Tag Archives: Pooja Chopra

Movie Review: Aiyaary (2018)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: The World Before Her (2012)

TWBH3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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The documentary The World Before Her is a fascinating examination of India’s struggle to figure out what to do with its young women as the country forges greater economic ties with the outside world. Filmmaker Nisha Pahuja follows the lives of young women training for their futures through very different means: a beauty pageant and a militant religious training camp.

The beauty pageant in question is Femina Miss India 2011. Pahuja’s camera follows a pair of contestants: Ankita Shorey and Ruhi Singh, whose parents also feature prominently in the narrative. The filmmaker interviews Miss India World 2009, Pooja Chopra, and her mother, who tells a moving story of divorcing her husband when he suggested ending newborn Pooja’s life because of her gender.

The other half of the narrative takes place at a Hindu nationalist boot camp for girls ages 15-25. One of the drill sergeants is 24-year-old Prachi, who feels most at home while training other girls how to fight and die for their religion. She accepts the paradox that she’s working for a movement that believes — in her zealous father’s words — “a woman is only complete after she becomes a mother,” even though Prachi herself wants no children. A female speaker at the camp says that women should be married by age eighteen, before they become too “strong-willed.”

All three of the young women are thoughtful and articulate, though Ankita and Ruhi are more hopeful for their future prospects. As odd as some aspects of pageant life (e.g. Botox and bikini contests) seem, the women choose to participate because pageants are a proven route to careers in film or modeling. Within two years of winning Miss India World in 2009, Chopra landed a lead role in a Tamil film, and shortly thereafter starred in the excellent Hindi action flick Commando: A One Man Army.

One wonders what life for a spitfire like Prachi would’ve been like had she been raised in a different city or by different parents — how her drive and determination might have been put to better use than training bubbly teens to want to shoot Pakistanis.

What stands out most in the film is how much happier the parents of the pageant contestants are with their daughters than Prachi’s father is with her, and how much freer they are in expressing their love for their children.

Both Ruhi’s parents and Pooja’s mother beam with pride at their daughters’ achievements. Their pride doesn’t stem from the place the young women finish in the contest but from the fact that their daughters are living their dreams. Ruhi’s mom mentions that her daughter’s happiness is a sign of her own success as a parent.

Contrast those parent-child relationships with that of Prachi and her father, Hemantji. Prachi knows that her father wishes he’d had a son. She’s so grateful to him for not having murdered her as an infant that she forgives him when he punches her for disobedience or when he burns her with an iron rod for lying.

From the footage shown in the film, Hemantji appears to derive no joy from his only child. The best Prachi can do is not screw up. That includes obeying her father’s orders to get married and have children, even though Prachi herself would rather teach at the camp full-time. Hemantji says that the only thing Prachi could do to make him happy is to die a martyr.

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Movie Review: Commando — A One Man Army (2013)

Commando_(2013_film)3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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With Commando — A One Man Army, Producer Vipul Shah and director Dilip Ghosh set out to make a realistic action film in the vein of Jackie Chan films, heavily reliant on martial arts and without lots of special effects, cable harnesses, or technological assistance. They achieved their goal in spades. Commando is an exciting action film with a strong Indian identity.

Commando‘s lead character, Karan (Vidyut Jamwal), is an elite Indian soldier captured when his helicopter crashes in China. Federal politicians force Karan’s superior officer, Colonel Sinha (Darshan Jariwala), to disavow all knowledge of Karan to avoid a war with the Chinese, who assume Karan is a spy. Karan escapes after a year of torture.

Following this introduction, the action shifts abruptly to a small north Indian town not far from the Chinese border. The town is besieged by a drug lord named AK (Jaideep Ahlawat) whose scariness is enhanced by eyeballs that appear to be entirely white, devoid of irises or pupils. AK wants to marry Simrit (Pooja Chopra) — the daughter of a local leader — to ease his foray into politics, but Simrit runs away, rather than marry such a monster.

Her escape attempt is nearly foiled, until she literally runs into Karan at the bus station. Karan beats up a dozen bad guys in spectacular fashion, and the two flee AK together.

Despite the sudden shift from a Chinese torture chamber to an Indian small town, the narrative is really straightforward: two young, good-looking people fall in love while running for their lives. The action is the main attraction, but in the “Making of” extra on the DVD, Shah and Ghosh specify that this is first and foremost a love story.

That’s part of the reason why Commando is so successful: it’s very, very Indian. This is not The Raid: Redemption, another realistic action movie (which I loved) whose main character is a somber, seemingly invincible he-man. Commando is a fairly traditional, Bollywood-style romance, complete with an item number and a love song set on a beach. Only this romance results in lots and lots of dead people.

Commando is brutal but not overly gory, involving lots of blood but no guts. The South African action team that choreographed the fight sequences did a wonderful job showcasing Jamwal’s athleticism, honed from years of training in the south Indian martial art kalaripayattu.

Jamwal is spectacular in Commando. He plays his character as gruff, but not humorless. His grace and ferocity in fight sequences is thrilling to watch. I’m hopeful that Jamwal’s brand of full-throttle fighting will shift the standards for future Bollywood action fare away from the ubiquitous slap-fests reliant upon heroes in harnesses dodging bullets in Matrix-style slow motion.

Chopra does a nice job making Simrit more than just a damsel in distress. Simrit is brave and ready to fight, even if she does scream when she sees a snake, early on. She’s able to keep up with Karan as they run through the forest, having wisely packed a pair of sensible shoes in her getaway bag.

Ahlawat’s AK is one of my favorite Hindi-film villains in a long time. AK is truly scary, and not just because of his eyes. Not content to play the aloof don and let his underlings do his dirty work for him, he directly kills a lot of people himself, even those who’ve helped in his pursuit of Karan and Simrit. The fact that he follows up a bunch of murders with a dance number featuring Natalia Kaur just makes AK all the more sinister.

In addition to the great stunts and performances, Commando is a beautiful movie to look at. Sejal Shah’s cinematography captures the wonder of the forests around Manali, where the bulk of the chase footage was shot. The film’s score is varied, with everything from surf rock to metal to mariachi music.

I hope Commando inspires Indian filmmakers to take more risks with the type of action films they make. Jamwal’s impressive performance should make him a hot commodity in Bollywood. This is one of my favorite Hindi films of the year.

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