Tag Archives: Prakash Jha

Movie Review: Jai Gangaajal (2016)

JaiGangaajal2 Stars (out of 4)

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Who exactly is the protagonist in Jai Gangaajal (“Hail Holy Waters“)? International superstar Priyanka Chopra features on the poster, but her position as the clear hero is usurped by Prakash Jha, the film’s writer and director.

Jha himself plays Deputy BN Singh, a crooked cop in the crime-ridden hamlet of Bankipur. The town’s corruption is laid out in the movie’s protracted opening sequence. Power-mad politician Babloo Pandey (Manav Kaul) and his cartoonishly villainous brother, Dabloo (Ninad Kamat), operate with impunity under the protection of cops like Singh, who lives in a mansion more lavish than any public servant could afford on his salary alone.

When the police chief tries to clean up the force, Singh arranges his superior’s transfer. Little does Singh know that the new sheriff is no one to trifle with. Enter Police Chief Abha Mathur (Chopra), more than twenty minutes into the story, long after we’ve been bored by the usual scenes of goons strong-arming poor villagers into giving up their land to make way for some corporate building project.

Mathur’s devotion to law and order inspires a magical transformation within the police force. After watching Mathur — a woman! — beat the hell out of the Pandeys’ thugs with a stick, one awed officer tells her in all seriousness, “Sir, today I’ve found my self-respect.” Even Singh chaffs at Dabloo’s threat to damage his police uniform.

Yet there’s little else to Mathur’s character besides her belief in the rule of law, which never wavers no matter the circumstances. Her backstory is boiled down to a couple of lines of dialogue. We only see her out of her police uniform three times, and twice in the same all-black outfit. She’s like a justice robot who switches off when not on duty.

Singh, on the other hand, is a well-developed character who grows morally and emotionally throughout the film. Singh gets the better story arc and about the same amount of screentime as Mathur, so why isn’t Jha on the poster with — or instead of — Chopra?

The bait-and-switch of selling Jai Gangaajal as a Priyanka Chopra picture isn’t as bothersome as the fact that Jha the filmmaker had a chance to make a more interesting movie than the one he did. Imagine Chopra as the female version of the Bollywood supercop regularly played by men like Salman Khan, Ajay Devgn, and Akshay Kumar. Not a gritty, realistic cop like Rani Mukerji in Mardaani, but a full-on desi action hero divinely imbued with superhuman strength.

Chopra is tremendous in the action scenes in Jai Gangaajal, and she looks badass in her police uniform. She has a broad enough acting range to pull off bombastic dialogue without sounding silly. A female twist on the supercop would allow for exploration of the relationship between women and the justice system. One brief shot in Jai Gangaajal of Mathur hugging a girl she’s saved from kidnappers seemed positioned to lead the story in that direction, but Jha’s movie doesn’t follow that path.

Instead, Jha views all his female characters through the prism of sexual violence. When Dabloo gets in a physical altercation with a young woman he’s threatened to kill, he pauses to rape her first. Though Mathur is never directly threatened with rape, Dabloo make vulgar gestures and comments in regard to her appearance.

There have already been so many Bollywood made about corruption in small town India, and Jha’s boring, disorganized story doesn’t break any new ground.

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Movie Review: Dirty Politics (2015)

DirtyPoliticsZero Stars (out of 4)

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About three-quarters of the way through the movie, my hands grip my head as if trying to contain an imminent explosion. I scream, “What is happening?!” and tear at my hair. That sums up the entire experience of watching Dirty Politics.

The movie’s problems are immediately apparent, most obviously so in the way the film looks. The camera never stops moving. It doesn’t matter if the movement obscures the faces of the characters who are speaking: camera movement is paramount! The action can be dramatic, such as a crane shot from directly overhead that swoops down to ground level then back up again. It can be more subtle, such as persistent zoom-ins on actors’ faces.

In one shot, the camera rapidly zooms in to closeup and pulls back twice in the span of about three seconds. A judge says, “Court is adjourned,” and the camera pans from the judge up to a clock above his chair, even though there’s no significance to the clock or the time of day. Then the same shot is repeated a few minutes later, again for no reason.

I don’t blame cinematographer Panveer Selvam for this travesty of technique as much as I do director K.C. Bokadia, who also wrote this farce. Bokadia’s vision for Dirty Politics is obviously shaped by a fundamental misunderstanding of how to make movies.

The story opens in the middle of a search for missing dancer-turned-politician Anokhi Devi (Mallika Sherawat). We know this because the characters say the name “Anokhi Devi” about a hundred times in the first ten minutes. Characters are introduced in quick succession without a sense of where they fit into the larger story, and an absence of backstory is keenly felt.

Anokhi Devi’s appearance via flashback more than twenty minutes into the runtime doesn’t really clear things up. Her dancing grabs the attention of political party leader Dinanath (Om Puri). In exchange for sex, Dinanath promises to make her the party’s candidate in the next election. Naturally.

There’s a hullabaloo because a gangster named Mukhtiar (Jackie Shroff) wants the same candidacy. He gets a great introduction from Anokhi Devi’s secretary, Banaram (Rajpal Yadav), who announces his arrival at her house: “He’s Mukhtiar. A well-known goon of our area.”

Dirty Politics is full of hilariously ponderous lines. When Anupam Kher’s character Mishra — who is a CBI officer and a lawyer who’s sixty days away from retirement(!) — presents his case in court, the defense attorney responds: “He is very cleverly trying to make his points strong.” Eloquently said, man who doesn’t realize that he’s describing the very nature of his own job.

One can only imagine how Bokadia managed to rope so many talented actors into this doomed project. In addition to vets like Kher, Shroff, and Puri, Naseeruddin Shah his a role as an activist who steals the movie’s absurd closing scene. Govind Namdeo’s overacting is the height of comedy. Atul Kulkarni and Sushant Singh remind us why they are rarely called upon to play action heroes.

Shah’s character has a daughter whose sole narrative purpose is to be raped in order to blackmail him. There are only three women in the whole movie, and all of them are brutalized: two in order to intimidate their relatives, and Anokhi Devi for aspiring to a more meaningful purpose than that of Dinanath’s mistress.

Puri and Sherawat deserve some modest praise for fumbling through the most awkward sex scenes in cinema history. If Bokadia was counting on sex to sell Dirty Politics, he obviously didn’t watch any footage of his movie as it was being shot.

One can only fathom the sheer terror racing through the mind of editor Prakash Jha as he received each batch of footage. “How am I supposed to make a movie from this?” he asks himself. “There’s nothing to work with!” Hence how we end up with the exact same reaction shot of Jackie Shroff staring at a desk — his jaw muscles twitching — four times in succession.

Bonus: Everything you need to know about the lack of craft that went into making Dirty Politics, in just twelve seconds!

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Movie Review: Satyagraha (2013)

Satyagraha_poster2 Stars (out of 4)

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Indian politics is tricky business. Not only is it plagued by the usual greed and corruption that seems to affect governments everywhere, but there’s also bribery at every level of bureaucracy, from the lowliest clerk to the highest minister.

Still, it’s not so complicated that it’s beyond comprehension, even to one who lives outside the system as I do. In Satyagraha, writer-producer-director Prakash Jha offers such obvious, detailed explanations for everything that it borders on condescending.

Among the larger themes critical of a government so bloated it can no longer serve the common man is the story of the moral improvement of an aspiring telecom magnate: Manav (Ajay Devgn). He’s introduced on the occasion of his best friend’s wedding. Akhilesh (Indraneil Sengupta) dreams of improving Indian infrastructure before one day following in the footsteps of his father, Dwarka (Amitabh Bachchan), and becoming a teacher. Dwarka criticizes Manav for choosing big business over a life of social service, and Manav leaves before he can see Akhilesh wed to Sumitra (Amrita Rao).

Three years later, Manav returns to the town of Ambikapur for Akhilesh’s funeral, which follows what appears to be a random road accident. (Be warned that his death scene is gruesome.) Investigative journalist Yasmin (Kareena Kapoor) discovers that Akhilesh’s death may have been connected to the collapse of a bridge he was working on. Also during Manav’s return, Dwarka becomes the face of a revolution, after he’s jailed for slapping a corrupt bureaucrat (who totally deserved it).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the story, it’s just the way it’s told. Thematically, Satyagraha is like an imitation of Swades — a very heavy-handed imitation. Instead of allowing Manav’s inevitable change to social activist to occur in the course of the story, we’re told at every step of the way why things are happening. Dwarka’s preaching on the evils of capitalism are emblematic of the film’s tendency to tell more than it shows.

Even the music goes over the top to provoke emotions: A crowd gathers to protest Dwarka’s imprisonment; patriotic music swells; the crowd begins to sing: “The public rocks!” It’s corny.

Considering that Satyagraha is all about corruption, an instance of product placement — in which Sumitra instructs her maid to open up a box of name-brand rice: “because we have to cook the rice right” — feels particularly icky.

The A-list cast generally delivers performances befitting the actors’ stardom. Manoj Bajpayee is at his reptilian best as the most corrupt of the corrupt politicians. Arjun Rampal’s hair is as luxurious as ever in his role as a student leader.

Again, there’s nothing really wrong with Satyagraha. There are just more inspiring political films out there.

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Opening August 30: Satyagraha

Director Prakash Jha’s latest star-studded political thriller, Satyagraha, opens in Chicago area theaters on August 30, 2013.

Satyagraha opens on Friday at the AMC River East 21 in Chicago, Big Cinemas Golf Glen 5 in Niles, AMC South Barrington 30 in South Barrington, and Regal Cantera Stadium 17 in Warrenville. It has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 26 min.

Last weekend’s new release, Madras Cafe, carries over at the Golf Glen 5, South Barrington 30, and Cantera 17. Chennai Express — which has earned $4,687,752 in the U.S. so far — gets a fourth week at all of the theaters carrying Madras Cafe, plus the AMC Loews Woodridge 18 in Woodridge.

The Golf Glen 5 is also carrying the Malayalam film Memories this weekend.

Movie Review: Chakravyuh (2012)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Chakravyuh is the latest offering in the Bollywood sub-genre of topic-driven films. The concept of building a film with a political or social issue as the foundation — then adding a story and characters around it — generates films that patronize as often as they entertain. Recent topics to grace the screen have included fairness in education (Taare Zameen Par and Aarakshan), honor killings (Aakrosh and Ishaqzaade), and farmer suicides (Summer 2007 and Peepli Live).

Chakravyuh exemplifies how to do an issue picture the right way. It starts with an on-screen note explaining that the film is based on actual events in the Indian government’s ongoing struggle against the Naxalites, a Communist separatist group. Writer-director Prakash Jha finds the common threads in these real-life events and weaves them together into a cohesive narrative that presents all sides of a complicated conflict.

The first five minutes of Chakravyuh are spent bringing those audience members unfamiliar with Communist separatism in India up to speed. Jha efficiently explains who the Naxalites are and what they want, without belaboring the point for those who already understand the conflict.

The story is told from both sides of the conflict: the police hired to enforce the law, and the separatists who seek self-rule. Adil (Arjun Rampal) volunteers for the position of chief of police of the town of Nandighat: a rural town on the edge of Naxalite-controlled territory. Adil, full of confidence acquired during his relatively easy journey through life, sees himself as the only man who can drive out the Naxalites and restore local confidence in the Indian government.

Adil is only in town for a few days when he is shot in the line of duty. His ne’er-do-well friend, Kabir (Abhay Deol) — who was kicked out of the police academy for hitting a superior officer — sneaks into the police station to see Adil. Kabir offers to infiltrate the Naxalites and act as Adil’s informer.

Because of Adil’s overconfidence and Kabir’s nonchalance, they don’t appreciate what a dangerous idea this is until Kabir is being beaten up and shot at by both the cops and the Naxalites. After spending some time with the separatists and witnessing the way the police treat the locals when Adil isn’t watching, Kabir begins to sympathize with the group he was meant to destroy.

Chakravyuh‘s sets and scenes are gripping. Nighttime police raids are dark, disorienting, and terrifying. Villages of homes built largely of sticks fly hammer-and-sickle flags in their yards, as armed insurgents walk through town calling each other “comrade.” The Naxalite camp is little more than tarps strung up between trees in the forest.

Adil and Kabir are terrific characters to guide the audience through the film. Both have enough power to influence some events in their lives, but not enough power to actually end the conflict. Kabir, while valuable, is too new in camp to make it into the Naxalite inner circle. It takes Adil a long time to realize he’s merely a big fish in a small pond; the real power lies with the federal heads of the police department, the politicians who appoint them, and the industrialists who finance the politicians’ campaigns.

Rampal and Deol are both superb in their roles. Each man is sympathetic, if not always right. The history of their friendship is illuminated by minor glimpses into the past but is apparent in the way events play out in the present.

Esha Gupta does a nice job as Adil’s wife and fellow police officer, Rhea. She ardently defends Kabir, but her loyalties lie unambiguously with her husband and her badge. Manoj Bajpai is gripping as the Naxalite leader, Rajan, as is Anjali Patil as Juhi, Rajan’s executioner. The story of how Juhi came to join the insurgents captures the sense of frustration and helplessness that could drive a person to rebellion.

At the heart of Jha’s story is compassion for the poor and the seeming futility of their struggle for a better life. The villages in Chakravyuh lack plumbing, electricity, and medical facilities. When Adil puts antibiotic cream on a villager’s wound, the man’s face beams, accompanied by a corny, patriotic musical swell.

The Naxalites intimidate the villagers into brandishing weapons against the police, but the rebels also provide the people with a sense of control, a way to fight back against a government that ignores them until valuable natural resources are discovered under their land. At one point in the film, an army of paid thugs with machine guns rolls into town on bulldozers, bellowing through bullhorns that the government’s forced demolition of the town is “for your benefit.”

Chakravyuh places blame equally on the government and the Naxalites, while acknowledging that both parties undoubtedly regret needless bloodshed. Yet, with neither group willing to be the first to renounce violence, the conflict rages on, and it’s the poor people caught in the middle who suffer.

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Movie Review: Aarakshan (2011)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

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As a general rule, a movie should only have one main idea or theme; anything more complex than that, and the messages can get muddled. Filmmaker Prakash Jha overreaches with Aarakshan (“Reservation”), his meditation on the failings of the Indian education system.

The title refers to the Indian government’s version of affirmative action, by which a percentage of government jobs and spots at public universities are held for members of the lowest caste. The policy aims to level the playing field for people denied such opportunities in the past, to the chagrin of some in the middle and upper classes who feel the policy denies them opportunities in the present.

In Aarakshan, the policy pits two college friends against one another: Sushant (Prateik), who opposes it, and Deepak (Saif Ali Khan), himself a member of the lowest caste. Caught in the middle is Deepak’s girlfriend, Poorbi (Deepika Padukone), whose father, Professor Anand (Amitabh Bachchan), runs the college they attend.

When Anand expresses his belief that the policy of reservation could have some merit, it gives his opponents on the school board a chance to oust him. He’s replaced by his slimy vice principal, Mithilesh (Manoj Bajpayee), who’s gotten rich by running a chain of tutoring centers on the side. Mithilesh doesn’t show up to teach his college courses, which forces kids to pay to go to his tutoring centers if they want any hope of passing the class. Evil genius.

Despite the title’s nod to the more emotionally charged social issue, Aarakshan is primarily about education’s change from a right to a marketable commodity. Reservation is hardly brought up during the second half of the film, as Anand wages a personal battle against those who would turn his college into a diploma factory.

This is where Jha gets in to trouble. Aarakshan tries to be too many things. It’s a drama about a friendship riven by a controversial policy. It’s a warning against the diminishing quality of education. It’s a story of one man struggling against a corrupt system.

There’s no way to successfully shoehorn so many themes into one movie. Characters are reduced to giving long-winded speeches defending their positions, accompanied by dramatic music. (Wayne Sharpe’s background score is one of the film’s few highlights.) It’s an artless way of making a point, and it inflates the movie’s runtime to a boring 2 hours and 45 minutes.

What’s more unforgivable is that, during all that time, only one character undergoes any development. Sushant realizes that belittling Deepak’s heritage has cost him his two best friends, so he relents his opposition to reservation. Had the movie focused on the three friends, the development would be significant.

But, because of the sweeping societal criticism Jha invokes, it’s notable that none of the movie’s bureaucrats or officials have a change of heart by film’s end. All remain steadfast in their opposition to reservation and their support of for-profit education.

During the climactic showdown, Anand emerges victorious simply because his supporters outnumber those of his opponents on that particular day (and thanks to a little help from a deus ex machina). He gains no converts, and all of the bureaucrats with their bulldozers and eviction notices live to fight another day. The system doesn’t change, nobody has learned anything, and there are no consequences for being on the right or wrong side of the issue.

With significant editing, Jha might have been able to make a statement with Aarakshan. But the movie is too dense and ponderous to provoke any meaningful consideration of educational policies. If the characters within the movie aren’t prompted to change their minds, why should the audience?

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