Tag Archives: Movie Review

Movie Review: Ludo (2020)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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The movie Ludo uses its namesake board game as a metaphor for life, its characters one dice roll away from fortune or ruin. Writer-director Anurag Basu’s black comedy is beautifully made and laugh-out-loud funny.

Anyone who has played the games Aggravation, Sorry!, or Trouble is familiar with how Ludo works. Players from four different colored corners of the game board roll dice, moving their pieces around the board in the hopes of being the first to get all their pieces safely “home.” Basu assigns different characters to the colored corners, and they meet up with one another throughout the story. Right at the center is Sattu Bhaiya (Pankaj Tripathi), a hard-to-kill gangster with ties to all of them.

In the red corner is Sattu’s former right-hand man Bittu (Abhishek Bachchan), fresh out of prison and eager confront his old boss. Bittu charges in after a meeting between Sattu and the yellow corner’s Akash (Aditya Roy Kapur), who needs Sattu’s help removing a sex tape from the internet. The blue corner’s Rahul (Rohit Suresh Saraf) is at Sattu’s hideout as well, having been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

An explosion sets the characters off in different directions. Rahul drives off with some of Sattu’s stolen cash and a cute, opportunistic nurse named Sheeja (Pearle Maaney). Akash also hits the road, joined by Shruti (Sanya Malhotra) the woman from the sex tape who’s due to marry someone else in a matter of days. Bittu’s plan to find a way back into the life of the wife who left him while he was in jail and the young daughter who doesn’t remember him is derailed when he meets another precocious little girl, Mini (Inayat Verma), who needs help faking her own kidnapping in order to get her distracted parents’ attention.

While all this is happening, the characters from the green corner are trying to get out of their own mess. Alu (Rajkummar Rao) has been in love with Pinky (Fatima Sana Shaikh) since childhood, although she never reciprocated his feelings. Pinky turns up with her baby to ask for Alu’s help getting her husband Manohar (Paritosh Tripathi) out of jail, where he languishes, wrongly accused of a murder committed by Sattu.

Director Basu doesn’t judge his characters for wanting what they want, even if what they want isn’t exactly good for them. Alu is the best example of this. He knows his one-sided devotion to Pinky gets him into trouble and keeps him perpetually single, but he’s miserable when she’s not around. Is it so bad for him to not want to feel awful?

Bittu’s story is the most complicated and emotional. He spent six years waiting to get back to his daughter — who was an infant when he went to prison — but she doesn’t know he exists. She thinks Bittu’s ex-wife’s new husband is her father. Spending time with Mini gives Bittu a chance to act in a fatherly role, making him question whether what he wants for himself is really what’s best for his daughter.

Bachchan’s performance when he’s playing Bittu the Gangster comes off as more pouty than menacing, but he’s terrific as Bittu the Dad. Little Inayat Verma is impossibly adorable, and she and Bachchan are so much fun together. Yet we know their relationship is only temporary. Almost all of Bittu’s options will leave him brokenhearted.

Given Pankaj Tripathi’s recent track record of stealing virtually every movie he’s in, Basu wisely put Tripathi in the middle of things from the start. His character’s introduction — dramatically exposing his inner thigh to pull a gun from a leg holster — is perfection. After the cute pairing of Bittu and Mini, Sattu is part of the film’s second best partnership. While he’s bedridden, Sattu forms a friendship with no-nonsense nurse Lata Kutty (Shalini Vatsa), one of the few people he can’t intimidate. It’s unexpected and delightful.

To keep his dark comedy from becoming too dark, Basu amplifies its other elements. Bright colors differentiate the storylines, but they also cheer up even violent scenes. Character closeups feel a little closer than normal. The excellent soundtrack and score by Pritam are prominent in the mix, setting the tone overtly. Ludo is loud, both aurally and visually, but it feels just right.

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Movie Review: Coolie No. 1 (2020)

1 Star (out of 4)

Watch Coolie No. 1 on Amazon Prime

One of the questions at the heart of Coolie No. 1 is, “Why can’t a poor man marry a rich woman?” In this case, the answer is: “Because he doesn’t deserve her.”

Coolie No. 1 is a remake of the 1995 film of the same name, both of which are directed by David Dhawan. I have not seen the original, so this review will focus solely on the remake.

The coolie in question this time is Raju (Varun Dhawan), head of the porters at a railway station in Mumbai. Raju defends his elderly coworker from an abusive jerk Mahesh (Vikas Verma), not with his wits but with his fists. In the scuffle, Mahesh is exposed as a drug dealer and arrested.

One witness to the fight is pandit Jai Kishen (Javed Jaffrey), who is on his way home after bringing a prospective groom to the mansion of hotelier Jeffrey Rosario (Paresh Rawal). When Rosario insults Jai Kishen and the groom, declaring that his daughters will only marry men even richer than himself, Jai Kishen vows revenge. He plans to trick Rosario into getting his daughter Sarah (Sara Ali Khan) married to a poor man, and Raju seems like the perfect pawn for his scheme. Raju takes one look at a photo of Sarah and is onboard.

Raju poses as Raj, the son of the king of Singapore. Sarah is smitten with how humble Raj is despite being so rich, and Rosario is smitten with Raj’s apparent fortune. Only after the handsome couple is wed does Rosario begin to doubt Raj’s identity. When Rosario spots Raj working at his old job, the coolie improvises, inventing a heretofore unmentioned identical twin brother — compounding his original lie and making things exponentially more complicated.

It’s hard to buy in to Coolie No. 1, because it never acknowledges the harm done to Sarah for the sake of chastening her father. Sarah is tricked into falling for a man who lies to her about his identity, promises her a lifestyle he knows he can’t deliver, then traps her in a legally binding marriage contract. Would she have married him if she’d known he was working class? Maybe. We have no way of knowing.

Part of that is because Sarah is written as an empty shell. She’s too vapid to be suspicious of Raju. She earnestly fears for his safety when his charade keeps him away from home overnight. She eagerly tackles the housework in their dilapidated apartment, as though she didn’t grow up in a mansion full of servants (I guess women are just supposed to be innately good at cleaning). She’s a beautiful blank slate who reacts the way the plot needs her to react.

Coolie No. 1 is yet another film that thinks goodness is conferred upon its main character just by virtue of his being the main character, regardless of what he actually does. It’s significant that Raju doesn’t tell Sarah the truth until she accidentally discovers his deception. He wasn’t struck by a pang of conscience, nor did he try to enlist her help. He planned to keep lying to her indefinitely. How exactly does that make him a good guy?

For non-Hindi speakers, jokes in Bollywood comedies don’t always survive the translation via subtitles. But much of the wordplay humor in Coolie No. 1 is in English, and it’s still not funny. Rosario’s rhyming shtick and Raju’s Mithun Chakraborthy impression grow tired almost immediately. The physical humor in the movie isn’t amusing either.

As for the film’s positive points, it does have a number of entertaining, large-scale dance numbers (although the one where Rosario peeps through the window of his daughter’s hotel room while she’s on her honeymoon is creepy). Shikha Talsania and Sahil Vaid are likable as Sarah’s sister Anju and Raju’s friend Deepak, respectively, who fall in love amidst the drama.

Varun Dhawan and Sara Ali Khan are both forgettable. In fact, let’s just forget this remake ever happened.

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Movie Review: The White Tiger (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Buy the novel at Amazon

“Rich men are born with opportunities they can waste.” So says a driver who realizes he has one chance to break out of the master-servant paradigm that has defined his life and kept him trapped in poverty.

Balram (Adarsh Gourav) narrates the story of his success via a series of emails written to Wen Jiabao ahead of the Chinese Premier’s visit to Bangalore in 2010. Ever the opportunist, Balram hopes to align himself with what he believes is the world’s rising power, as the influence of the West recedes.

The emails paint a clear picture of how social, economic, and political systems in India concentrate power and wealth. Balram’s family comes from a sweet-making caste in a small village north of Delhi. A third of the money everyone in town earns goes to the landlord, a stern man called The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) with a violent son known as The Mongoose (Vijay Maurya). Apart from a few rupees for incidentals, the rest of the money earned by the men in Balram’s family goes to Balram’s grandmother (Kamlesh Gill) — the only member of the large clan who doesn’t go hungry.

Through patience, observation, and quick wit, Balram secures himself a position as the driver for The Stork’s youngest son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), recently returned from New York with his Indian-American wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). The gig allows Balram to finally utilize the English language skills he picked up as a precocious kid. Ashok, Pinky, and Balram move to Delhi in order to facilitate some bribery on behalf of The Stork, with the threat that any misstep on Balram’s part could cause The Stork to murder Balram’s whole family.

In Delhi, it becomes apparent how the entrenched master-servant system limits the imaginations of those involved. Ashok doesn’t like when his brother and father hit Balram, but doesn’t try to make Balram a full-fledged employee with rights either. The expectation is that Balram will work hard for Ashok’s family for minimal pay until they decide to get rid of him. That’s it.

Even Balram starts to see how his upbringing has filtered his expectations. When Pinky asks him what he wants to do in life, it seems like an absurd question. He already achieved his goal of getting out of working at his family’s tea shop when he got this job. What else is there? Even if Balram had a bigger dream, he has no money or connections. The only people he knows who could help him are Ashok and his family, and they’ve made it clear they’d never do that.

Dangerous circumstances force Balram to choose whether to continue viewing himself as disposable the way that his bosses do, or to assert his right to self-determination. In order to overcome what he calls the “servant mindset,” Balram needs the fortitude of the rarest of creatures: the white tiger.

Director Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of Arvind Adiga’s novel is thorough in its world building but lets Balram’s particular viewpoint set the tone of the film. Balram is a loner, so something like collective action never crosses his mind. His choices, for good or ill, make sense for who he is, especially as defined by Gourav’s terrific lead performance.

Chopra Jonas — who co-produced the film — hits it out of the park as Pinky, a woman who wants to do good but doesn’t have the full context for the situation or the agency to make significant changes even if she did. With Rao’s history of playing likeable characters, it’s all the more frustrating when Ashok won’t stand up to his dad and brother to demand better treatment for Balram. Then again, he’s as much a product of his environment as everyone else, which is exactly the problem The White Tiger examines.

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Movie Review: Tribhanga (2021)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A matriarch’s serious illness gives her family occasion to examine their troubled relationships in Tribhanga: Tedhi Medhi Crazy. One big structural flaw hampers this otherwise insightful and well-acted depiction of complicated family dynamics.

Nayan (Tanvi Azmi) is a celebrated author and head of the Apte family. She has a stroke and falls into a coma while dictating her autobiography to her ghost writer, Milan (Kunaal Roy Kapur). Nayan’s daughter Anu (Kajol), a famous and temperamental actress, rushes to Nayan’s bedside with her own adult daughter, Masha (Milthila Palkar).

One of Anu’s first reactions is to joke that at least she won’t have to listen to Nayan talk for a change. Anu and her brother Robindro (Vaibhav Tatwawaadi) don’t try to hide their disdain for their mother just because she’s ill. Nayan made some radical, progressive choices in her life, such as giving her children her own surname following her divorce from their father. However, she never considered the potential negative impacts those choices could have on her kids, nor the price they would pay for her devotion to her writing.

Those hard early years forged an unshakeable alliance between Anu and Robindro and influenced Anu’s own parenting style. Anu and Masha are joined at the hip, but there’s still space for Masha to have her own separate, affectionate relationship with Nayan. Masha seizes upon the opportunity presented by her grandmother’s hospitalization to learn more about the men who were once important in Nayan’s life.

The key man in Nayan’s life at present is Milan, who is the biggest problem in Tribhanga. He’s not a real character so much as a human plot device created to stoke drama and move the story forward. His interactions with the other characters are unnatural, as though Milan has no understanding of human emotions. His awkwardness stands out, given how authentic all of the other characters feel and how well-performed they are, especially by Kajol and Palkar.

Milan — who spends almost as much time in Nayan’s hospital room as Anu — cannot understand why Anu hates her mother. When Anu finally tells him why, her anger seems perfectly justifiable. Milan responds by showing her a video of Nayan addressing the subject matter directly. So Milan already knew the reason, yet still could not understand Anu’s feelings.

Tribhanga is only writer-director Renuka Shahane’s second feature film (her first in Hindi), so maybe relying so heavily on Milan for plot progress is a matter of inexperience. It might also be a matter of not trusting other characters and their actors to more the story forward organically. Instead, Milan interrupts scenes that promise to reveal family history in a more natural, light-hearted way — such as when Anu and Robindro reminisce over their aunt’s delicious ladoos — just to say something dumb that makes Anu mad and cuts the scene short.

In a film about how parental choices affect children, having Milan lurk around the hospital feels like another unwanted choice imposed upon Anu via Nayan and director Shahane. In reality, would anyone want a non-family member whom no one but the comatose patient even likes hanging around in a small hospital room? Other characters could have given Anu insight into her mother’s thoughts just as easily as Milan, especially since the film relies on flashbacks and not just Milan’s interview footage to present Nayan’s side of the story.

The film also stumbles a bit when making comparisons between Anu’s parenting style and Nayan’s, treating some actions as equivalent when they aren’t. Same for comparing Anu’s reaction to her childhood with Masha’s. The film suggests that Masha’s decision to marry into a conservative, patriarchal family as the logical response to being raised by a single mother, as though families only exist in those two forms with nothing in between.

Director Shahane is onto something with Tribhanga. She knows how to write complex women characters and build interesting relationships for them. Trusting in the audience to follow those characters through a story that develops organically is the next step.

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Movie Review: AK vs AK (2020)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch AK vs AK on Netflix

AK vs AK is the most novel Hindi film to release in 2020, but novelty is just part of its appeal. Director Vikramaditya Motwane’s meta take on the Indian film industry — and two members of it in particular — is smart, insightful, and a lot of fun.

The AKs of the title are Anil Kapoor and Anurag Kashyap, who play outlandish versions of themselves, as do other members of the Kapoor family. The story is fictional but trades on the participants’ real-life reputations and circumstances. AK vs AK‘s Anurag is a temperamental and self-important arthouse director who feels he deserves more acclaim, while Anil is an aging star who’s slow to accept that his biggest films are behind him.

Anil’s character seems further removed from the real person (no offense to Anurag), but he serves to highlight both the importance of the Bollywood star system and the refusal of many of the men within it to acknowledge the passage of time, insisting on playing college students into their fifties. The fact that Kapoor chose to play the character as he does in AK vs AK shows why he’s the model for aging gracefully in Bollywood.

The story opens with Anurag and Anil onstage for a question and answer session with film students. They trade barbs, bringing to the surface a simmering resentment from when Anurag was a young filmmaker and Anil turned down a role in one of his movies. Anil accidentally spills water on Anurag’s expensive shoes, and Anurag retaliates by throwing water in Anil’s face.

All of this is captured by a video camera operated by Yogita (Yogita Bihani), a filmmaker shadowing Anurag for a documentary project. Yogita helps Anurag concoct an audacious revenge plan to kidnap Anil’s daughter Sonam (playing herself) and film Anil’s search for her. Anurag believes this will cement his directorial genius by capturing Anil’s most realistic performance ever.

What follows is a nighttime chase, as Anil tries to find Sonam before sunrise, at which time the kidnappers who’ve nabbed Sonam have promised to kill her. A video of a tearful Sonam bound and gagged convinces Anil that Anurag is not joking. The two cruise around in Anil’s SUV along with Yogita, who documents the search.

The chase involves a stop at Anil’s house to put in a cursory appearance at his own birthday party to placate his suspicious family, who don’t know about the kidnapping. Anil and Anurag get in a fistfight and destroy a Christmas tree, but it’s somehow not even the funniest part of the sequence at the house. That honor goes to Anil’s son Harsh (playing himself), who is desperate to work with a director of Anurag’s caliber. Harsh acts out his pitch to play an action figure while Anil tries to get him to leave, ending with Harsh screaming about AK vs AK director Vikramaditya Motwane ruining his career when their movie Bhavesh Joshi Superhero flopped. It’s insidery, but hilarious.

Those familiar with the Hindi film industry will get more out of AK vs AK than those who aren’t. I’m sure I missed some references to films from earlier in Kapoor’s career. That said, the overall story is totally comprehensible for those who aren’t Bollywood fans. The way it’s shot — with long takes and clever camera angles that keep Yogita out of frame except for when she’s part of the story — is reason enough to watch it.

There’s also a great examination of the price of stardom. In his most vulnerable moments, Anil can’t get anyone to help him without first taking a selfie with them. Years of entertaining people onscreen isn’t enough for a cop or taxi driver to give Anil information without demanding an additional toll. Not only does he not get special treatment in his hour of need, he doesn’t even get the same courtesy one would afford a complete stranger.

Motwane walks a fine line, making sure the audience always knows how to react to a given scene. AK vs AK is funny when it’s supposed to funny and sad when it’s supposed to be sad. Even the uncomfortable moments where the audience is forced to consider whether something is funny or not clearly feel intentional. Motwane always makes great movies, and AK vs AK is no exception.

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Movie Review: Durgamati (2020)

1 Star (out of 4)

Watch Durgamati: The Myth on Amazon Prime

Durgamati: The Myth‘s intriguing first half is undone by its messy, twist-happy conclusion.

Writer-director G. Ashok stuck closely to the premise of his 2018 bilingual film Bhaagamathie for this Hindi remake. Bhumi Pednekar takes over the role of an imperiled bureaucrat from Anuskha Shetty.

Pednekar plays civil servant Chanchal Chauhan. Her long association with the squeaky-clean politician Ishwar Prasad (Arshad Warsi) brings her to the attention of the Central Bureau of Investigations. The CBI has been tasked with finding dirt on Prasad because his righteousness is making his fellow politicians look bad. Prasad has promised to leave the country in fifteen days if he can’t find the culprits who’ve been stealing ancient idols from remote village temples — a high standard other politicians don’t want to be held to.

Chanchal is an easy target because she’s in prison awaiting trial for killing her fiance Shakti (Karan Kapadia) — a crime that seems out of character from what little we know about her. Shakti’s vengeful brother Abhay (Jisshu Sengupta) is the police chief responsible for Chanchal’s safety after the CBI moves her to an abandoned palace in the jungle. Locals believe the mansion is haunted, so there’s no chance of anyone interrupting the CBI’s illegal interrogation.

Before Partition, the palace was the home of Queen Durgamati, known for merciless treatment of her enemies. Chanchal is locked in the mansion alone, only brought out during the day for fruitless questioning by CBI Director Satakshi Ganguly (Mahie Gill). Night after night, unseen forces torment Chanchal, psychologically and physically. A psychiatrist and a holy man disagree on the cause of the problem, but one thing is clear: Chanchal is not safe in Durgamati’s palace.

It’s hard to talk about any of the events after this point in the story without getting into spoiler territory. But we can examine what’s happened so far for indications of the kinds of problems that turn the ending into a total circus.

Take the plan to move Chanchal to the palace. The isolation is a selling point, but the mansion is huge and would be difficult to secure. It likely has numerous servants’ exits and other means of egress, but Abhay’s police team padlocks the front gate and calls it a day. Chanchal stays in the mansion alone, while the two cops assigned to guard her sleep in a shack beyond the gate. (The officers periodically get comic side bits that don’t fit the tone of the film at all.) Abhay has cameras installed in the mansion — hard to see how since the layers of dust inside are undisturbed and all the police are too scared to enter — but he doesn’t put one in Chanchal’s bedroom. No one from Satakshi’s CBI team sticks around to monitor the camera feeds overnight anyway. Chanchal could sneak out, and no one would be the wiser until morning.

The point of all this is that director Ashok wanted to use the palace setting no matter what, without thinking through all of the problems the setting presented. This inattention to detail gets worse as the story progresses, diffusing the sense of mystery built in the first half. Events happen for the sake of dramatic twists, and not because they would logically happen that way. Many of the solutions provided aren’t hinted at beforehand, but rather conjured as if by magic.

Gill and Sengupta are careful not to overplay their characters, both of whom undergo some welcome growth. Pednekar and Warsi are good in the parts of the script that allow them to be, less so in the moments that would have been hard for anyone to make convincing.

Throughout the film, elaborate plans like the palace interrogation scheme hinge on characters behaving in very specific ways. When a whole plan could come unraveled if one person makes an unexpected choice, says the wrong thing, or steps in the wrong direction, it strains credulity. Durgamati isn’t detail-oriented enough to be believable.

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Movie Review: Chhalaang (2020)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A character archetype Bollywood screenwriters return to time and again is the “loafer with a heart of gold”: a leading man with limited career prospects and few likeable qualities (other than being handsome) who is nevertheless beloved in his small town and allowed to boss around whomever he wants. His only acknowledged flaw is that he doesn’t have a girlfriend — though he will by the end of the movie.

As someone who didn’t grow up watching films with this archetype, it’s a character I’ve never warmed to. The presumed inherent perfection of the main character — whom the audience is supposed to like because of their affinity for the actor playing him — precludes meaningful character growth.

Chhalaang turns the trope on its head, introducing a typical “loafer with a heart of gold,” exposing his shortcomings, and forcing him to fix them — especially if he wants to get the girl.

Montu (Rajkummar Rao) works as a gym teacher at his old high school in Haryana, even though he’s not interested in teaching. Principal Gehlot (Ila Arun) doesn’t care about the subject either, which is why she hired Montu to fill the job.

The school’s beautiful new computer teacher Neelu (Nushrat Bharucha) piques Montu’s interest. They get off on the wrong foot when Montu publicly embarrasses her parents while he and his boys are out harassing couples celebrating Valentine’s Day. More importantly, Neelu recognizes Montu as a guy who only does things that are easy, avoiding challenges.

Things change with the sudden arrival of a new gym teacher, I. M. Singh (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub). A new state law makes physical education compulsory, forcing Principal Gehlot to hire someone with actual teaching credentials. She tells Montu he can stay on as Singh’s assistant, but Montu’s pride won’t allow it. He throws down the gauntlet: he and Singh will train two teams of students for a sports tournament, and the winner gets to keep the job.

It’s a silly premise, but this is a comedy after all — and a pretty good one at that. There are lots of well-written jokes that are carefully translated in English subtitles by Laxminarayan Singh. Rao is always good, and he plays Montu with sincerity. Rao and Bharucha have a nice chemistry as well. Even better is the relationship between Rao and Saurab Shukla, who plays Montu’s former teacher and best friend, Mr. Shukla.

Coaching the kids in preparation for the tournament — which features funny play-by-play announcing by Mr. Shukla and Principal Gehlot — helps Montu learn the importance of seeing a task through to its completion, regardless of the outcome. However, it’s a little morally questionable that the kids are forced to partake in the competition over their parents’ objections and at the expense of their academics. And Montu’s training methods — which include siccing dogs on them to make them run faster — aren’t exactly orthodox.

A preponderance of moral inconsistencies keep Chhalaang from  being the family-friendly classic it could have been. Neelu — who is established as a dedicated and compassionate educator — suffers for the sake of Montu’s character growth. When parents pull their children from the competition, Neelu threatens to fail the students in retaliation. Montu’s lawyer father Kamlesh (Satish Kaushik) joins her, threatening legal action against the parents unless the kids participate. It’s not funny and seems out of character for both Neelu and Kamlesh.

Neelu is part of another insensitive scene that errs while trying to make a valid point. She brings Montu to a school for students with special needs where she volunteers in her off-hours. The purpose is to show Montu — whose team for the competition is made up of kids who’d rather be studying math, while Singh’s is all jocks — that every student can flourish with the help of a dedicated teacher. Neelu tells Montu, “Any teacher can take a student from 90 to 100, but only a good teacher can take a student from 10 to 40.” It’s a clever line, but there had to be a better way to make this point than calling specials needs students a bunch of 10s out of 100.

Chhalaang‘s writing is its best and worst feature. The dialogue is top notch. Director Hansal Mehta does what he can to make the film enjoyable and to make Montu’s evolution feel earned. But the screenplay, by writers Luv Ranjan, Aseem Arrora, and Zeishan Quadriis, needed more  moral consistency.

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Movie Review: Bulbbul (2020)

4 Stars (out of 4)

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With her first go as a feature film director, screenwriter and lyricist Anvita Dutt proves herself a master of atmosphere in the gorgeous gothic horror movie Bulbbul.

The story begins in 1881 somewhere in the Bengal Presidency at the wedding of Bulbbul (Ruchi Mahajan), a precocious 5-year-old who doesn’t really understand what’s happening. She is reassured in the carriage ride to her new home by Satya (Varun Buddhadev), a boy a few years older than her that she assumes is the person she’s been married to. Only upon arriving at the lavish estate of Lord Indranil (Rahul Bose) does she learn that her husband is not Satya but Indranil himself, Satya’s much older brother.

While Indranil waits for his child-bride to grow up, Bulbbul and Satya become inseparable companions. He regales her with legends of the “demon woman,” a witch who prowls the trees at night on feet turned backwards, hoping to find the little princess and gobble her up. They share the palace with Indranil’s identical twin brother Mahendra (also Bose) — who has an intellectual disability and an unsettling fascination with Bulbbul — and Mahendra’s beautiful but jealous wife, Binodini (Paoli Dam).

Two decades later, Satya (now Avinash Tiwary) returns home after several years abroad to find his home radically changed. Mahendra was murdered, Binodini lives in a colony with other widows, Indranil left the palace, and Bulbbul (now Tripti Dimri) rules in his place. The bookish, demure girl Satya remembers has become confident and aloof. She lounges, fanning herself with an ostentatious fan made of peacock feathers. Satya asks Bulbbul, “Where did the sweet little lady I knew disappear? What did you do with her?” “I gobbled her up,” she teases.

Something is clearly wrong in the jurisdiction, but what is a matter of opinion. Satya wants to solve a series unexplained murders, including Mahendra’s. There’s also the matter of the blood-red night sky and sense of foreboding that pervades the woods around the palace. But Bulbbul and her close confidant, Dr. Sudip (Parambrata Chattopadhyay), are more concerned about domestic issues, like the suspicious injuries sustained by Master Dinkar’s wife.

Violence against women is a theme throughout the film, and a couple of scenes are quite brutal. Not the scenes of violence themselves, but shots of the grisly aftermath. Dutt is careful not to make the violent acts in any way titillating. The scenes are simply sad, accompanied by a heartbreaking musical theme from composer Amit Trivedi.

Rather than focusing on the violent acts themselves, the story highlights a key mechanism that allows such violence against women to go unchecked: the otherwise good men who refuse to see it, as personified by Satya. He’s not violent, but he won’t believe that the men around him are. When Bulbbul and Sudip bring up Master Dinkar (Subhasis Chakraborty), Satya’s first reaction is to call him “a fine man.” Satya is so ensconced within the ruling patriarchy that he assumes that the way other men treat him is the way they treat everyone, and he’s willing to accept their version of events without question. Satya is more suspicious of those who challenge his perception of reality — especially an outsider, like Sudip.

Tiwary is successful at portraying Satya as a nice enough guy who just doesn’t get it, but whose ignorance has devastating consequences. Dimri’s ability to convey how much Bulbbul adores Satya amplifies the significance of those consequences.

Dimri has to play essentially two characters: Bulbbul before Satya leaves, and Bulbbul after he returns. She’s so good at both, but she’s particularly fun to watch as Bulbbul the ruler. The film’s best scenes are between Bulbbul and Sudip, Satya’s foil. Chattopadhyay is terrific when he plays the sidekick to a powerful woman, as he did in Kahaani.

Bulbbul‘s most memorable element is its color palette. Dutt uses filters liberally to set the mood of scenes, deploying super saturated tones for specific effect. The red night sky is discomforting, but it’s surprisingly bright. By contrast, the interior of the palace after dark is a heavy blue that allows shadows to proliferate. It doesn’t have the same unnatural quality of the sky outside, but it feels more dangerous. Dutt’s bold and effective use of color in Bulbbul sets a high bar for her next project — one that she seems more than capable of reaching.

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Movie Review: Laxmii (2020)

0.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Laxmii on Hotstar

Is it possible for a film to be longer than its actual runtime? Laxmii sure feels like it is. Every time I paused the movie — which released directly on the streaming service Hotstar — I swear, there was always more time remaining than there was before.

Laxmii isn’t just boring, although it is painfully that. The more you watch, the more you realize how vapid it is. Plot elements and characters are plucked from a generic pool of comedy tropes and carelessly thrown together, with no attempt at continuity or resolution. Any social issues raised are examined with so little depth that the film offers no meaningful insight into them. One might forgive these flaws if Laxmii was funny, but it isn’t.

Akshay Kumar plays Asif, a debunker of superstitions. He stops a public demonstration against a suspected witch, exposing the fraudulent holy man conducting it. The woman on trial — who has a swollen lip and visible hand-prints on her face from a beating doled out by her husband — tells Asif, “You saved my marriage.” Ack. Laxmii is way, way too comfortable with violence against women, with this sequence being but one example of many.

Frequent violence against women also makes the film feel dated, as though it’s cobbled together from elements from movies from decades ago. Take Asif’s marriage to Rashmi (Kiara Advani). She’s introduced in one of the most tired ways: fretting that Asif forgot their wedding anniversary. Advani isn’t given much to work with in Laxmii, but her performance is not good. Neither is Kumar’s.

Asif and Rashmi are estranged from her family because her father Sachin (Rajesh Sharma) disapproves of Asif’s Muslim faith. Religious differences are irrelevant to the plot, but rather than write real conflict, writer-director Raghava Lawrence went with the default reason Bollywood movie parents disapprove of their child’s choice of spouse.

Let’s talk about Rashmi’s family. The logic that went into casting the actors makes no sense. The real age of the actor is in parentheses in the list below, followed by each actor’s role in Laxmii:

  • Akshay Kumar (53 years) — Rashmi’s husband, Asif
  • Ashwini Kalsekar (50 years) — Rashmi’s sister-in-law, Ashwini
  • Manu Rishi Chadha (49 years, 10 months) — Rashmi’s brother, Deepak
  • Rajesh Sharma (49 years, 1 month) — Rashmi’s father, Sachin
  • Ayesha Raza Mishra (43 years) — Rashmi’s mother, Ratna
  • Kiara Advani (28 years) — Rashmi

Somehow, Rashmi’s brother is played by an actor older than the actors playing his parents. Rashmi’s mother is younger than everyone except for Rashmi. And here’s the thing: everyone looks pretty much their real age (save for some “old lady” makeup for Rashmi’s mom). Besides the ick factor of Kumar romancing someone 25 years his junior, trying to pass Rishi Chadha off as young enough to be Sharma’s or Raza Mishra’s son is preposterous.

Asif and Rashmi head to her family’s house for her parents 25th wedding anniversary (*record scratch sound effect*) — hold on, Manu Rishi Chadha is supposed to be younger than 24 years old or younger?!? Rarely does a review warrant calling out the casting director, but what the heck is going on here, Parag Mehta?

Strange things start happening when Asif ignores advice and gets some kids to play cricket on a vacant lot that everyone insists is haunted — because it is. [Side note: one of those kids is Asif’s orphaned nephew Shaan, who disappears in the second half of the movie and is never mentioned again.] When Asif brings his cricket stumps into the house covered in blood and human tissue that no one acknowledges as such, he brings the spirit of the dead person with him. The ghost terrorizes Ratna and Ashwini, who do lots and lots and lots of screaming that is supposed to be funny but isn’t. They aren’t able to exorcise the spirit before it takes possession of Asif.

The spirit is that of a transgender woman named Laxmii (Sharad Kelkar), who loves fashion and beauty treatments. Watching Akshay Kumar sashay and wear bangles is not the height of comedy that director Lawrence thinks it is. Nor does the fact that Asif is supposed to be possessed by a woman at the time make the image of Akshay Kumar striking Ashwini Kalsekar any less troubling.

Flashbacks show how Laxmii met her untimely fate and explain why her spirit has been unable to move on. We also see her give a touching speech about how transgender people deserve the same love and opportunities as everyone else. That could have made the story feel progressive, had Lawrence not promptly followed it by reinforcing harmful superstitions about the supernatural abilities of transgender people.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect more from a movie that thought these cringeworthy lines from Asif were a fitting way to sum up its moral message: “Frankly there wasn’t much difference between Laxmii and me. I would eradicate the fear of ghosts in people. And Laxmii wanted to eradicate the ghost of inequality from society.” It’s so, so terrible.

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Movie Review: Khuda Haafiz (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Khuda Haafiz (“May God Be Your Protector“) is the next step in action star Vidyut Jammwal’s shift away from characters who are ready-made killing machines and toward roles that require him to give a more complicated emotional performance. Sure, he still breaks arms and lands plenty of punches, but carnage isn’t the main goal.

Instead of playing a commando, a cop, or a villain, this time Jammwal plays Sameer Chaudhary — the world’s buffest software engineer. The film opens in March, 2008, with a battered Sameer begging the Indian ambassador to the fictitious Middle Eastern country of Noman (which I constantly misread as “Boman,” as in “Boman Irani”) for help finding his missing wife. The ambassador says, “I need every detail. Start from the beginning.” Boy, does Sameer comply.

Flashback to the beginnings of Sameer’s romance with his wife Nargis (Shivaleeka Oberoi), which started a year earlier in India. The two were set up by their parents and fell deeply in love. After a few blissful months, the global recession hit, shuttering Sameer’s small business and putting Nargis out of a job at her call center.

With no work on the horizon, the two apply for jobs in Noman through a broker named Nadeem (Vipin Sharma). The film establishes the grim local economic situation and why moving to a foreign country for temporary employment seems worth the risk. Nargis’s work permit and travel documents arrive first. Nadeem assures Sameer that his documents will arrive in a few days and encourages Nargis to fly to Noman with a group of other women.

The following day, Sameer gets a panicked call from Nargis that she’s been kidnapped. The job she’d applied for had been a ruse, with Nadeem serving as the front for an international sex trafficking ring. Armed with only Nadeem’s dubious information, Sameer flies to Noman to rescue his wife.

It’s refreshing to see Jammwal mix things up and play a character who does not have a set of skills suited to this exact situation. His programming background gives him insight into how to get some information from a cell phone carrier, but that’s really the only advantage he has. He doesn’t even speak the local language — which winds up not being an issue because all the important people in Noman conveniently speak Hindi.

Most important of the people Sameer meets is a cab driver named Usman (Annu Kapoor). He sees Sameer’s distress and feels obligated to help as a matter of faith. Usman helps Sameer connect enough of the dots that the two actually find Nargis. A subsequent sequence in which Sameer has to let go of Nargis’ hand in order to save her is beautifully filmed to make it look as though she’s swallowed up by a sea of goons. Kudos to cinematographer Jitan Harmeet Singh for that wonderful shot.

During Sameer’s attempted rescue attempt, Jammwal does an excellent job performing Sameer as a guy who is not a professional stuntman. Sameer hesitates before jumping from dangerous heights, only doing so when he has no choice. He fights like it’s a matter of self-preservation, not like a guy who knows from the start that he’ll win. Nevertheless, the action scenes are entertaining as always.

Jammwal’s acting isn’t exactly subtle. Though, to be fair, Sameer is frequently panicked or angry. And when Khuda Haafiz is sad, it’s really sad. Jammwal’s performance is appropriately restrained in the film’s love song montages. Oberoi is competent in the few scenes she’s in. Kapoor is quite good, as are Shiv Panditt and Aahana Kumra, who play a pair of Nomani security agents who help Sameer find Nargis.

Overall, Khuda Haafiz is well-executed and accessible to a wide audience. It appeals to Jammwal’s core action fanbase while expanding its reach to include viewers who may want more plot than butt-kicking.

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