khalid Mir (Jaideep Ahlawat), who also wants to be sure that she’s doing this of her own volition. He’s hard on Sehmat because — even though there’s a plan in place to rescue her in case of trouble — she’ll be largely on her own, responsible for finding intel and relaying it to Mir in secret via a convoluted spy network.

It’s worth noting in relation to Mir that the film’s story — at least initially — is kind of confusing, at least for those whose history education focused on countries other than India or Pakistan. A lot of characters with secret allegiances are introduced right away, and there are mentions of separatist groups — which Mir may have been a part of, I’m not sure — that most of the audience will get, but that flew past white, American me.

After the initial information overload, the story itself and the relationships between characters simplify. Most of the action takes place at the spy training ground or in and around Sehmat’s in-laws’ house, and details of the brewing military conflict are less important than what’s happening to Sehmat. The 2017 multilingual film The Ghazi Attack deals with events in the same time period, and watching it beforehand gave me enough background information for me to walk out of Raazi feeling like I understood what happened.

Raazi is ultimately about its characters more than the military conflict. Sehmat not only faces challenges as a rookie spy but as a new bride as well, forced to integrate into a new family. Pure luck finds her married to a good man who is as surprised by their abrupt betrothal as she is. Iqbal’s compassion allows their relationship to develop naturally, and their romance adds a layer of complexity that Sehmat did not anticipate.

Every actor in this movie is terrific — from key players like Sharma as Sehmat’s kind father-in-law to the guy working at the flower stall and the sympathetic military wives — enabling Raazi to cast a spell that never breaks. Kapur and Kaushal are stellar, whether they are in the background of a scene or if they’re sobbing with the young woman they both love.

Alia Bhatt’s star power is beyond question. She effortlessly portrays Sehmat’s youthful inexperience and her fierce determination, provoking the same protective instincts from the audience that Sehmat inspires in her mentors in espionage. This is a wonderful performance by Bhatt in a thoroughly engrossing film.

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Movie Review: 102 Not Out (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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A centenarian father tries to loosen up his grumpy, geriatric son in 102 Not Out, a funny, poignant take on parent-child relationships.

102-year-old Dattatraya Vakharia (Amitabh Bachchan) announces to his 75-year-old son Babulal (Rishi Kapoor) his intention to become the world’s longest-lived man, breaking a record held by a Chinese man who lived to 118. Dattatraya claims that the current record holder said in an interview that “old, boring, unenthusiastic people are more injurious to health than cigarettes.”

That description fits Babulal to a tee. He’s cautious and cranky, and nothing makes him happy — a perfect foil to his fun-loving, curious father. Dattatraya believes the best way to protect his own health and beat the record is to remove Babulal’s negative influence from his life. Dattatraya hands Babulal a brochure for an old folks’ home and tells him to pack his bags.

When a flustered Babulal protests, Dattatraya offers him a way out. Babulal can stay if he agrees to perform a series of tasks determined by his father, designed to shake Babulal out of his routine. To make the agreement official, the tasks are logged and witnessed by Dhiru (Jimit Trivedi), a 30-something pharmacy delivery man Dattatraya adopts as his sidekick.

Fulfilling Dattatraya’s conditions initially brings the three men closer together, but as they get closer to the heart of Babulal’s unhappiness, Dattatraya’s unorthodox prescriptions threaten to drive a permanent wedge between them.

Director Umesh Shukla’s picturization of Saumya Joshi’s play touches on a number of interesting themes, some of which seem in opposition to one another. Dattatreya demands that Babulal change, but he also wants Babulal to accept people as they are — chiefly Babulal’s absent son, Amol. While he’s busy wishing for a more gratifying relationship with Amol, Babulal ignores the fact that there’s a young man, Dhiru, who’s happy to accompany him on Dattatreya’s quests.

One aspect that could’ve been explored further is the idea that, even though Babulal is himself a grandparent, Dattatreya has sole claim to the maxim “father knows best” so long as he lives. Babulal just mentions it once, grousing about Dattatreya’s luck that his own father died while Dattatreya was young enough to enjoy the perks of being the head of the household. The story offers only two options for parent-child relationships — total deference to the parent or estrangement — and it would’ve been interesting to see if the characters could reach some middle ground.

The comfortable rapport Bachchan and Kapoor have developed after more than four decades of experience working together peeks through in small gestures, like the grin on Babulal’s face as Dattatreya lip-syncs old movie tunes to him. Trivedi fits in perfectly with the veteran duo.

102 Not Out is brief enough never to lose momentum, the story flowing between comedy and drama as it addresses family dynamics that are often times as comical as they are dramatic.

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Movie Review: Beyond the Clouds (2017)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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A complex blend of heartbreak and hope, Beyond the Clouds examines the role family bonds play in making poverty survivable, while showing us that the concept of family needn’t be limited to blood relations.

Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi’s first Hindi picture takes place in Mumbai. An arresting opening sequence filmed by cinematographer Anil Mehta follows Amir (Ishaan Khattar) as he receives a bag of drugs from a car on a highway overpass. The camera sweeps down as he crosses under the roadway, and then it turns to watch Amir and his friend Anil (Aakash Gopal) speed away on a motorbike.

Amir and Anil are small-time drug runners, young and brash enough to overestimate the amount of power they really have. The don they work for, Rahoul (Shashank Shende), decides to put them in their place after Amir shows up at Rahoul’s brothel unannounced. He sets them up to be nabbed in a police raid.

During the course of a thrilling police chase, Amir happens upon his estranged older sister, Tara (Malavika Mohanan), and then hides out at her house. The encounter gives them a chance to hash out the reasons for their estrangement, perhaps setting the stage for a healthier relationship going forward.

Their reunion is short-lived. Tara is arrested the next day for seriously injuring her employer Akshi (Goutam Ghose) during an attempted rape. It falls on Amir to nurse his sister’s assailant back to health so that Akshi can testify to his part in the assault, the only way to free Tara.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of Beyond the Clouds is its depiction of how tenuous even modest notions of comfort and security can be on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder, especially for women. Amir’s association with illegal drugs can bring his wild lifestyle to a halt at a moment’s notice. And his rising of the ranks of Rahoul’s organization comes at the expense of drug addicts and women forced into prostitution.

Then again, Amir is more morally flexible than the average Hindi-film hero, able to pivot from making silly faces at a child to threatening a paralyzed Akshi with a knife without blinking an eye. It’s less a factor of his youth than his having grown up reliant upon such flexibility to survive. Khattar does a creditable job in his debut film.

Mohanan is less successful in her depiction of Tara, who acts zombified in her conversations with Amir after she’s imprisoned. Yet, when Amir isn’t around, Tara seems well-adjusted to prison life, looking after Chotu (Shivan Pujan), the young son of an ill fellow inmate (played by Tannishtha Chatterjee). Tara’s relationship with Chotu embodies the movie’s theme that our “family” is made up not just of blood relatives, but also those we choose to care for.

Chotu is one of many examples in Beyond the Clouds of kids living in places distinctly not child-friendly because their mothers are poor and have no one who can help them. Dozens of little ones run underfoot in jail, an arrangement permitted in some Indian prisons for children under six years old. One worker at Rahoul’s brothel shoos her daughter out of their room when a client arrives. Amir himself becomes a reluctant babysitter when Akshi’s impoverished elderly mother and two daughters arrive from South India and mistake him for one of Akshi’s friends.

The surprising weak point in Beyond the Clouds is A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack. Though the tone of the film isn’t dour, Rahman’s score is still too upbeat for the circumstances. Nevertheless, Beyond the Clouds is a thought-provoking, heartfelt exploration of our shared humanity.

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Movie Review: Hichki (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Buy or rent the movie at Amazon or iTunes
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Hichki (“Hiccup“) is an enjoyable if somewhat predictable parable about seeing the potential for greatness in everyone. It’s another interesting take on the Indian education system, following on the heels of last year’s terrific Hindi Medium.

Hichki focuses on two different barriers to academic achievement: disability and poverty. The disability aspect is addressed via the lead character, Naina (Rani Mukerji), a teacher with Tourette Syndrome. Tear-jerking flashbacks show her struggles as a small child, when she was the object of ridicule by her peers and scorned by her teachers for vocal tics and outbursts she couldn’t control.

As an adult trying to land her first teaching position, Naina spends more time explaining her neurological condition to the school board members and principals interviewing her than talking about her qualifications. The scenes illustrate just how much work remains to be done in educating the public at large about specific conditions and making the Indian education system more hospitable to students with various challenges, just as Taare Zameen Par did for dyslexia in 2007.

The one thing Naina asks for as both a child and an adult is to be treated as a normal person, and to that end, the movie quickly shifts away from her Tourette Syndrome as the central narrative focus. After the initial shock and some unkind jokes, the students in her class and her coworkers stop noticing her tics, showing just how unwarranted concerns over her being a distraction in the classroom were in the first place.

Naina is hired mid-semester to teach a notoriously rowdy class of poor teenagers who were only admitted to prestigious St. Notker’s — named for a German monk nicknamed “Notker the Stammerer” — when the private academy tore down the kids’ public school in order to expand their playground. The nasty head of the science department, Mr. Wadia (Neeraj Kabi), thinks neither Naina nor the kids belong at St. Notker’s. If the kids can’t pass their final exams in four months’ time, Naina and her students will all be kicked out.

Hichki tries to show what the students are up against — not just in the opposition they face from the school administrators, but also in the difficulties imposed on them by poverty. When Naina visits the slum where the kids live, she finds them caring for younger siblings, helping their parents at work or working solo, and waiting for hours in line to fill buckets of water from a tanker truck, since none of their homes have running water. Studying takes a backseat to the struggle for basic necessities.

Unlike Hindi Medium‘s progressive, leftist point-of-view regarding the inherent justice of public education, Hichki‘s politics are rooted in the neoliberal fantasy that the world is a meritocracy and education is the primary cure for poverty (as opposed to fair wages and access to public goods like clean water and sanitation). “You’re all masters of blaming your situations,” middle-class Naina chides her students.

The movie falsely presents all obstacles to education as equivalent. If Naina can overcome her neurological condition to become a teacher, these poor kids should be able to pass their exams. The film doesn’t acknowledge the many advantages Naina did have in coming from a middle-class family. Her mother had the time to advocate for her daughter’s education. Her younger brother owns a successful high-end restaurant. Even Naina’s father, who abandoned the family because he was embarrassed by Naina’s Tourette’s, uses his connections to land her a job in a bank. Despite her disadvantages, Naina has certain resources at her disposal that her students can only dream of.

Still, Hichki does push the idea that every kid has strengths, even if they’re hard to see at first. Naina uses some unorthodox methods to make the kids realize they understand concepts like parabolas and chemical reactions, even if they didn’t know they academic terms for them. The students flourish under the guidance of an adult who sees their inherent worth, and the story hits many familiar beats one expects from this kind of inspirational fare. (Thankfully, no one slow claps.)

Mukerji’s warmth makes Naina a particularly lovable underdog, one whose own self-doubts are even more important to conquer than the doubts of others. All of the young actors who play her students do a fine job. Neeraj Kabi is too blatantly villainous as Mr. Wadia, but that’s more a function of how the character is written than Kabi’s performance.

Hichki isn’t revolutionary, but movies like it, Hindi Medium, and Taare Zameen Par are important reminders of the Indian education system’s need to better serve all of its students, no matter their challenges.

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Movie Review: Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (2017)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the book Tikli and Laxmi Bomb: To Hell with Patriarchy at Amazon

Tikli and Laxmi Bomb plays at the UK Asian Film Festival on March 21 and 22, 2018.

Two women spark a revolution among sex workers in Mumbai in Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, a wonderful indie film currently doing the festival rounds. The story imparts a tremendous amount of information about the dangers faced by sex workers in an organic and thoughtful way, via endearing lead characters.

The title refers to two types of firecrackers popular in India: one with a short fuse (“Tikli”) and another that burns slower but makes a louder bang (“Laxmi Bomb”). The nicknames are perfect for the main duo. Laxmi (Vibhawari Deshpande) is a long-time sex worker, tasked by her pimp Mhatre (Upendra Limaye) with showing the ropes to the new girl in town, Putul (Chitrangada Chakraborty). Putul earns the nickname “Tikli” after she stabs an aggressive customer.

Laxmi can’t understand why Tikli won’t accept the way things are. Police hassle the women despite Mhatre’s bribes. Their supposed bodyguard A.T. (Mayur More) ignores their phone calls for help. Mhatre takes just enough of the women’s earnings to ensure that they aren’t destitute but can never rise above their current economic situation. World-weary Laxmi has learned to protect herself the best she can within the present constraints.

That acceptance doesn’t suit Tikli. She proposes breaking off from Mhatre and forming their own gang made up of women who will look out for each other instead of suffering abuse at the hands of those claiming to protect them. Laxmi resists until she discovers the extent to which Mhatre and his gang will go to keep the women subjugated. She, Tikli, and a handful of other sex workers set out on their own to change their fates.

As employees in an illegal profession, the women in Tikli and Laxmi Bomb are vulnerable to myriad forms of abuse. The film exposes its audience to many of them in a way that feels narratively consistent, without resorting to the lectures that ruin the flow of many socially conscious mainstream Hindi films. Each new setback the women face on their path to autonomy feels inevitable in retrospect, given the corruption and brutality built into the system.

It is to writer-director Aditya Kripalani’s credit that much of the violence against the female characters occurs off-camera. In the film, rape is used by men as a warning against insubordination and is thus carried out in front of other women. Their horrified reactions show us all we need to see.

Kripalani shares the credit for his enlightened directorial choices with his crew. Tikli and Laxmi Bomb‘s cinematographer, editor, and line producer are all women, as are the heads of costuming, makeup, and other key departments. Co-producer Sweta Chhabria says this deliberately chosen crew “helped the director and the film to lose its male gaze.”

Then there’s the talented cast. The two leads play off one another beautifully, Chakraborty’s impudent Tikli tempered by Deshpande’s pragmatic Laxmi. Divya Unny and Kritika Pande are great as two of the founding members of the gang, and veteran supporting actors like Suchitra Pillai and Saharsh Kumar Shukla help fill out the world.

The film was shot using natural lighting and handheld cameras, giving the film a raw quality appropriate for this view of life on the margins of society. Even with a big Bollywood budget, there’s little one would want to change about Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, so effective is its world-building and so well-organized is its story. Hopefully a successful turn on the festival circuit results in a way for the masses to see Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, because it deserves a wide audience.

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Movie Review: Welcome to New York (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the soundtrack at Amazon

Note: This is a review of the 2D version of the movie.

Welcome to New York has plenty of laughs for the hardest of hardcore Bollywood fans, packaged in an enjoyable fish-out-of-water comedy.

When I say “hardcore,” I mean it. It’s not enough to be familiar with the biggest Bollywood hits of recent years. Welcome to New York requires an appetite for industry gossip, knowledge of awards shows, and a fondness for Karan Johar–particularly his talk show, Koffee with Karan.

The extremely meta setting for Welcome to New York is the 18th International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards, which were held in New York City last year. As in real life, Johar plays the host of the awards show. His actual co-host, Saif Ali Khan, is replaced in the film by Riteish Deshmukh, playing a self-deprecating version of himself who bemoans his underpaid, B-list status.

In order to boost viewership in India, awards show organizers Gary (Boman Irani) and Sophia (Lara Dutta) create a talent contest, giving two winners the chance to perform onstage during the show. Sophia uses the contest to sabotage the show and get back at Gary, choosing the two worst entries among all the submissions as the winners.

Those winners are Teji (Diljit Dosanjh), a small-town repo man and wannabe actor, and Jeenal (Sonakshi Sinha), a feisty fashion designer. Whisked away to New York, the two must overcome their differences to navigate their flashy new surroundings and make their dreams come true.

Meanwhile, an angry Karan Johar doppelgänger named Arjun (also played by Johar) plans to kidnap his lookalike before the awards show. Teji accidentally foils one kidnapping attempt, thinking he’s playing a version of the Rapid Fire Round from Koffee with Karan.

The plotlines aren’t well-integrated, but it hardly matters, given how silly the movie is. Teji’s and Jeenal’s budding friendship is sweet to watch, and Dosanjh and Sinha are both effortlessly likeable. Dosanjh’s Teji gets most of the fish-out-of-water jokes, such as when he calls Jeenal’s terrycloth robe a “coat that looks like a towel.” Their characters have some amusing interactions with Aditya Roy Kapur and Sushant Singh Rajput that play off of people’s mistaken tendency to conflate actors with their roles.

When it comes to playing a role, no one in Welcome to New York does so more enthusiastically than Karan Johar, who plays the most outrageous version of himself imaginable. He’s vain, snarky, and snobbish, and he’s hilarious. He gets to spout lines like, “You are a traitor, Riteish Deshkmukh.” The payoff to subplot in which Karan advises Rana Daggubati on his career after Baahubali is worth the price of admission alone. Lara Dutta and Boman Irani being as great as always is a nice bonus.

The most disappointing element of Welcome to New York is its music. Songs range from forgettable to annoying, and there’s precious little dancing to speak of.

Casual fans may find Welcome to New York too “inside baseball,” but Bollywood junkies will see their obsession pay off in a multitude of self-referential gags. The actors seem like they had fun making the movie, and that quality translates to an enjoyable experience for the audience.

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Movie Review: Aiyaary (2018)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

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In Aiyaary (“Shapeshifting“), things that require little explanation are belabored, while things that would benefit from being shown onscreen aren’t. The resulting movie is a boring spy thriller sans thrills.

Manoj Bajpayee plays Colonel Abhay Singh, leader of a secret group of Indian military intelligence officers — the kind of covert unit the Indian Army top brass promises to disavow should its existence ever be made public. Abhay’s superior officer even says, “No one will ever know what you did for this country.”

Neither will the audience, because writer-director Neeraj Pandey doesn’t show us what they do, apart from one scene of an unspecified assassination that serves two purposes: to establish Abhay’s remorselessness and to beat to death an unfunny joke about a subordinate packing vitamins instead of ammo.

The team consists of seven other officers, only two of whom have specific identities. Maya is the token girl, played by Commando‘s Pooja Chopra, who deserves a role far more substantive than this one. Jai (Sidharth Malhotra) is Abhay’s protegé gone rogue. Abhay intends to find Jai and terminate him if necessary.

Jai uncovers a bribery plot within the Indian Army, facilitated by retired Lt. General Gurinder Singh (Kumud Mishra) on behalf of London-based arms dealer Mukesh Kapoor (Adil Hussain). While Abhay tracks Jai, the protegé gathers evidence with the help of his internet security expert girlfriend, Sonia (Rakul Preet Singh, who also deserves a meatier part).

The details of the uncomplicated bribery scheme are spelled out in scenes bloated with dialogue. Pandey’s fondness for slow-motion shots underscores the film’s snail-like pace.

Of course the bribery scheme is just the tip of the iceberg, but there’s a naiveté to what Pandey considers a scandal big enough to topple the government. Maybe it’s just my American cynicism, but there’s nothing in Aiyaary egregious enough to inspire more than a “they’re all crooks” shrug.

Then again, the problem may be a matter of narrative focus. Pandey spends too much time on crimes that are obvious and easy to understand, before rushing through more complicated schemes that require evidence he neglects to present. Aiyaary‘s biggest scandals are based on hearsay — which wouldn’t stand up to public scrutiny and doesn’t make for good visual storytelling.

Manoj Bajpayee is often the best part of the movies he stars in, and Aiyaary is no exception. The film’s most enjoyable scenes are playful exchanges between Bajpayee and Juhi Babbar, who plays Abhay’s wife. Malhotra is solid, but his character feels flat, as is the case for many of the supporting characters, who only exist to move the story from Point A to Point B. A lot of talent goes to waste in Aiyaary.

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