Raees (“Wealthy“) stars one of Bollywood’s most charismatic actors, a fact that the screenplay takes for granted. The story of a gangster’s rise to power lacks emotional depth, relying on the audience’s familiarity with Shah Rukh Khan’s dashing heroes of the past to fill in the blanks.
Raees (Khan) spent his childhood running liquor for Jairaj (Atul Kulkarni), a dangerous job given that Gujarat is officially an alcohol-free state. As a young man, Raees wants to branch out into his own boozy enterprise with his best friend, Sadiq (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), much to Jairaj’s resentment. A Mumbai don named Musa (Narendra Jha) helps Raees start his business after witnessing the Gujarati beat up a warehouse full of men while using a severed goat’s head as a weapon, all because someone dared to call the bespectacled Raees “four-eyes.”
As Raees’s illegal empire expands, he draws the attention of a straitlaced cop, Inspector Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who makes it his mission to put Raees out of business. This sets up a cat-and-mouse game that is never quite as clever as one hopes.
The nature of the criminal operations in Gujarat and Mumbai makes it difficult for Raees to keep his promise to his mother that no one should ever be harmed for the sake of business. Granted, most of the people Raees kills tried to kill him first, but he willingly puts his employees in danger during one fiery political protest. There’s some retroactive rephrasing to imply that what Mom really meant was that no innocents should be harmed, but that’s not what she said (at least according to the English subtitles).
This distinction is important, because Raees goes from emphatically rejecting violence to shooting up a room full of crooks without batting an eye. Raees himself doesn’t seem bothered by the morality of his actions, and no one holds him to task. It’s as though writer-director Rahul Dholakia expects Khan’s ardent fans to see him in the role of Raees and thus assume that his character’s actions are justified, no matter what they are.
In many gangster dramas, the role of the protagonist’s conscience often goes to his love interest, but Raees’s wife Aasiya (Mahira Khan) is a willing bootlegger. Mahira Khan is something special, teasing Raees with an irresistible smirk. She’s one of the film’s highlights, and she does a fine job in her musical numbers.
The movie’s showpiece song sequence to the tune of “Laila Main Laila” is eye-catching, juxtaposing Raees’s brutality against Sunny Leone’s shimmying. The best dancing in Raees, however, is Siddiqui’s Michael Jackson impersonation, a scene that is far, far too brief.
Khan, Siddiqui, and Ayyub are all good in Raees, but they could have been even better with a script that did more to develop their characters.
Even without context, Mohenjo Daro isn’t a very good movie, but it’s especially disappointing when considered within the landscape of recent Indian films and with regard to director Ashutosh Gowariker’s past achievements.
Gowariker’s story takes place in the ancient Indus Valley city of Mohenjo Daro, around 2,000 years B.C. Hrithik Roshan plays Sarman, a nearby farmer with a mysterious connection to the city that he doesn’t understand.
Sarman’s uncle Durjan (Nitish Bharadwaj) caves to Sarman’s relentless begging and allows his nephew to go to the Mohenjo Daro, albeit with warnings about the city’s many dangers. At forty-two, Roshan is too old play a character so immature that he opens the “only in case of life or death” package that his uncle gives him as soon as Durjan is out of sight.
When Sarman arrives at the metropolis he finds a place governed by greedy politicians fearful of the merciless senate leader Maham (Kabir Bedi) and his bully of a son, Moonja (Arunoday Singh). Maham orders a tax increase, even as farmers struggle with diminishing yields due to Maham’s damming of the river.
Sarman is fed up and ready to head home when, wouldn’t you know it, he spots a beautiful woman who makes him change his mind. (Conveniently, everything of import in Mohenjo Daro happens at exactly the right moment.) The woman is Chaani (Pooja Hegde), daughter of the head priest (Manish Chaudhary) and The Chosen One of Mohenjo Daro.
Chaani presents all kinds of problems in the story (none of which are Hegde’s fault). Right after Sarman admonishes his buddy and traveling companion Hojo to stop ogling women, Chaani shows up in an outfit that demands ogling. Her backless, floor-length dress has slits all the way up both thighs, a cutout to expose her navel, and a pushup bra. So, it’s bad when other men leer at women, but not when Sarman does it?
Then there’s the part about Chaani being The Chosen One. A prophesy at the time of her birth decreed that she would make a decision that would usher in a new era for Mohenjo Daro, but she never makes such a decision. She’s just a bystander as the people forget about her divine destiny and declare Sarman the savior of Mohenjo Daro.
With very little written or archeological evidence to go by, Gowariker was free to style his version of Mohenjo Daro as he wished. The results are bizarre, not in a fanciful way but in an impractical one. In addition to feathers and several kilos of metal beads, Chaani’s elaborate headdress has slices of geodes that hang next to her face. One can only imagine how annoying it must have been for Hegde to have slabs of rock clanking against her cheek in nearly every scene. And don’t get me started on helpful city guard Lothar’s (Diganta Hizarika) 1980s side-ponytail.
There are weird visual nods to classic Christian stories from Hollywood, too. In flashbacks, Maham is styled like an evil Jesus. Narendra Jha as the crazy prophet Jakhiro looks like Charlton Heston’s Moses from The Ten Commandments.
The lack of historical data was an opportunity to create something visually stunning, but Mohenjo Daro just isn’t. Worse, it looks really bad when compared to last year’s historical epic, Baahubali: The Beginning. In every respect — costuming, CGI, fight scenes, musical numbers — Mohenjo Daro looks like a lackluster version of Baahubali, with a less compelling story.
The bland, obvious plot is perhaps the most shocking element of Mohenjo Daro. Gowariker has a great track record for writing and directing engrossing stories that subtly convey his political ideals. Lagaan had poor, rural Indians literally beating the British at their own game. Swades showed how innovation and dedication to community can circumvent the slow movement of government. Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey saw young Indians pushed to violence by oppressive British rule. In Jodhaa Akbar, Roshan played a progressive emperor who embraced multiculturalism.
Gowariker ditches the nuance and character motivations of his previous films for cliched populism. Sarman declares that The People are fed up paying the senate’s taxes, and The People cheer in unison, somehow instinctively knowing that this outsider is the savior who can lead them out of poverty, and causing them to forget about the crew of murderous hill goons Maham employs as bodyguards, a la Tyrion Lannister.
It’s too easy. The idea that all of India’s (or anywhere’s) problems could be solved if the masses would rise up as one behind a charismatic leader is lazy and unsatisfying, whether the action takes place in the modern day or thousands of years ago. It absolves the masses of having to do the hard work that was such an important part of Lagaan, Swades, and Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey. Just wait around for a messiah — but not the woman we thought was The Chosen One. This other guy instead.
Even the manner in which the story is presented is ham-handed. A. R. Rahman provides a score full of uncharacteristically garish musical cues. The single corniest moment sees one character tell another, “something something something YOUR FATHER,” followed by a noisy instrumental blast and a zoom to closeup on the listener’s face.
There are also none of the culture-clash elements from Gowariker’s previous films present in Mohenjo Daro. Sarman is an outsider, but it’s not really a problem. He adapts to life in the city almost immediately, making friends and falling in love without a hitch. Then again, there’s not enough to Chaani’s character to make her a complicating factor. She’s there to look pretty, which Hegde does exceedingly well.
The actors aren’t to blame for Mohenjo Daro‘s shortcomings. No one is particularly good or bad, although I did enjoy Singh’s performance as the thwarted heir apparent more than I have some of his past work. This will be one of Roshan’s most forgettable roles.
There’s not enough substance here to tell if Mohenjo Daro could have been more than it is. It’s just the unfortunate product of a talented filmmaker who appears to have lost his way, sublimating his ideals for pandering that pleases no one.
I watched Ghayal Once Again, and I have no idea who anyone was or why anything happened. Though I didn’t watch the original Ghayal when it came out twenty-six years ago, I don’t think that’s the problem. The problem is that director Sunny Deol and his writers focused all their attention on lengthy action sequences and ignored the plot.
Here’s my best guess as to what the hell Ghayal Once Again is about (with spoilers, I guess, though I’m not spoiling anything by helping you avoid this movie):
Ajay (Sunny Deol) runs a high-tech vigilante firm in Mumbai. He kidnaps and tortures people, and is famous for doing so. The police don’t seem to care.
But Ajay harbors demons, presumably from stuff that happened in Ghayal. He has PTSD after being framed for murdering his wife and child. He’s functional, but by no means cured, although his neurologist, Riya (Soha Ali Khan) — who may also be his new wife — thinks he’s fine.
Ajay gives an award to four college kids for something, and then the kids sing and go on a camping trip. When they get home, they realize that they accidentally captured video footage of rich brat Kabir Bhansal (Abhilash Kumar) murdering Ajay’s friend Joe (Om Puri). Except, at that exact moment, the news reports that Joe died when he crashed into an oil tanker while driving his van with its distinctive “I Heart Butter Chicken” (or something) bumper sticker.
See, Joe met with Kabir, Mr. Bhansal (Narendra Jha), and some cringing government guy (Manoj Joshi) to complain to one of them about the other one. Mr. Bhansal is super rich, though no one knows why. Kabir calls Joe a slave, Joe gets mad, and Kabir shoots him. Then Bhansal has Troy — head of his security force of “highly trained foreigners” — put Joe in the Butter Chicken Mobile and drive it into the tanker.
The kids’ first instinct is to call Ajay, but they call one of their dads instead. Dad does the dumbest thing possible and goes to Bhansal with the evidence, rather than just destroying it. Dad is surprised when Bhansal threatens the kids and insists on bugging their phones.
It’s worth noting that Bhansal has access to such advanced surveillance equipment that it makes Mission: Impossible look like they’re using Apple ][s. He also lives in a twenty story house with a practice tee on the roof, and he regularly golfs balls onto the street below AND NO ONE GIVES A SHIT.
One of the kids was smart enough to make a copy of the video, so Troy and his goons chase the kids in a cool sequence most notable for Sunny Deol’s absence from it. Bhansal watches the action from afar, yelling at his army of code monkeys, “Why is it taking you so long to hack into his server? It’s been more than half an hour!”
When Ajay finally joins the chase, it goes on for-freaking-ever because he refuses to put the hard drive with the duplicate video in his pocket and keeps dropping it. Then he steals a helicopter and flies it into Bhansal’s house. Justice is served, though we don’t know how, why, or on whose behalf.
Classic works of art earn the designation because of their ability to connect with audiences long after their creators are dead. Filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj demonstrates why William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a classic by updating the play as Haider, a film that presents Hamlet‘s essential truths in a way that is fresh and compelling.
Bhardwaj changes the story’s setting from the royal court of Denmark to Kashmir in 1995. The film supplies more than enough information for international audiences to understand the social and political conflict present in the region at the time.
The city of Srinagar is officially under Indian control, though militants wishing for the region to unite with Pakistan offer armed resistance. Hilal (Narendra Jha), a doctor, secretly performs surgery on a militant leader, citing his oath to preserve all life. His wife, Ghazala (Tabu), is afraid. As the army officer Pervez (Lalit Parimoo) puts it, “When the elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.” Ghazala knows she and Hilal are the grass, not the elephants.
A masked informer tells the army that Hilal is harboring a terrorist. The doctor is carted off and his house destroyed.
The doctor’s son, Haider (Shahid Kapoor), returns to Srinagar to find his house a smouldering ruin and his mother giggling in the company of his fraternal uncle, Khurram (Kay Kay Menon). Ghazala and Khurram protest that the situation is not what it looks like, but Haider isn’t buying it.
Haider’s personal quest to discover what happened to his father takes place within an environment of increasing turmoil. There’s a lot of money and power to be had, thanks to Indian government initiatives to track down militants. Pervez, Khurram, and even the two guys named Salman who own the local video store are eager to cash in. Information is the most valuable currency, so no one can be trusted.
A lack of trust also lies at the heart of Haider’s troubled relationship with Ghazala. Flashbacks showing a happy household give way to memories of emotional manipulation and simmering resentment.
Kapoor and Tabu are brilliant together. That mistrust bubbles under the surface of every conversation, breaking through just when they seem on the verge of sharing a tender moment. Yet their bond is overpowering. He is her only son, she his only remaining parent.
Each of the principal characters is driven by complicated motives. Menon is duplicitous and opportunistic, but he genuinely loves Ghazala. Ghazala — though she doesn’t wish for her husband’s death — enjoys being doted on by Khurram. She fruitlessly tries to explain to Haider that parents are adults with their own needs and feelings that have nothing to do with their children.
Caught in the middle is Arshee (Shraddha Kapoor), Haider’s childhood sweetheart. With Haider back in town, she’s ready to get married. She doesn’t realize that Haider’s path of vengeance likely precludes a wedding.
What’s interesting about the female characters in Haider is the way they have both more and less autonomy than the male characters. The women can move freely about town, without the ID checks and pat downs the men endure at every turn. Arshee publishes articles critical of the Indian government in the local paper.
Yet their futures are still governed by men. Arshee’s brother, Lucky (Aamir Bashir), and her father, Officer Pervez, have the power to cancel her engagement to Haider. While Hilal is considered officially missing but not deceased, Ghazala is designated a “half-widow,” unable to mourn and remarry, forced to wait.
The genius of Bhardwaj’s creation is the way it so successfully tells both the story of Hamlet and the story of Kashmir. Bhardwaj turns Shakespeare’s story into the ideal tool to illuminate a complicated, controversial part of India’s past and present, all while maintaining the tone and spirit of the original.
Bhardwaj is also responsible for the film’s masterful background score and soundtrack. The sound design in the movie is spot on, with frequent quiet periods to enhance the effectiveness of the music.
There’s one dance number in the movie, and it seems designed to make all future Bollywood dance numbers look superfluous and bland by comparison. Haider stages a musical performance to try to intimidate his uncle, and it’s spectacular. Kapoor is a skilled individual dancer, but here his talents are used as an integral part of the story.
Every performance is tremendous. The cinematography uses Srinagar’s abundant snow as a backdrop for breathtaking shots. The music is spectacular. Haider is a movie that begs to be seen.