Tag Archives: Raima Sen

Movie Review: Vodka Diaries (2018)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Vodka Diaries is uneven as a mystery, yet Kay Kay Menon fans will find plenty to like in the talented actor’s lead performance.

Menon plays Officer Ashwini Dixit, a detective in the small mountain resort town of Manali. He and his wife, Shikha (Mandira Bedi), share a playful antagonism, though their relationship often takes a backseat to his career.

A young woman’s murder leads Ashwini to Vodka Diaries, a swanky hotel’s awkwardly named nightclub, populated by half-a-dozen or so additional characters who wind up involved in the investigation. The introductions of the new characters are poorly integrated into the main story, with Ashwini’s storyline progressing on an entirely different track that only meets with the other plotlines after a half-hour has passed.

It’s not just the length of time that makes the parallel story tracks a problem. The other characters — including a bickering young couple and two friends on a first date — are either uninteresting or annoying (specifically the cloying hotel manager, played by Sooraj Thapar). The only character we assume will be important to the plot going forward is a woman played by Raima Sen, whose defining characteristic is her mysteriousness. But without clear reasons for their presence in the story, the attention paid to these other characters feels like an interruption, pulling our attention away from Menon’s performance.

Thankfully, that all changes when multiple supporting characters are killed, putting the spotlight back on Ashwini as he tries to connect their deaths to the initial murder. Around the same time, it becomes apparent that something is seriously wrong with Ashwini–as his sporadic, violent hallucinations increase in frequency and severity (punctuated by effectively jarring sound design courtesy of Jitendra Chaudhary). Ashwini and the audience are equally confused about what is real and what isn’t.

Vodka Diaries is unquestionably Kay Kay Menon’s movie, and he is compelling throughout. The film’s opens with a scene of Menon’s character running through the snowy countryside, and if that was all there was to Vodka Diaries, it would still be riveting stuff.

With her role in Ittefaq last year and now this, Mandira Bedi has become the go-to actor to play a cop’s wife. It would be fun to see Bedi turn her current specialization into a starring role, perhaps as a wife who learns so much by talking to her detective husband about his job that she starts secretly solving crimes on her own. I know I’d pay to watch that.

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Movie Review: Mirch (2010)

2.5 Stars (4 Stars)

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Mirch (“Chili Pepper”) stands out from other Bollywood fare because of its subject matter: women’s sexuality. It’s a topic that makes some people skittish, yet Mirch addresses it with a sense of humor. However, the otherwise amusing movie fails to reach its full potential.

The movie is actually a series of four short stories — two set in the ancient past, two set in modern times — held together by a framing device. A rookie screenwriter, Maanav (Arunoday Singh), can’t find anyone willing to buy his original screenplay because the subject matter is deemed too dark and not “sexy” enough. So Maanav comes up with another plan: turn four stories from the ancient Panchatantra into a film.

The four stories all feature sexually liberated women who use their wits to get the better of their jealous, promiscuous spouses. Maanav’s girlfriend, a movie editor named Ruchi (Shahana Goswami), convinces her producer boss Nitin (Sushant Singh) to listen to Maanav’s pitch, even though it appears Nitin has his own designs on Ruchi.

The four stories unfold as Maanav’s narration gives way to cinematic depiction, starting with the two historical vignettes. First is the story of a frisky wife (Raima Sen) whose manual laborer husband becomes suspicious of her eagerness to hop in the sack with him.

Second is a story of a young bride (Konkona Sen Sharma) married to an impotent old king. The bride is desperate to lose her virginity, and she chooses a young courtier (also played by Arunoday Singh, who appears in two other stories as well) to do the deed. However, the courtier will only consent if the bride agrees to do it in front of her husband.

The characters in the “real life” storyline acknowledge a need for stories set in modern times, shifting the time period forward for the final two stories. Sen returns in the third story as another devoted wife whose husband (Shreyas Talpade) tests her fidelity. Sharma likewise returns for the fourth vignette, as a wife who catches her husband (Boman Irani) trying to cheat on her.

All of the stories start with straightforward premises but end with a twist: either the wife turns the tables on her husband, or she was hiding a secret all along. In every case, the stories acknowledge the fact that women have their own desires apart from fulfilling their husbands needs. Sen and Sharma carry the movie, playing their characters as provocative rather than overtly sexual.

While the vignettes have their charms, the framing device is uneven. The interludes between the mini-movies seem to be driving toward a love triangle finale that would force Ruchi to choose between Maanav and Nitin. A new character is introduced at the last minute, seemingly invalidating the implication that Nitin was ever interested in Ruchi.

Mirch also makes the unfortunate mistake of putting a character in blackface. When the husband in the third story dons a disguise in order to seduce his wife, he covers his skin in dark makeup. It’s a crude attempt at humor that’s loaded with racist undertones. A wig and a fake mustache would have been sufficient.

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Movie Review: The Japanese Wife (2010)

4 Stars (out of 4)

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On rare occasions, I break with my policy of reviewing only Hindi movies, and instead review a movie in another Indian language. I recently watched The Japanese Wife — which features dialog in English, Japanese and Bengali — because it will be featured on October 3rd at Chicago’s inaugural South Asian Film Festival. Also, it’s directed by Aparna Sen, mother of Bollywood actress Konkona Sen Sharma. Since the movie is already available on DVD at Netflix, I thought I’d give it a shot.

The DVD’s menu screen describes the movie as “A Love Poem by Aparna Sen,” and that seems appropriate. It’s a heartbreakingly romantic film about the lengths we go to on behalf of those we love and how the written word brings us closer together.

Rahul Bose stars as Snehamoy, a high school arithmetic teacher in a small, remote village in West Bengal. He lives with an aunt who raised him after his parents drowned when he was a boy. He’s unbearably shy and has only one close friend: Miyage (Chigusa Takaku), his Japanese pen pal. She’s just as shy and lives with her ailing mother. They write letters to each other in imperfect English every week.

Scenes from the present — a giant package from Japan making its way through Snehamoy’s village to his house — are intercut with voiceovers and scenes cataloging how the friendship between Snehamoy and Miyage develops through their letters.

After three years of correspondence, Snehamoy writes to Miyage about his aunt’s attempt to find a bride for him. The girl, Sandhya (Raima Sen), is so timid she won’t even let Snehamoy see her face. He turns down the marriage, and Sandhya weds another man.

Miyage proposes that she and Snehamoy get married, even though they’ve never met and have no prospect of doing so in the near future. She has to take care of her mother, and his monthly $100 salary isn’t enough to afford an expensive plane ticket to Japan. But they agree to get married anyway. She sends him a silver ring, and he sends her some coral bangles and vermillion powder to wear in the part of her hair, signifying their status.

Several years later, widowed Sandhya and her son, Poltu (Sagnik Chowdhury), move in with Snehamoy and his aunt. Sandhya becomes Snehamoy’s unofficial wife, in practice: she cooks and cleans, and he escorts her shopping and helps her raise Poltu. She’s at least physically present, while Miyage remains in Japan.

The movie raises questions about the definition of marriage. Can Snehamoy and Miyage really be married without having ever met? And what of Snehamoy’s relationship with Sandhya? They actively build a life together with some degree of mutual affection. Which “marriage” is more real?

The movie unfolds beautifully as the love between Snehamoy and Miyage is revealed through their words. Because English isn’t either of their native languages, they write honestly and without euphemisms. The musical score alternates between traditional Indian and Japanese harmonies.

Probably the most striking aspect of the movie is the contrast between their places of residence. Snehamoy lives in a small village with no electricity that’s only accessible by boat. I wasn’t sure in which decade the movie was set until he journeyed to a big city and mentioned that he had Miyage’s email address.

Yet it makes complete sense that Miyage, living in a big city in Japan, could fall for Snehamoy. One can be lonely and isolated even in a crowded place.

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