Tag Archives: Movie Review

Movie Review: The Zoya Factor (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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A young woman’s good fortune causes headaches for both her and the captain of India’s cricket team as they try to win the World Cup in The Zoya Factor, based on Anuja Chauhan’s 2008 novel of the same name.

The novel and movie are both set in a timeline based on the 2011 Cricket World Cup tournament played in India, but the members of the Indian cricket team are all fictional.

Sonam Kapoor Ahuja plays Zoya, a copywriter struggling to fit in at her snooty advertising firm who’s rejected by potential romantic suitors because of her middle-class background. At least her dad Vijayendra (Sanjay Kapoor, Kapoor Ahuja’s real-life uncle) and older brother Zoravar (Sikander Kher) love her. They believe she brings them luck in their local cricket pickup games because she was born the day India won its last World Cup in 1983.

Zoya is sent on a make-or-break work assignment to photograph members of the Indian Cricket Team. She gets off to a mixed start with the team’s handsome captain, Nikhil (Dulquer Salmaan), who is charmed by her exuberance and frustrated by her determination. But when he sees Zoya’s co-workers ignore her at breakfast the next morning, he invites her to eat with the team, where she tells them that she’s her family’s lucky charm on the cricket pitch. The team wins their match that afternoon, and Zoya becomes their lucky charm, too.

Screenwriters Pradhuman Singh and Neha Rakesh Sharma skillfully adapt Chauhan’s novel, so that all of drama in the film arises from the characters’ conflicting motivations. Zoya is of course delighted when handsome, rich Nikhil takes a romantic interest in her, but she’s just as thrilled to finally fit in with a group. The team’s most superstitious players — Shivy (Abhilash Chaudhary) and Harry (Gandharv Dewan) — value Zoya for her good luck, but they also genuinely like her because she takes an interest in them. She approaches them differently than Nikhil, who believes that hard work is the only factor in team’s success. When he insists that Zoya stay away from the team, lest they put too much faith in her, he doesn’t realize that her presence has a reassuring affect on jittery players like Shivy and Harry, making them more relaxed on the pitch and helping them perform better.

Even the story’s villain, Robin (Angad Bedi), has understandable motives. It would be a lot easier for Robin to reclaim the captaincy he lost to Nikhil if the public and the Indian Cricket Board give Zoya the credit for the team’s victories — especially when Nikhil is trying to keep her away. It just so happens that Robin’s uncle is the head of the Cricket Board, which makes Zoya an offer that forces her to choose what’s really important to her.

Sikander Kher is stealthily terrific in the movie, and his character plays an important part in steering Zoya’s choices. As her big brother, he’s sincerely concerned for her well-being, but he also reinforces all of Zoya’s insecurities by asking her why someone as popular as Nikhil would be with a nobody like her. Adding insult to injury is that she hates his nickname for her, delightfully translated in the English subtitles as “Spongebob.”

The whole cast is likeable, and Salmaan and Kapoor Ahuja are quite cute together. There’s a distracting amount of product placement in The Zoya Factor, but it’s otherwise a sweet, fun romantic comedy.

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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: Total Dhamaal (2019)

1 Star (out of 4)

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The good thing about watching Total Dhamaal on DVD is that my DVD player has a 1.5x speed option. Sitting through this at normal speed would be unbearable.

Total Dhamaal is a reboot of the Dhamaal franchise that began over a decade ago. It features some of the same actors but has nothing to do with the earlier movies. It’s an unofficial adaptation of the 1963 Hollywood comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Mad World henceforth), with disparate duos racing across the country in search of stolen loot.

The pilfered cash belongs to corrupt police commissioner Shamsher “Don” Singh (Boman Irani). Thieves Guddu (Ajay Devgn) and Johnny (Sanjay Mishra) brazenly steal Don’s money, only for their getaway driver Pintu (Manoj Pahwa) to run off with the suitcase full of cash himself.

After a series of interminable character introductions, Pintu is fatally injured in a plane crash in the middle of nowhere. He tells a bunch of motorists who come to check on him that he hid the money in a zoo hundreds of miles away. Those passersby include all the folks we met in the boring setup portion of the story: unhappily married couple Bindu (Madhuri Dixit Nene) and Avi (Anil Kapoor); good-for-nothing brothers Adi (Arshad Warsi) and Manav (Javed Jaffrey); and disgraced firefighters Lalaan (Riteish Deshmukh) and Jhingur (Pitobash Tripathy). Guddu and Johnny show up as well, but Pintu dies before confessing the exact location.

The duos hem and haw before agreeing that the first pair to find the money can keep it for themselves. Guddu and Johnny use trickery to get a head-start, but they run into Don and his sidekick Abbas (Vijay Patkar) along the way, who then join the pursuit as well.

There are some genuinely funny performances, which is not surprising given the caliber of the cast. Bindu’s withering stare when Avi’s “shortcut” gets them lost in a jungle is a highlight, as is the interplay between the crooked cops Don and Abbas. But director Indra Kumar’s poor storytelling gives his stars few opportunities to shine, weighing them down under a bloated plot and dull, repetitive jokes.

As obviously cribbed from Mad World as the film is, it’s baffling that Kumar and his writing team of Paritosh Painter, Ved Prakash, and Bunty Rathore didn’t use more of the original’s plot structure. In Mad World, the dying man’s revelation about the hidden money is the film’s opening scene, and the characters involved in the race are developed on the road. In Total Dhamaal, the deathbed confession doesn’t happen until forty minutes have elapsed, after all of the main players have been introduced in boring vignettes from their regular lives. These sequences are pointless because there is zero character development in Total Dhamaal, and it means that the road race only takes up about a third of the total runtime. The final third takes place at a zoo run by Prachi (Esha Gupta) that’s in danger of being demolished. The zoo’s monkey security guard is played by Hollywood monkey legend Crystal.

In order to pay his veteran cast, Kumar cut costs elsewhere. There is a remarkable amount of CGI used in the movie, even in the car chases. Almost all of Total Dhamaal was shot inside a studio, giving the movie a lifeless, artificial quality. While some footage of actual animals was used during the zoo sequences, for safety’s sake, there’s obviously a lot of compositing at work.

Total Dhamaal‘s great sin is that it isn’t funny. Jokes are extremely simplistic — often consisting of a man being kicked in the behind or almost hit in the crotch — but they are dragged out forever, as if it were possible for the audience to have missed something. The jokes also follow a formula: Character A notices danger over Character B’s shoulder and warns Character B three times before B finally turns and sees the trouble approaching. Then they both scream. This formula repeats multiple times, and it never gets any more clever. Scenes jump from one character duo to the next without any attempt at graceful transitions.

Sonakshi Sinha’s cameo in the song “Mungda” is the best part of Total Dhamaal, so I’ll just embed the song video below and save you the trouble of watching the movie.

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Movie Review: Notebook (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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A reluctant teacher at a remote schoolhouse finds a diary left by his predecessor, leading him to fall in love with the author and the profession of teaching in the charming drama Notebook.

Based on Thailand’s entry for Best Foreign Language film at the 2014 Oscars — The Teacher’s DiaryNotebook sets its story in Kashmir in 2008. Kabir (Zaheer Iqbal) is struggling to readjust to civilian life, following a stint in the army that ended when he inadvertently caused a child’s death. Haunted and directionless, he’s summoned to his ancestral home in Srinagar by his uncle. The elementary school Kabir’s deceased father founded is in danger of closing because it has no teacher, and Kabir agrees to fill in, despite his lack of experience.

The school is a collection of small buildings built on rafts, lashed together and floating on a wide lake. Though the school is six hours from the nearest town and only accessible by boat, it offers the only educational opportunity for children in the region. The gorgeous setting is an ideal place for introspection, but Kabir finds the practicalities hard to handle. There’s no cell network, running water, or electricity. A frog lives in the cistern.

Kabir’s students don’t make his job easy on him, disappointed as they are at the loss of their beloved teacher, Firdaus (Pranutan Bahl). After a disastrous first day, Kabir almost calls it quits, until he finds a diary Firdaus left behind. Her writings and drawings give Kabir insight into his students, and they lead him to fall in love with her — or at least with who he imagines her to be. Yet even as he immerses himself in the lives of his students, the camera often shoots Kabir through windows or reflected in mirrors, while flashbacks of Firdaus feature her fully in frame. The technique symbolizes Kabir’s yet unrealized sense of self and his still-developing connection to the school.

Notebook is whimsical in the best possible ways. There’s the novelty of a love story involving two people who’ve neither met nor seen each other. The school’s isolation forces both Firdaus and Kabir to embrace what’s truly important to them, and in doing so, steers them toward each other. Then there’s the school’s magical setting, floating on a lake covered in lily pads and surrounded by mountains. It’s straight out of a fairy tale.

Notebook released theatrically in the spring of 2019, several months before the Indian government cut off Kashmir’s cell network and internet access (which has been ongoing for over a month at the time of this writing). A boatman who ferries Kabir to the school explains that the unreliable cell phone network only works “when weather is good and peace prevails,” hinting at the region’s long-standing instability.

While the film isn’t political to the point of taking sides, it depicts the suffering of the people who live there. Every character in Notebook is traumatized by violence and death, including the children. Kabir’s undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder points to the fact that soldiers in the region are vulnerable to psychological damage as well. The constant military presence and threat of militant action creates an unhealthy situation for everyone living there.

Director Nitin Kakkar is the right person to tell this touching love story set in a fraught region, giving the main narrative its due while providing thoughtful context on its surroundings. Kakkar showed his capabilities with the 2012 comedy Filmistaan, in which a kidnapped Indian man doesn’t realize he’s been brought to Pakistan because of the strong similarities between both countries and their citizens. Notebook is just as sensitive in the way it stresses its characters’ shared humanity.

Iqbal and Bahl acquit themselves well in their film debuts, giving Kabir and Firdaus enough warmth to sustain Notebook‘s romantic feel, even though their characters spend little time together on-screen. They help to create a movie that is sweet yet substantial, and gorgeous to look at.

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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: Khandaani Shafakhana (2019)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Khandaani Shafakhana is like a half-finished topiary. The general shape is there, but it needs a lot more trimming.

Sonakshi Sinha stars as pharmaceutical sales representative Baby Bedi. Her job supports her mother (Nadira Babbar) and her loafer younger brother — the unfortunately named Bhooshit (Varun Sharma) — following her father’s death. Dad took out a loan from his greedy brother (Rajiv Gupta), and now Uncle wants to take possession of the family’s home and kick them out.

An opportunity arises in the wake of another death, that of Baby’s estranged maternal uncle Mamaji (Kulbushan Kharbanda). Mamaji was notorious for running a fertility clinic in a town where just saying the word “sex” is considered obscene. He bequeathed his clinic to Baby, on the condition that she hire a doctor and operate the clinic for six months in order to conclude his patients’ treatments. After that, she’s free sell the property, paying off her father’s debt and leaving her with enough money to start her own herbal medicine franchise. If she fails, the clinic goes to the medical school that kicked out her uncle decades earlier.

Returning to Mamaji’s clinic — inexplicably covered in cobwebs even though he’s only been dead a few days — brings back childhood memories of learning about traditional Unani medicine at her uncle’s knee. Her first meetings with patients to talk about their erectile dysfunction issues are profoundly awkward, but Baby realizes the positive impact of her uncle’s treatment on their lives. This reawakens her own dormant dreams of becoming a doctor and inspires her to destigmatize the topic of sexual health in her prudish Punjabi town.

Sinha’s warmth in the film’s thoughtful moments feels so natural, and her character builds endearing relationships. Sinha deftly guides Baby through a complicated journey as she considers what she really wants from life. Comedy might not be Sinha’s strongest suit, but the jokes in Khandaani Shafakhana are pretty subdued anyway. Nor are they especially bawdy.

The moderate tone does a world of good for Sharma, whose comic performances tend to be over-the-top. Annu Kapoor is funny as Mamaji’s lawyer, and Priyanshu Jora is adorable as a lemonade vendor hired by the lawyer to spy on Baby to ensure she fulfills her part of the deal.

Khandaani Shafakhana looks fantastic. Director Shilpi Dasgupta and cinematographer Rishi Punjabi tell their story through carefully framed shots, the best of which make a pensive Sinha look positively ethereal.

But Khandaani Shafakhana falls short of success for a few reasons. It’s overly long, first of all. By the time Baby hits her lowest point, I was ready for the whole thing to be done. The resolution to Baby’s crisis feels convenient and unrealistic.

Some aspects of the movie felt like they didn’t quite translate, not so much as a matter of language but culture. (The English subtitles are actually quite good, including a funny joke about one of Baby’s suitors being handsome “like Al Pacino.”) The film’s primary audience in India will likely be more familiar with the particulars of Mamaji’s Unani medicine than a Western audience, so much about it is left unexplained. But the characters periodically give each other meaningful looks, and I wasn’t sure what the meaning was supposed to be. This is not a good starter film for Bollywood newcomers.

Then there’s Khandaani Shafakhana‘s biggest problem — one that can hopefully be edited out of the version that makes it to Amazon Prime. Bhooshit is discussing one of Baby’s patients with her: a famous rapper named Gabru Ghataak (Badshah). Bhooshit speculates that, because Gabru is always surrounded by beautiful women, the reason for the rapper’s erectile dysfunction must be that he’s a “homo.” Bhooshit says the slur in English, so it’s not a translation error. He also repeats it several times, indicating that director Dasgupta and writer Gautam Mehra intended the scene to be humorous. It’s an unfortunate scene that can easily be excised from the movie without ruining the story flow. In fact, in a movie that’s already too long, axing it could help in more ways than one.

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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: Luka Chuppi (2019)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

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“I go to the gym. I am lean.
You speak to me like a machine.
You say that you watch Scooby-Dooby Doo.
Let it be, Don’t have to say I love you.”
— “Coca Cola Tu”, lyrics by Tony Kakkar and Mellow D or a random word generator

The romantic comedy Luka Chuppi (“Hide and Seek“) tries to appeal to a youthful demographic, but its story is stale.

Small town reporter Guddu (Kartik Aaryan) falls in love at first sight with Rashmi (Kriti Sanon), a new intern at Guddu’s cable station. Rashmi wants to wait on marriage until she’s established her own journalism career in Delhi, but she’s willing to try out a live-in relationship with Guddu first. Traditional Guddu balks at the idea, not least of all because a local conservative Hindu political party — led by Rashmi’s father, Vishnu (Vinay Pathak) — is waging a crusade against couples dating or living together before marriage.

A reporting assignment in another town gives Rashmi and Guddu the chance to cohabitate in secret, at the encouragement of the station’s cameraman, Abbas (Aparshakti Khurana, who was great in Stree). When their new neighbors get suspicious, the couple pretends that they are already married — a lie that spirals out of control once their families get wind of it.

Luka Chuppi is written in the chauvinistic tradition that insists on having a male “main” character, rather than true co-leads (hence why Aaryan gets first billing in the credits even though Sanon is a bigger star). The story is set in Guddu’s world, populated by his friends, enemies, and extended family. Though Rashmi is from the same town, she’s treated as an outsider, returned from Delhi to a hometown in which she mysteriously knows no one except her father, his toady, and her mother, whose face is covered in every shot save one.

Even on his home turf, Guddu is the least-active participant in the story. Abbas offers almost all the answers to every ridiculous new problem the couple faces while Guddu stares silently. Guddu undergoes very little character growth, written as he is in the mold of Bollywood male protagonists who are inherently flawless to begin. As such, the obstacles on the couple’s path don’t force them to evolve, making the march to their inevitable happy ending feel increasingly ponderous.

Guddu’s position as the story’s fulcrum would be hard to embrace even with a more talented actor in the role, but Aaryan isn’t up to the challenge. He seems unsure what to do with his face, maintaining the same bland expression no matter what reaction is required, and his voice has a strange, hollow affect as well. Aaryan’s whole performance seems like a lackadaisical Akshay Kumar impression.

Aaryan and Sanon have zero chemistry, although she has a delightful rapport with Khurana. When the three are in scenes together, Aaryan is an obvious weak link. It’s a shame that a romance between Rashmi and Abbas is precluded outright by his being Muslim, but Luka Chuppi is clearly a one-issue movie, and interfaith romance isn’t it.

As is his wont, Pankaj Tripathi steals every scene he’s in as Guddu’s tacky, lascivious brother-in-law, Babulal, who wants to mess up Guddu’s relationship with Rashmi. If the movie were nothing but shots of Babulal snooping about in his absurd attire, it would be an improvement.

That still wouldn’t solve the film’s biggest problem, which is that there is zero chance that Guddu and Rashmi will break up once they decide to get together (which Rashmi does out of the blue after a song montage). Luka Chuppi‘s message is that young people would like their parents to stop freaking out about live-in relationships, but the film’s presentation of the live-in relationship as a trial run for marriage is moot if the subsequent marriage is mandatory — which is why the movie has no narrative tension. Luka Chuppi is a polite request for open-mindedness, not a demand.

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Movie Review: Music Teacher (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Music Teacher is a melancholy exploration of the consequences of blowing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Beni (Manav Kaul) is a middle-aged vocal instructor and part-time lounge singer in Shimla, where he lives with his mother Madhavi (Neena Gupta) and younger sister Urmi (Niharika Lyra Dutt). He dreamed of being a playback singer for the movies, but his father’s death called him back from Mumbai years ago, before he could land any film gigs.

Adding salt to Beni’s still-open wound is the success of one of his former students, Jyotsna (Amrita Bagchi), who herself is now a popular playback singer. Beni must confront his jealousy and anger toward her when Jyotsna returns to Shimla for a concert after eight years in Bollywood.

But is the story Beni’s been telling himself about Jyotsna’s fame and their falling out true, or does he view the past through a lens that paints her as the villain (corroborated by his mother’s hostility toward her)? He reexamines the narrative as he tells it to his new neighbor, Geeta (Divya Dutta), a lonely wife who’s been ditched by her husband and banished to Shimla to care for her ailing father-in-law.

The present and past timelines in Music Teacher are differentiated by the color of Beni’s sideburns: black in the past, grey in the present. It’s subtle and easy to miss at first. Beni himself was more upbeat when he first meet Jyotsna, as opposed to the terse curmudgeon he’s become since she left. Their relationship was about more than music, but both had different dreams for the future.

Beni’s challenge is to realize how his own actions led him to his present unhappy state, and then either chart a new course or find a way to accept things the way they are. He’s spent his whole life waiting for his big break, thinking it could only come in the form of a show business career. He never considered that loving Jyotsna could be a life-changing opportunity in its own right.

Kaul plays Beni as more sad than angry, although the sense of having been wronged is what keeps him in stasis. Kaul convincingly portrays Beni as a decent guy who blew his big chance and never learned how to cope with it.

Bagchi is touching as Jyotsna, both in flashbacks as a young woman desperate for love and in an impactful present-day sequence in which she hints that the lessons she’s learned have been hard won.

While Jyotsna embodies all of Beni’s opportunities lost, Dutta’s Geeta represents the idea of accepting life’s hardships and finding pleasure where one can. Were Beni further along in his emotional journey, maybe he and Geeta could be happy together, damaged but at least not alone.

Though Music Teacher‘s story focuses on Beni’s growth, there’s an interesting theme about the lack of control women have over their own lives. Geeta is the most obvious example, fulfilling the edicts of a husband who lives in a distant city and no longer loves her. But Beni himself has undue influence over the lives of the women in his family. He selects a groom for his sister Urmi, and while we can assume that he wouldn’t make her marry against her will, he clearly has veto power when it comes to groom choice. Beni’s insistence forces Jyotsna to make a choice she doesn’t want to, and the repercussions destroy their relationship.

The men in Music Teacher don’t deserve the power they have. Geeta’s husband — who doesn’t even appear onscreen — is a bad guy for ditching her and offloading the care of his sick father onto her. Beni is guilty of myopic self-interest and a tragic lack of foresight, and loneliness is the consequence. Music Teacher is a big improvement over writer-director Sarthak Dasgupta’s first film, 2007’s The Great Indian Butterfly. There’s a lot to relate to and appreciate about this cautionary tale.

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Movie Review: Student of the Year 2 (2019)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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With an opening scene that features hundreds of students celebrating the start of an intercollegiate competition by chanting, “Student! Student!”, it’s clear that Student of the Year 2 (“SOTY2” henceforth) is not meant to be intellectually challenging. Nevertheless, the romantic comedy-drama sequel is plenty of fun, with some surprisingly rich character development.

Though not a direct sequel to 2012’s Student of the Year, SOTY2 is made in the same narrative mold as the first: a low-income university student competes against his well-heeled contemporaries for respect and the love of a pretty girl. While the original SOTY launched the careers of three newcomers who would become big stars — Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan, and Sidharth Malhotra — SOTY2 is star Tiger Shroff’s sixth leading role.

This time Shroff plays Rohan, a working class student at the underfunded Pishorilal Chamandas College where he excels at the sport kabaddi. His wealthy childhood sweetheart Mridula (Tara Sutaria) attends hoity-toity St. Teresa’s College. Without telling Mridula about his plan, Rohan gets an athletic scholarship and transfers to St. Teresa’s to be closer to her.

Rohan is a fish out of water at his new school, where everyone wears designer clothes and drives sports cars. He’s no longer the best athlete, with that distinction belonging to Manav (Aditya Seal), the reigning intercollegiate Student of the Year titleholder. Rohan makes an enemy of Manav’s snobby, vindictive sister Shreya (Ananya Panday, daughter of actor Chunky Pandey). Even Mridula — who goes by “Mia” on campus — acts less than thrilled to see poor Rohan on her fancy turf.

While Rohan could find a place at St. Teresa’s as one of Manav’s toadies, that won’t impress Mridula. What starts out as a good-natured rivalry between the two campus studs changes when Manav realizes Rohan’s ambitions, and Manav reminds Rohan of the hierarchy in the harshest way possible. But Rohan finds an unexpected ally in Shreya, who’s tired of living in her brother’s shadow. Maybe Rohan’s been trying to impress the wrong woman.

Though Shroff is typically drawn to action movies, he’s more charming in a lighter role like this that requires some self-awareness. Shroff nicely depicts Rohan’s struggle to fit in, as well as his realization that he should’ve been kinder to his peers back when he was Big Man on Campus at his old college.

Shreya’s character development is even more impressive than Rohan’s. She evolves from spoiled and aloof to generous and kind, as Rohan learns more about her troubled home life, while still keeping the core of her character intact. Her instinct to respond to slights with cattiness never changes, but she begins to curb her impulsiveness. One would never guess that this is Panday’s first feature role, she’s that good.

This is also Sutaria’s first feature role, having started her career in television. She doesn’t quite match the charisma of Shroff or Panday, but her character isn’t as deep as either of theirs. Mridula is written as shallow and fickle, which doesn’t leave Sutaria much room to maneuver.

Manav is also one-note — a rich bully from start to finish. Seal has to deliver dopey lines with a straight face, such as the multiple times Manav calls Rohan “loser of the year.” On the positive side, Seal and Sutaria are the best dancers of the lead quartet.

The film’s dance numbers are fun and impressive in scale, although they do have some weird elements. Will Smith strolls across the stage during one song for absolutely no reason. A couple of numbers feature a bunch of white women in cheerleader outfits, which stands out because there aren’t any non-Indian male students at St. Teresa. Also, one of my friends was crushed to discover that “Mumbai Dilli Di Kudiyaan” was just released for promotional purposes and wasn’t actually in the movie.

SOTY2 also has a lot of kabaddi scenes, which are sort of exciting, but I didn’t come out of the film understanding anything more about the rules than I did going in. (Although I was delighted to learn that you’re allowed to kick people in kabaddi.) There are also some unrealistic track and field sequences that have slow-motion shots of Manav turning to stare at Rohan in the middle of a race and looking aghast. As the leadoff runner for Westmont High School’s state-qualifying 800-meter medley relay team in 1994, I can assure you that there isn’t time for such theatrics during a sprint.

Then again, the whole premise of the Student of the Year competition is ridiculous to begin with. It’s only available to male students, there’s no academic component, and it only features two events — one of which is a team sport. Points are accrued by school, not by individual, yet the final award is given to a single participant. It’s pretty dumb if you think about it, so better to just enjoy Student of the Year 2 for its lavish dance numbers and Ananya Panday’s promising debut.

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