Tag Archives: Radhika Apte

TV Review: Ghoul (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Ghoul pulls no punches in its depiction of the dangers of state-sanctioned religious intolerance. The show’s monsters are scary, but not as terrifying as the vision of the future presented by writer-director Patrick Graham.

The miniseries comprises three episodes, each with a runtime between 40-45 minutes (excluding closing credits). In all, Ghoul is about as long as a feature film. I appreciated the built-in breaks, which occur at logical points in the plot. This is a perfect kind of storytelling format for a streaming video platform, and I won’t be surprised to see it become more common as filmmakers adapt to changing audience viewing habits.

Graham keeps the scares to a minimum in the first episode: “Out of the Smokeless Fire,” establishing a world where every day is a nightmare for those on the wrong side of new societal divisions. A fascist Indian government cracks down on homegrown terrorism by outlawing certain religious texts and practices, burning books and whisking away citizens believed to harbor anti-nationalist sentiments for “re-education.” The only people targeted in crackdowns are Muslims, although the show doesn’t specifically identify the government as Hindu nationalist.

Naive patriotism inspires Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte) to enlist in the military, despite being the daughter of an Islamic scholar (played by S.M. Zaheer). She’s convinced that the government’s harsh tactics truly are about national security and not religious oppression, as her father believes — so much so that she turns in her own father for re-education. Soon after, she’s posted at a secret government prison to aid the interrogation of notorious terrorist Ali Saeed (Mahesh Balraj), who is captured in the show’s opening, half-dead and surrounded by the corpses of his followers. But why would the military assign Nida, a junior interrogator, to such a high-profile case?

The last two episodes draw from any number of horror films in which the characters are trapped in a remote location with a monster, their terror turning them against one another when their survival depends on them working together. Few of the soldiers and prisoners get any meaningful character development other than Colonel Sunil Dacunha (Manav Kaul), whose idea it was to bring Nida in, and Lieutenant Laxmi Das (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee), Dacunha’s skeptical second-in-command.

Although the relative anonymity of the other soldiers signals their expendability, it also highlight’s the shows message that any agent of a fascist government is liable for its crimes. Not every soldier in Dacunha’s prison personally tortured prisoners, but all of them knew about it and did nothing to stop it. The jail’s cremation room is a stark visualization of the parallels to Nazism present throughout Graham’s screenplay.

When Ghoul‘s namesake creature finally appears, the story becomes quite scary, playing on the fears of those within the prison. Several of the soldiers, including Dacunha, are haunted by the way engaging in torture has warped their sense of morality — not enough to stop torturing people, unfortunately — allowing the monster to play on their guilt. The scares in Ghoul are more psychological than surprise driven, and there’s a considerable amount of blood.

Nida is plagued by her own guilt, and she has no allies in her new surroundings. Apte is compelling in the lead role, showing both Nida’s grit and vulnerability. Bravely, the series doesn’t downplay her commitment to the totalitarian government. She’s willing to follow orders until the moment she’s absolutely convinced that she’s been duped. Nor does Ghoul try to make Dacunha more sympathetic than he should be. Kaul depicts Dacunha as conflicted, but unquestionably a bad person. Ghoul knows which way its moral compass points, and it’s not afraid to show it.

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Movie Review: Andhadhun (2018)

4 Stars (out of 4)

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Neo-noir filmmaker Sriram Raghavan made his best movie yet: the black comedy Andhadhun (“Blindly“).

Ayushmann Khurrana stars as Akash, a talented blind musician living in Pune. He gets a gig as the piano player at trendy restaurant after the owner’s beautiful daughter, Sophie (Radhika Apte), runs into him with her scooter. The job puts Akash in touch with some high rollers, including former film star Pramod Sinha (Anil Dhawan). Pramod hires Akash to serenade him and his young wife Simi (Tabu) on their anniversary, and things don’t go as planned.

Raghavan’s script — co-written with Yogesh Chandekar, Hemanth Rao, and frequent collaborators Arijit Biswas and Pooja Ladha Surti (who also edited Andhadhun) — rewards fans of crime thrillers with familiar genre nods like femmes fatales and characters who aren’t what they seem. Yet the story veers in unexpected ways, forcing the audience into a giddy series of emotional pivots, from shock to uneasy chuckles to horror to hysterical laughter, all in a matter of seconds. It’s astonishing how well Andhadhun pulls this off.

Khurrana’s filmography is full of nice-guy roles, and the sympathy he inspires serves Akash well early on, before we discover that the pianist has his own secrets. His more complicated character contrasts with that of Sophie, who has the movie’s “sunshine role”, according to Ladha Sutri. A love scene between Akash and Sophie is wonderfully steamy despite its brevity.

Then there’s Tabu. She’s glorious in this, so much fun to watch as the ambitious trophy wife (who is shown at one point reading a book titled Anita: A Trophy Wife). She’s charming and chilling, and also hilarious as the movie’s main source of dark humor.

Raghavan and his co-writers ensure that every supporting character has their own clear motivations, which not only elevates the overall quality of the story, but makes it that much easier to get great performances from the whole cast. Ashwini Kalsekar is a laugh riot as the enthusiastic-but-out-of-the-loop wife of a police officer, played by Manav Vij.

Sound design plays a huge role in Andhadhun, as it has in Raghavan’s previous movies. Here, Raghavan expertly deploys tunes to shock the audience or punctuate a joke. Amit Trivedi’s terrific original songs are interspersed with Bollywood hits from the 1970s (ostensibly from the soundtracks of Pramod Sinha’s films).

Khurrana learned to play the piano well enough that cinematographer K. U. Mohanan could shoot Akash playing in full frame, instead of filming him from the chest up and inserting shots of a real pianist’s hands doing the playing. It’s an example of the cast & crew’s dedication that helps make Andhadhun so darned fun to watch.

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Movie Review: Phobia (2016)

4 Stars (out of 4)

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Anxiety is a difficult disorder to explain to people who don’t have it. While everyone experiences mild anxiety from time to time — be it a fear of heights or speaking in front of a group of strangers — it’s nowhere near the kind of crippling fear that can accompany serious anxiety attacks, a panic that can make an otherwise ordinary task seem terrifying.

Phobia comes as close to accurately depicting a panic attack as any film I’ve seen. It’s so effective that I’d caution those with a history of anxiety problems make sure you’re in a good mental state before you watch it. I thought about bailing a couple of times, it was that intense.

Radhika Apte stars in Phobia as Mehak, a single artist living in the city. She leaves an exhibition of her work early after feeling some bad vibes, falling asleep in the taxi on the way home. She awakes to find the cab driver molesting her behind some abandoned buildings.

Even though she escapes the attack, Mehak develops agoraphobia. Fearful of the outside world, Mehak hides in her apartment for months. Concerned by Mehak’s lack of improvement, her friend Shaan (Roshin Joy) and her sister Anu (Nivedita Bhattacharya) conspire to drug Mehak and move her to a new apartment, hoping that the change of scenery will fix everything.

Their actions exemplify one of the biggest challenges for anxiety sufferers: not being believed, or the fear of not being believed. By definition, phobias are irrational overreactions to perceived threats. My mother’s fear of snakes was so extreme that even a picture of a snake provoked the same terror as if one was actually slithering toward her.

Yet Anu and Shaan treat Mehak as though her fear can be diffused with logic. Shaan refuses to take out the garbage, hoping that leaving it will motivate Mehak to leave the apartment and walk down the hall to the trash bin. He doesn’t understand that the twenty-foot-long hallway might as well be twenty miles, as far as Mehak is concerned.

Mehak’s tortured attempt make it to the bin is Phobia‘s shining moment. Mehak breathes rapidly, her shirt soaked in sweat. She ties a makeshift rope of sheets to a shelf and then around her waist, as though she’s climbing out of the window and not stepping out into the hallway. If she falls, she’s afraid she won’t be able to retreat to safety. The whole sequence captures the overwhelming nature of a panic attack. Mehak’s terror is depicted perfectly by Apte, who is absolutely tremendous in the film.

Mehak’s condition only gets worse in the new apartment when she starts hallucinating sounds and images of a bloodied woman whom she assumes is “Jiya,” the previous tenant who suddenly went missing, leaving all of her belongings behind. Mehak is simultaneously too scared to go out and too scared to stay in. Shaan’s answer is set up security cameras in the house, as if Mehak’s haunted psyche can be soothed by proof.

The apartment itself looks like an upscale haunted house. There are mirrors everywhere and lonely paintings that take on a sinister air in the dark. The living room is separated from a hallway by a backless shelving system made up of niches ripe for peeping through. One of the bedrooms is full of artfully strewn about furniture.

Yet director Pawan Kripalani doesn’t deploy the horror tropes in his arsenal in the expected ways. He routinely directs the audiences gaze through mirrors and security cameras and the peephole in the door, but the anticipated jump scares never arrives. Phobia — which Kripalani wrote as well — isn’t about momentary thrills, but the persistence of Mehak’s fears.

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Movie Review: Parched (2015)

parched4 Stars (out of 4)

Buy or rent the movie at Amazon or iTunes
Buy the soundtrack at iTunes
Parched is also available for streaming on Netflix in the US.

Writer-director Leena Yadav’s Parched thoughtfully examines the sorry state of gender equality in rural India. Brave performances by a talented cast give context to a complex, entrenched culture that dehumanizes women.

The culture is explored through the experiences of four very different women: an infertile wife named Lajjo (Radhika Apte), a 15-year-old newlywed named Janaki (Lehar Khan), a dancer and prostitute named Bijli (Surveen Chawla), and a 32-year-old widow named Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee). Rani is the link between the other women: a longtime friend to Bijli, a neighbor and buddy to Lajjo, and Janaki’s mother-in-law.

Rani is a difficult and unconventional lead, for sure. One is conditioned to expect a pivotal character like Rani to be an agent for change, especially when she’s being played by an immense talent like Chatterjee, but that’s not who she is. Rani is surprisingly ordinary.

Take her first scenes in the film. On a visit to a neighboring town to arrange a bride for her drunken waste of a son, Gulab (Riddhi Sen), Rani coos over young Janaki’s beauty, deliberately ignoring the terrified expression on the girl’s face and offering her no comfort.

When Rani returns from her trip, she and Lajjo sit passively through a disheartening town meeting. Another young bride, Champa (Sayani Gupta), fled to her parents’ home after enduring repeated rapes by her brother- and father-in-law, but the male heads of the village insist on sending her back to her husband, even if it means her death. The leader of the village women offers to pool the money they earn selling handicrafts to buy a communal TV, giving the women something to do while their husbands are away, working as long-haul truckers. The men laugh, jokingly wondering if the women will start wanting to wear jeans next. Rani and Lajjo laugh, too.

With each successive horrible thing that happens to a woman in Parched because of her gender, one wonders what will be the final straw. When will Rani and her friends finally make a stand? This isn’t that kind of movie.

Millions of women live in these kind of conditions, and Parched explores how they do that when there’s no one to appeal to, where there’s literally nowhere to run. Even Kishan (Sumeet Vyas) — the man who brokers sales of the women’s handicrafts — can only do so much when the rest of the men resent him. Among the women, Lajjo personifies resilience, her bright eyes shining at the prospect of a day of hooky, regardless of the hell it will cost her at the hands of her abusive husband, Manoj (Mahesh Balraj).

Yadav emphasizes that there is more to lives of her characters than just suffering. There is room for joy and friendship, along with unmet sexual desires. All four female leads have suffered sexual abuse, yet the desire for sexual gratification remains, even if hope for an attentive, caring partner is dim. When Bijli vividly describes an encounter with a man exclusively concerned with satisfying her needs, Rani and Lajjo dismiss her story as fantasy.

One of the courageous choices Yadav and Chatterjee make with Rani is using her to show how women in an oppressive patriarchy can help perpetuate it. Janaki’s marriage to Gulab awakens a cruel side of Rani, the role of mother-in-law giving her license to haze her new daughter-in-law in the same way she once was. The morning after Gulab violently consummates his marriage with Janaki, Rani shows no sympathy toward the girl, who shuffles about in obvious pain. Rani scolds her for sleeping late: “Get to work! This isn’t your mother’s house.”

Yet Rani struggles with the fact that she raised an awful misogynist for a son. With time, her acceptance of culpability in creating a monster softens her stance toward Janaki. As grim as their lives are, the film ends on a hopeful note for all four of the women. Great writing and mesmerizing performances make Parched extraordinary.

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Streaming Video News: October 30, 2015

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Hulu with one new addition to the catalog. 2015’s Hunterrr is now available for streaming, without a subscription. While not a perfect film, Hunterrr does have interesting performances by Radhika Apte and Gulshan Devaiah, two actors I’d love to see more of in the future.

Movie Review: Hunterrr (2015)

Hunterrr2 Stars (out of 4)

Buy/rent the movie at iTunes

Compelling performances are the saving grace of Hunterrr, an otherwise unsatisfying tale of a playboy who won’t grow up.

Hunterrr isn’t as colorfully sexy as its poster suggests. Gulshan Devaiah plays Mandar, a thirty-something man on the good-looking side of average with all the style acumen of stereotypical IT guy. He’s a lech who sizes up every woman he sees, planning his next conquest.

Since he’s no supermodel himself, Mandar has a method for improving his odds: don’t pursue the most attractive woman in a group; go for second best. Second best is still good, but her self-esteem is likely lower than that of her lovelier counterpart, making her more susceptible to flattery.

Only when Mandar gets called “uncle” while hitting on a woman at a bar does he realize he’s getting too old to play Casanova. He reasons that an arranged marriage guarantees him a permanent sex partner, but he finds his promiscuous habits hard to break even after he meets his betrothed: fun, beautiful Tripti (Radhika Apte).

Hunterrr is told in non-linear fashion, flashing back to Mandar’s early days as a pervert. Scenes of young Mandar with his cousins — handsome Kshitij (Vaibbhav Tatwawdi) and chubby Yusuf (Sagar Deshmukh) — are primarily excuses for scatological jokes. Writer-director Harshavardhan Kulkarni punctuates the comic sex romp with awkwardly serious moments, making it hard to feel comfortable with the film’s tone.

This is a tough movie to enjoy largely because Mandar is so awful. He never faces any serious consequences for his behavior, and he assumes no responsibility for the consequences faced by the women he beds. When Yusuf points out that a housewife Mandar’s been shtupping is on her way to divorce court after her husband discovered the affair, Mandar just shrugs and leaves town.

Credit to Devaiah for playing such a believable sociopath. He makes Mandar seem so ordinary, non-threatening even, until we realize how little Mandar cares about other people. The film even ends with Mandar cheerfully explaining to Yusuf that he’ll get away with his latest transgression because most women are too embarrassed to admit to any kind of sexual contact, consensual or not.

Tripti is as charming as Mandar is loathsome. She’s frank about her own romantic history, with a slightly bawdy sense of humor. Like Devaiah, Apte’s performance is grounded and convincing. She’s the real star of the film.

Kulkarni is great at writing complex female characters, whether it’s Tripti in Hunterrr or Meeta in Hasee Toh Phasee. Here’s hoping his future films focus more on his sophisticated heroines than on the dopey guys he saddles them with.

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Movie Review: Badlapur (2015)

Badlapur_Poster3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the DVD at Amazon
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Badlapur is a jaw-dropping thriller that examines the perils of revenge. After a pair of delightful comic performances in his two previous films, Varun Dhawan shines as a grieving husband who becomes a monster.

Heed the tagline at the end of the Badlapur trailer: “Don’t miss the beginning.” The movie opens with a bank robbery and carjacking. The owner of the car (played by Yami Gautam) and her young son are killed in gruesome — if somewhat accidental — fashion during the escape attempt. One of the robbers (played by Vinay Pathak) flees with the loot, while the other, Liak (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), turns himself in to the police.

Badlapur‘s plot follows two parallel stories: Liak’s life behind bars, and the quest for revenge undertaken by Raghu (Dhawan), husband of Misha (Gautam) and father of their son.

The movie is clearly inspired by the Korean film I Saw the Devil — most obviously in a scene in which a man in a car pulls up to a stranded female motorist — which was remade in India last year as Ek Villain. Badlapur is a more fitting successor to the Korean film than the acknowledged remake.

What differentiates Badlapur‘s lead character from the secret service agent at the core of I Saw the Devil is that Raghu has no special skills to aid his revenge quest. He works in advertising before the murders, and takes a job as a factory foreman after Liak is imprisoned.

Because he’s just a regular guy, Raghu’s plans seem a little disorganized. It’s not clear when he will feel his vengeance complete. He intends to wait until Liak’s twenty-year prison sentence is over, then follow Liak when he retrieves his share of the money from Harman (Pathak), his accomplice. Raghu’s timetable is accelerated when a well-meaning-but-naive charity worker, Shoba (Divya Dutta), asks Raghu to petition for Liak’s early release so he can seek medical treatment.

Raghu is content to wait to enact his revenge upon Liak and Harman, but he has far less patience for the women who willingly maintain relationships with the criminals. This goes for Shoba, Harman’s wife, Koko (Radhika Apte), and especially Liak’s girlfriend, Jimli (Huma Qureshi).

Jimli is first to experience Raghu’s rage. Because she is a prostitute, Raghu has no compunction about raping her, thus “ruining” her for Liak. That Raghu feels his money can compensate Jimli for the rape is the sign that he’s gone off the deep end. When Liak asks him what makes the two of them so different, Raghu doesn’t have a good answer.

Every performance in Badlapur is pitch perfect. Dutta and Apte are sympathetic, and Qureshi is superb. Pathak doesn’t get as much screentime as Siddiqui, but he features in the movie’s best scene, in which Harman and Raghu silently size each other up as they ride in an elevator.

Siddiqui is great, but Liak’s character is tricky to embrace. There’s only so much he can do since he spends much of the film in jail, and every scene reinforces that he’s a bad guy. The volume of storytime devoted to Liak has less to do with the character and more to do with a desire to keep Siddiqui on screen for as long as possible.

In only his fourth film, Dhawan extends his acting range in impressive fashion. His portrayal of Raghu is chilling. He’s far scarier than Liak or Harman, but he also has the capacity to act normal when it serves his purpose.

Badlapur has trouble maintaining momentum early on. Raghu’s brutalization of Jimli is followed by flashbacks to his romance with Misha and low-key scenes of Liak’s exploits in jail. Raghu feels a bit absent from the film’s ultimate resolution, but perhaps that fits given that he isn’t a criminal mastermind capable of engineering a dramatic climax.

One thing director Sriram Raghavan excels at is sound design. There isn’t much in the way of background music in Badlapur, and the movie is often punctuated by street noise like barking dogs. The undercurrent of everyday sounds makes the film feel more realistic, heightening its impact.

Not a movie for the faint of heart, Badlapur rewards its audience with great performances and a nuanced take on the revenge genre. If nothing else, it establishes Varun Dhawan as the most exciting young actor in Bollywood today.

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