Padmaavat can’t be stopped. Even in its fourth weekend of release, up against two newer Hindi films, Padmaavat remained the top-earning Bollywood movie in North America. During the weekend of February 16-18, 2018, the period drama earned $412,633 from 135 theaters ($3,057 average). Its $11,365,693 total is less than $1 million behind the current all-time highest-earning Bollywood movie in North America: Dangal, which earned $12,357,576 in 2016.
The weekend’s new release, Aiyaary, finished in second place, with earnings of $350,425 from 118 theaters ($2,970 average). It marks the lowest opening weekend for a film by director Neeraj Pandey, whose debut A Wednesday didn’t release in North America.
Pad Man closed out its second weekend with $318,001 from 131 theaters ($2,427 average), a 46% holdover from its opening weekend. It’s earned $1,313,120 so far.
*Bollywood Hungama routinely counts Canadian theaters twice in its weekly reporting, at least for a movie’s first two weekends of release. When possible, I try to verify the correct theater count with other sources, like Box Office Mojo. The above figures represent what I believe to be the actual theater counts. Bollywood Hungama’s reporting puts Aiyaary in 152 theaters (making for a $2,305 per-theater average) and Pad Man in 173 theaters (for a $1,838 per-theater average).
In Aiyaary (“Shapeshifting“), things that require little explanation are belabored, while things that would benefit from being shown onscreen aren’t. The resulting movie is a boring spy thriller sans thrills.
Manoj Bajpayee plays Colonel Abhay Singh, leader of a secret group of Indian military intelligence officers — the kind of covert unit the Indian Army top brass promises to disavow should its existence ever be made public. Abhay’s superior officer even says, “No one will ever know what you did for this country.”
Neither will the audience, because writer-director Neeraj Pandey doesn’t show us what they do, apart from one scene of an unspecified assassination that serves two purposes: to establish Abhay’s remorselessness and to beat to death an unfunny joke about a subordinate packing vitamins instead of ammo.
The team consists of seven other officers, only two of whom have specific identities. Maya is the token girl, played by Commando‘s Pooja Chopra, who deserves a role far more substantive than this one. Jai (Sidharth Malhotra) is Abhay’s protegé gone rogue. Abhay intends to find Jai and terminate him if necessary.
Jai uncovers a bribery plot within the Indian Army, facilitated by retired Lt. General Gurinder Singh (Kumud Mishra) on behalf of London-based arms dealer Mukesh Kapoor (Adil Hussain). While Abhay tracks Jai, the protegé gathers evidence with the help of his internet security expert girlfriend, Sonia (Rakul Preet Singh, who also deserves a meatier part).
The details of the uncomplicated bribery scheme are spelled out in scenes bloated with dialogue. Pandey’s fondness for slow-motion shots underscores the film’s snail-like pace.
Of course the bribery scheme is just the tip of the iceberg, but there’s a naiveté to what Pandey considers a scandal big enough to topple the government. Maybe it’s just my American cynicism, but there’s nothing in Aiyaary egregious enough to inspire more than a “they’re all crooks” shrug.
Then again, the problem may be a matter of narrative focus. Pandey spends too much time on crimes that are obvious and easy to understand, before rushing through more complicated schemes that require evidence he neglects to present. Aiyaary‘s biggest scandals are based on hearsay — which wouldn’t stand up to public scrutiny and doesn’t make for good visual storytelling.
Manoj Bajpayee is often the best part of the movies he stars in, and Aiyaary is no exception. The film’s most enjoyable scenes are playful exchanges between Bajpayee and Juhi Babbar, who plays Abhay’s wife. Malhotra is solid, but his character feels flat, as is the case for many of the supporting characters, who only exist to move the story from Point A to Point B. A lot of talent goes to waste in Aiyaary.
Taapsee Pannu’s supporting character Shabana was the best part of the 2015 spy thriller Baby, so spinning off an origin story for her made perfect sense. However, Naam Shabana is dull, doing neither the character nor the actress who plays her justice.
Too much time is spent on the “origin” part of Shabana’s story. We know that she is being recruited by a spy agency thanks to a number of long-distance shots of her overlaid with the markings of a camera’s viewfinder. It’s the same view through which two Indian spies scope out notorious gangster Mikhail in Vienna, right before Mikhail kills both of them.
The long-shots of Shabana are interspersed with the events of her ordinary college life. She’s on the university judo team, she hangs out with her pals, and she takes an economics class with Jai (Taher Shabbir Mithaiwala), a hunk with a crush on Shabana. She shares the details of her tragic childhood with Jai, adding backstory on top of backstory.
By the time the inciting incident triggers Shabana’s first contact with the head of the spy agency, Ranvir (Manoj Bajpayee), the movie is a quarter of the way over. There’s so much build up just get the ball rolling. Even then, the ball rolls very slowly.
Shabana first has to prove herself to the agency, even though they’ve been following her for years. There’s the obligatory training montage. Right when we’re ready for her to take the field and kick butt, Shabana disappears from the narrative for a full twenty minutes while other agents track down a crook named Tony (Prithviraj Sukumaran), whom they hope can lead them to Mikhail. When Shabana finally rejoins the fray, the action is interrupted by a ridiculous item number featuring Elli Avram.
Naam Shabana has about ninety minutes of material stretched to fill two-and-a-half hours. When one example of something would suffice, we’re shown two, just to pad things out. Although Baby creator Neeraj Pandey didn’t direct Naam Shabana — that credit belongs to Shivam Nair — Pandey did write the screenplay, complete with his tendency toward overly long runtimes.
A further disappointment is the way Shabana’s character is fleshed out from her small role in Baby. She’s mostly robotic, with a brief moment of hysteria that is drowned out by composer Sanjoy Chowdhury’s over-the-top score. (Did anyone else find the film’s closing theme awfully similar to the opening of “Day Tripper” by The Beatles?)
Shabana’s primary relationship is with her supportive but concerned mother (played by Natasha Rastogi). Their relationship provides the perfect opportunity to explore the natural pulling away from parents by young adults as they leave school and start their own lives–only taken to the extreme when the young adult becomes a spy. Instead, Mom simply vanishes from the story once Shabana joins the agency. It’s a huge miss in that it would’ve given a talented actress like Pannu more to do than just look cool in fight scenes (which she definitely does).
Cameos by key Baby cast members like Akshay Kumar, Anupam Kher, and Danny Denzongpa are well-integrated, but they come too late to rescue Naam Shabana from its plodding pace.
Watching M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story leaves one encumbered with questions. Chiefly: “Why does this movie exist, other than to cash in on a nation’s love for its cricket captain?” The choice to make a fictionalized biopic about Dhoni’s life is bizarre.
The choice is especially weird because Mahendra Singh Dhoni has an unremarkable origin story. A gifted natural athlete, he chooses cricket over his first love, soccer, simply because his middle school team needs defenders. He excels quickly, gaining renown throughout the region. The community enthusiastically supports the lad, although his dad (Anupam Kher) also wants young Dhoni to study, just in case his sporting career doesn’t pan out.
Dhoni’s mundane childhood eats up the first hour of a three-hour-long movie. Yet writer-director Neeraj Pandey doesn’t allow enough time to explain the more complicated aspects of Dhoni’s career as he grows into a young man, played by Sushant Singh Rajput.
Audience members who don’t already understand the interconnections between India’s various cricket leagues — youth, national, semi-pro, etc. — are at a loss. Without such understanding, there are no meaningful stakes. When Dhoni misses out on a chance to play for the national under-19 team but gets called to play for another trophy instead, the significance and impact on his career trajectory aren’t explained.
The most compelling part of Dhoni’s journey comes during a multiple-year stint playing cricket for a team owned by a railroad that also requires its players to work for the railroad during the day. The company-provided accommodations sleep four people in a one-bedroom apartment. Is this how professional cricket in India works? Couldn’t he find better working conditions elsewhere? Why does a railroad even own a cricket team?
Pandey’s story doesn’t answer those questions, nor does it delve into Dhoni’s feelings during this lull. The closest we get to introspection is Dhoni telling his boss that he’s depressed, and the boss responding with a “life is like cricket” speech.
The real Dhoni is a charismatic guy, yet we see none of that spark in the fictional version. Rajput’s delivery is flat, his demeanor serious. Pandey’s Dhoni is sanitized to avoid any chance of offending the man himself (or his rabid fans).
Instead of casting a third actor to play Dhoni as a teenager, Pandey uses computer effects to shrink Rajput, similar to the technique used on Chris Evans in the first Captain America movie before scrawny Steve Rogers mutates into a superhero. The effects in M.S. Dhoni are not up to the same standard as those used in the Marvel movie, so Rajput just looks like a creepy, miniature version of his 30-year-old self. The brief sequence isn’t essential to the narrative, so it should’ve been left out.
M.S. Dhoni is a sports movie devoid of inspiration. A documentary would’ve been more compelling since it would’ve allowed us to hear from Dhoni in his own words, offering insight into the athlete’s persona that Pandey refuses to examine. There is no “untold story,” as promised by the subtitle.
A lot happens in Baby, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. A choppy story structure and underdeveloped characters make Baby feel like a TV mini-series shoehorned into movie format.
Writer-director Neeraj Pandey’s broad vision pays dividends in certain ways. Globetrotting Indian counter-terrorist operative Ajay (Akshay Kumar) follows his targets to visually interesting places like Turkey, Nepal, and Saudi Arabia. Ajay’s luckier than his poor boss, Feroz (Danny Denzongpa), who only appears in scenes set in office buildings.
Ajay’s first mission — in which he tracks a rogue special agent to Istanbul — starts the movie on a promising note. Ajay extracts enough information to thwart a bomb blast, and the rogue operative foreshadows future attacks before killing himself.
The attacks are the work of a radical Muslim cleric in Pakistan, Maulana Mohammed Rahman (Rasheed Naz). Ajay must disrupt Maulana’s network — which includes a local recruiter, a jailed militant (Kay Kay Menon), and a corrupt businessman (Sushant Singh) — to get to Maulana.
What makes the plot so jarring is that Ajay’s participation is the only connecting thread between operations. (Feroz coordinates the missions, but he never gets to leave his office.) Ajay is alone on his first mission in Turkey, while his subordinate, Jai (Rana Daggubati), foils the bomb plot in India. New flunkies join Ajay for his next mission, and he gets a female sidekick, Shabana (Taapsee Pannu), for the mission after that. It’s only after the militant escapes from jail that Jai reenters the story, after an absence in real-time of over an hour.
Segmenting the story this way keeps Ajay from forging strong connections with his people, thereby lowering the stakes. Would Ajay care if Jai died? It’s not like Jai is his partner or a trusted friend. He’s just a guy who shows up when called on and disappears when he’s not needed.
Worse still is Ajay’s forced family narrative. He shares two scenes early on with his wife (Madhurima Tuli) and two kids, but the kids are never seen again after that. The wife — whatever her name is — reappears for a spy-movie cliché scene, in which she calls to reminds him about their daughter’s birthday while he’s in the middle of frisking a suspect.
It’s another example of the low stakes for Ajay. His family is never endangered by his job, and he hardly thinks about them. In fact, he’s rarely in any real danger at all. The terrorists don’t realize he’s onto them, so they go about their business until he shows up. If they were tracking him in return, it would’ve raised the tension.
The movie’s lengthy 150-minute runtime also keeps Baby from being a truly thrilling thriller. Though effective early on, Pandey employees the same tension-building camerawork patterns repeatedly, making scenes that should be intense predictable.
Kumar is well-suited to anchor this kind of film. He plays the role straight, allowing Anupam Kher to lighten the mood as a reluctant hacker. Kumar also cedes the movie’s most exciting fight scene to Pannu, who is terrific in her minor role.
Despite the film’s bloated runtime, its villains are woefully underdeveloped. Menon’s character doesn’t have any dialogue after his opening scene, which is a shame given some great non-verbal acting he does during his character’s escape from prison. The cleric Maulana spouts some ideology early on but is likewise mute for most of the rest of the movie.
The silent villains may be a deliberate choice on Pandey’s part. De-emphasizing the terrorist’s ideology brings to the forefront a political opinion expressed by both Feroz and Ajay. Feroz explains to the Prime Minister that, when young Indian Muslims choose to fight for Pakistan, it’s India’s fault for making them feel unwelcome in their own country. That inclusive sentiment is one that any government that values diversity should take to heart.
Total Siyapaa (“Total Chaos“) could’ve been a cute romantic comedy about the power of love to overcome cultural differences. Instead, the level of humor never rises above ethnocentric cheap shots. It’s a missed opportunity.
Ali Zafar plays Aman, a Pakistani musician who’s on the receiving end of nearly every abuse one could throw at his country. He arrives in London to meet his girlfriend, Asha (Yami Gautam), only to be arrested by a white police officer who suspects Aman of being a terrorist.
Things get worse when Aman meets Asha’s family. They really, really, really hate Pakistanis. In fact, the only defining characteristic of Asha’s younger brother, Manav (Anuj Pandit), is his hatred for and desire to kill Pakistanis. Naturally, Asha failed to tell anyone in her family whence Aman hails.
Once Aman meets the family — headed by a matriarch played by Kiron Kher — there are plenty of opportunities for situational comedy. Aman’s behavior grows more erratic due to his social discomfort and his realization that he may have accidentally killed Asha’s father, who was hit in the head by a container of frozen soup Aman dropped out the window.
Asha’s mom gamely tries to overcome her prejudices and accept Aman for her daughter’s sake, even as Aman’s goofy antics make it hard to understand what Asha sees in him. The film’s most successful scenes feature Kher and Zafar, who share a nice comic chemistry.
Over and over the jokes in Total Siyapaa return to slams against Pakistanis, well after the film has exhausted that humorous vein. The climactic argument that nearly drives Aman and Asha apart involves them shouting nationalist insults at one another.
For good measure, the white cop from the beginning of the film returns near the end to refer to a mixed group of Indian and Pakistani young men as “stinky terrorists.”
The whole experience feels like being stuck at a family gathering while an elderly relative tells a series of vaguely racist jokes, heedless of the uncomfortable expressions on the faces of his audience. There’s not much point in speaking out, since it’s not like you can change his mind, so you just sit there and wait for the joke teller to either run out of material or get up to refill his beverage.
As Total Siyapaa plods along, it’s easy to see how the movie could’ve been better. It has a solid fish-out-of-water premise; it has some decent visual gags; and it has tried-and-true comic actors in Kiron Kher and Anupam Kher, who plays Asha’s father.
If only director Eeshwar Nivas and writer Neeraj Pandey had dialed the Pakistani jokes way back after the first half hour, Total Siyapaa could’ve been pretty good.
A Wednesday has been recommended to me many times since its release in 2008. After enjoying writer-director Neeraj Pandey’s sophomore effort, Special 26, this seemed like the right time to finally check out his debut film.
I can see why A Wednesday — a story about a common man trying to correct the inadequacies of India’s sprawling bureaucracy — still resonates with people. It has great populist appeal. I think I would’ve enjoyed it more had I seen it before Special 26, which is more polished than A Wednesday. Nevertheless, A Wednesday is enjoyable and full of the dramatic tension that Pandey is so good at creating.
The film begins with Police Commissioner Prakash Rathod (Anupam Kher) reflecting on the most challenging case of his career, on the day before his retirement. I’m not sure why Pandey has Rathod specify that this is his last day on the job. It’s not important to the plot, and it draws an unwelcome parallel to Robert Duvall’s character in the 1993 common-man’s-revenge film Falling Down.
The case Rathod is referring to involves the harrowing events of a Wednesday afternoon at some point in the not-to-distant past. An anonymous caller claims to have placed bombs throughout Mumbai that will explode in about four hours unless Rathod releases four terrorists from prison. Rathod assumes that the caller — an unnamed man played brilliantly by Naseeruddin Shah — is another terrorist, but the truth is more complicated than that.
While trying to find the man behind the calls, Rathod dispatches two officers to carry out the bomber’s orders: straight-laced Jai (Aamir Bashir) and loose cannon Arif (Jimmy Shergill). Shah’s character enlists an ambitious news reporter, Naina (Deepal Shaw), to serve as his eyes on the ground. Naina feels conflicted about aiding a possible terrorist, but breaking this story will get her off the dreary local news beat.
The story is tense, as Rathod tries to connect the dots while helplessly giving in to the caller’s demands. There’s great dynamism in Pandey’s shots. Though many of the scenes take place inside the police control room, there’s a lot of movement. Rathod stalks the hallways; officers spring to life when the latest call comes in; Arif chases down a suspect who might have the final clue to the caller’s identity.
As well-paced as the story is, there are a lot of rookie directorial mistakes that detract from the film’s overall effectiveness. Fight scenes seem shoehorned into the script, and the sound effects that accompany them are cheesy. Unable to trace the phone calls, one of the police officers makes the corny declaration: “We need a hacker!” When Shah’s character finally reveals his motives, he does so in a well-delivered but long speech that stops the film’s momentum. The ending was a bit of a cop-out.
Perhaps the most distracting mistakes Pandey makes are in the inclusion of a number of ineffective red herrings that remain loose threads at the end of the film. It’s implied that Jai and Arif have a preexisting beef, but this is never explored. Jai gets several phone calls from his wife, who’s traveling with their son on a train. Though she could be in danger, Jai never warns her to stay off the train, though he does worry that she’ll be concerned for his own safety if she sees him on the news coverage of the crisis.
During his confessional speech, Shah’s character reveals a personal motivation for his actions. It seemed as though this disclosure would explain why he chose Naina to cover the story, but there’s ultimately no connection. Her selection is completely arbitrary.
While I enjoyed A Wednesday overall, these mistakes stood out because of their absence in Special 26. That’s actually a compliment, as it means that Pandey has honed his storytelling to augment his flair for narrative tension. Seeing Pandey’s professional growth between his first and second films leaves me very excited to see his third film, whenever that day comes.