Tag Archives: Rajat Kapoor

Movie Review: Pari (2018)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Despite its sometimes disorganized story structure, the horror film Pari: Not a Fairytale (“Fairy: Not a Fairytale“) views maternity and childbirth through a compelling sinister lens.

Debutant director Prosit Roy’s movie opens with a boring scene of two single people — Arnab (Parambrata Chatterjee) and Piyali (Ritabari Chakraborty) — chitchatting on a rooftop after being set up by their parents. They aren’t very interesting, and any information about them that may eventually prove relevant could have been introduced later.

The movie should have started with the next sequence. Arnab’s parents drive him home from the meeting on a rainy back road. Their discussion of a possible marriage proposal intensifies, and a distracted Dad accidentally hits an old woman, killing her.

As the police investigate the deceased’s identity, they find a frightened young woman named Rukhsana (Anushka Sharma) chained inside a ramshackle barn. Rukhsana has had no contact with the outside world, hidden by her mother — the dead woman — from a nameless man who wants to kill her.

Early on, Pari is largely a collection of horror movie must-haves, like sudden loud noises and people appearing abruptly in frame. There’s no finesse in how the jump scares are applied. There’s also a surprising amount of gore, which seems to exist only to prepare the audience for more blood to come — although that later gruesomeness reinforces the movie’s themes, while the early stuff doesn’t.

The story hits its stride when Arnab becomes Rukhsana’s reluctant caretaker. She’s been so sheltered that she eats out of the garbage bin, not knowing that there is food in the refrigerator, because she doesn’t know what a refrigerator is. Arnab isn’t sure if Rukhsana’s mystery man is real, but he accepts that her fear of him is.

Of course the man is real, and he’s hunting Rukhsana. Professor Quasim Ali (Rajat Kapoor) is obsessed with stopping a doomsday cult from disseminating the bloodline of the djinn Ifrit. The professor takes more than a little pleasure in destroying those he suspects are connected to the djinn.

In Pari, Ifrit’s influence is tied to the female reproductive cycle, the sanguine nature of which drives director Roy’s visual style. Roy and his co-writer Abhishek Banerjee use Ifrit’s influence as a mechanism to explore the unique physical connection between mothers and their offspring. The gore associated with this aspect of the story — in the form of injuries visited upon the female characters — makes sense, evoking the bloody nature of childbirth.

Another theme related to that mother-child connection is its corollary: the lack of a physical connection between father and child, and how that frees men to abandon their unborn progeny at will. Professor Ali personifies society’s desire to punish women for out-of-wedlock pregnancy (consensual or not).

Kapoor’s performance as the professor is the spookiest element of Pari. He coolly partakes in murder and torture as an ordinary part of doing business. The dull opening scene featuring Chatterjee and Chakraborty is a blip, with both of them getting better and better as the story progresses. Sharma commands the screen, as always, though it would’ve been fun to spend more time with her character as Rukhsana discovers the modern world.

For all of its flaws, Pari is a film with a lot of interesting ideas. Just don’t expect too many scares.

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Movie Review: Island City (2015)

IslandCity2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Island City was a part of the 2016 Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.

Writer-director Ruchika Oberoi’s debut film Island City explores the pressures of life in modern Mumbai through three connected narratives, with varying degrees of success.

The movie opens with “Fun Committee,” a story about a middle-aged salaryman, Mr. Chaturvedi (Vinay Pathak). He files into his cubicle at Systematic Statistics along with the other drones, an interchangeable cog in a giant machine.

To remedy persistent employee dissatisfaction, the company installs a “Fun Committee” to randomly award workers with a day away from the office. For a guy like Chaturvedi, whose job is his life, such a reward feels like a punishment.

According to an anonymous committee member heard only over the phone (voiced by Rajat Kapoor), the day away is scientifically planned to maximize “mandatory” fun. Chaturvedi is dropped off at a shopping mall, under orders to utilize a stack of coupons for free stuff like balloons and lollipops.

The film’s limited budget becomes a problem as the narrative shifts into a surreal examination of consumer culture. Retail employees sing when Chaturvedi redeems his coupons as shoppers mill about nearby. Are the shoppers also a part of the alternative universe inhabited by Chaturvedi and the store workers? Are they even aware of it? A bigger budget would’ve allowed Oberoi to build a more immersive world, avoiding the questions of who’s involved and who’s just a regular person who happened to be shopping on the day of a movie shoot.

Sympathy for Chaturvedi’s plight is undermined when he extends his frustration with his soul-sucking job beyond the callous management to his fellow employees. They’re just as much victims of the system as he is. “Fun Committee” ends on a grim note.

The second story — “The Ghost in the Machine” — is the best of the three. Housewife Sarita (Amruta Subhash) learns that her husband, Mr. Joshi, is in a coma. Sarita, her two young sons, and her mother endure neighbors dropping by to offer condolences in exchange for tea and cookies, but the family knows the truth: Joshi was an overbearing jerk, and their life is more enjoyable without him.

All four family members get hooked on a TV serial about an ideal man. The TV hero (Samir Kochhar) is handsome, affectionate, kind, generous, and polite: all the things Joshi is not. The serial allows the family to envision a better life, while comatose Joshi hovers over their dreams like a not-quite-dead ghost. The story is delightfully clever, especially in the way the TV serial’s narrative evolves to depict the family’s desires.

“Contact” is the last of Island City‘s short stories. Unlike the middle-class protagonists of the other narratives, “Contact” features a poor heroine. Aarti (Tannishtha Chatterjee) endures a hopeless existence, commuting for hours to a manual labor job at a newspaper print shop. Her father has arranged her marriage to a foul-mouthed boor, Jignesh (Chandan Roy Sanyal), who insists that dour Aarti smile without giving her a reason to.

An anonymous love letter professes to see the passionate fire hidden within Aarti’s sad eyes. The mystery awakens not just Aarti’s sense of curiosity but a belief that perhaps she deserves a more fulfilling life than the one she has. Chatterjee’s touching performance lives up her consistently high standards.

Island City is pessimistic about life for the average Mumbaikar. Hope is either a lie, or it comes at an astronomical cost. “The Ghost in the Machine” is the only one of the three tales that is fun to watch.

It’s hard to reconcile how the salaryman’s story fits with the other two. The image of the zombie-like office worker is well established, but Chaturvedi is there by choice. There’s no sense that he quashed some vibrant part of himself to take this job. He has no family to support. He’s there because there’s nothing more to him.

Contrast that with both Sarita and Aarti, whose opportunities are dictated by the men in their lives. Joshi forced Sarita to stop working in a career she loved. Aarti works in a dead-end job, and she’s forced to marry someone she finds repulsive. Not only are Chaturvedi’s self-imposed troubles deemed equivalent with those of the two women, they’re given prominence by being placed first in the story order.

It feels like there’s a piece missing from Island City that might have better connected the three stories. Maybe it was just a matter of weaving the narratives together rather than presenting them separately. As constructed, Island City only hits its stride after a third of the movie is already over.

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Movie Review: Waiting (2015)

Waiting3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Waiting was the closing night film at the 2016 Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.

Writer-director Anu Menon presents an unvarnished look at the lives of those with seriously ill loved ones in the smart drama Waiting.

A young wife, Tara (Kalki Koechlin), finds herself in the southern city of Cochin after her husband is injured on a work trip. The husband, Rajat (Arjun Mathur), suffered serious head injuries and lingers in a coma while doctors wait for swelling in his brain to subside.

Alone in a strange city at night, Tara turns to the only other person in the hospital cafeteria for comfort. Retiree Shiv (Naseeruddin Shah) can sympathize with Tara’s situation. His own wife, Pankaja (Suhasini Maniratnam), has been in a coma for eight months following a stroke.

Shiv patiently talks Tara through the torrent of emotions she’s experiencing: disbelief, anger, depression. He’s been through them all himself. Looking past Tara’s short temper and foul mouth, Shiv sees in her the daughter he and his wife never had.

Being together gives Shiv and Tara something they both need: a way to relieve their boredom. Having spent my fair share of time in hospitals in recent years, I can attest that the predominant feeling is not panic or sadness, but tedium. Everything happens slowly. Answers are vague and in short supply. The chairs are uncomfortable. The walk to the cafeteria isn’t nearly as long as you wish it would be to kill all the time you have on your hands.

Palling around gives the two spouses something to do. Shiv explains to Tara that her duty is to take care of herself while the nurses take care of Rajat. But time spent together allows them to put off answering the terrible question of what their own lives will be like if their spouses never wake up.

Dr. Nirupam (Rajat Kapoor) is the surgeon responsible for the well-being of both patients. His instincts are often correct, but he finds it expedient to project an air of confidence regardless of his level of certainty. He’s not exactly compassionate.

It falls to Dr. Nirupam to have a frank conversation with Shiv about Pankaja’s quality of life. The doctor says, “You have to ask yourself, what would she want?” Shiv replies, “She would want to get better.”

Sometimes people can’t get better, and the film addresses the challenge of accepting that fact. Menon doesn’t try provoke a reaction from her audience, instead presenting her characters in a natural way that sparks the audiences’ empathy. It’s sad without being melancholy.

Both lead actors are so strong in very different ways. Shah’s character is easier to sympathize with, but Koechlin makes Tara likeable and relatable, despite her brash exterior. Kapoor is solid as the film’s equivalent of a villain: a man who’s trying to do what he thinks is right, albeit in an off-putting way.

The straight-forward tone of Menon’s story makes it feel familiar to those who’ve spent time in hospital waiting rooms while also serving as a useful guide for those who haven’t. Waiting is a real achievement, and an enjoyable one at that.

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Movie Review: Kapoor & Sons (2016)

Kapoor&Sons4 Stars (out of 4)

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Kapoor & Sons packs enough of an emotional wallop to leave one reeling. It’s going to be tough to beat when the Best of 2016 rankings come out.

The Kapoor family — father Harsh (Rajat Kapoor), mother Sunita (Ratna Pathak), elder son Rahul (Fawad Khan), and younger son Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra) — reunite at the bedside of ailing patriarch Amarjeet (Rishi Kapoor) when he suffers a heart attack just before his 90th birthday. The birthday provides a reason for the boys to linger for a few days in their childhood home.

All of the undercurrents of tension between the family members surface as soon as the boys come home. Harsh and Sunita are shorter with one another than they used to be, though they fall back into old patterns with their sons. Rahul is the golden boy, his room a shrine to his accomplished youth. Perpetual screw-up Arjun finds his bedroom re-purposed as his mom’s closet, overrun with purses and exercise equipment.

There’s trouble between the boys, too. Rahul waits for his brother to grow up, while Arjun harbors resentment toward Rahul, not just for his exalted status but by a suspicion that it may have come at Arjun’s expense. None of these concerns are addressed openly, leaving wounds to fester.

Two people make the trip home worthwhile. First, Grandpa Amarjeet, whose abundant love for his grandsons only grows when they teach him how to watch pornography on his iPad. Second, Tia (Alia Bhatt): a fun-loving neighbor who meets the boys separately and charms them both.

Kapoor & Sons is beautifully balanced, with funny moments juxtaposed against serious revelations. Writer-director Shakun Batra and co-writer Ayesha Devitre Dhillon set the perfect tempo, allowing subplots and relationships to develop at a pace that never feels rushed.

Behind all of the action is a beautiful, evocative score by Sameer Uddin. Of all the film’s wonderful qualities, the score may be the very best.

The acting in Kapoor & Sons is top-notch, the whole cast striking the right tone under Batra’s direction. Ratna Pathak and Rajat Kapoor are so strong as a couple whose marriage suffers after their kids have grown up and moved out. It’s wonderful to watch Alia Bhatt and Sidharth Malhotra grow as young actors.

Fawad Khan is hypnotic. His acting is graceful and grounded and stands out even when compared to the film’s other great performances.

Rishi Kapoor is terrific as well, equal parts funny and moving as an old man who just wants his family to be happy again. His makeup and prosthetics (designed by Greg Cannom) age the 63-year-old Kapoor effectively, without being distracting.

Two supporting performances of note belong to Sukant Goel as Arjun’s pal Wasim and Fahim Shaikh as Wasim’s bodybuilding brother, Boobly, who steals every scene he’s in.

Batra’s directorial debut Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu showed a ton of promise, though it was marred by a frustrating ending. Those frustrations are nowhere to be found in Kapoor & Sons, a mature, satisfying film. Well done.

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Movie Review: Drishyam (2015)

Drishyam3 Stars (out of 4)

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Note: This review pertains exclusively to the 2015 Hindi remake Drishyam. I have not seen the 2013 Malayalam film of the same name, thus this review draws no comparisons between the two.

When Drishyam (“Visual“) succeeds, it does so mightily. Yet the film’s ending breaks crucial promises made to its audience.

Drishyam expects the audience to be almost as well-versed in films as its main character, Vijay (Ajay Devgn), a man with a keen memory for everything he watches on screen. Movies fill in the gaps in his education, which formally ended in the fourth grade. As an adult, Vijay is a kindly family man whose only vice is that he stays late at the office, engrossed in the movies he programs for the small-town cable channel he runs.

There’s a beautiful shot of Vijay returning one morning to the home he shares with his wife Nandhani (Shriya Saran), teenage daughter Anju (Ishita Dutta), and younger daughter Anu. The camera pulls back as Vijay walks down the sunny, curtain-lined hallway of his cheerful house. The same shot is repeated later with a sinister twist, the dark house eerily silent, the floor covered in muddy footprints.

Vijay’s knowledge of movies becomes essential when he must save his family from a predicament involving Sam, the teenage son of the Goa’s Inspector General, Meera (Tabu). Vijay coaches his family on what to expect from the police while Meera simultaneously unravels the details of Vijay’s plan.

Director Nishikant Kamat effectively shifts the tone from light-hearted to darkly serious, with periods of stomach-churning tension. Devgn is a steady presence, and Dutta portrays Anju as the capable daughter of a capable man. Saran’s character is harder to love since she’s slow get with the program, but her flustered reactions are probably the most realistic.

Scenes involving Sam are important in that they debunk a myth about rape some prominent figures in India still cite: that a rapist will relent if you beg him to stop. When Sam tries to blackmail Anju for sex, both she and her mother beg him to relent, but of course he doesn’t. Rape is about power, not sex, and the story establishes that Sam is used to getting what he wants. Meera and her husband Mahesh (Rajat Kapoor) fret that their indulgence may have turned Sam into a rotten person. Credit to director Kamat for such a realistic depiction of a sexual predator.

Kapoor is terrific as Tabu’s foil. He’s rational and willing to give people the benefit of the doubt; she’s as drunk on power as her son, and she will not brook any challenge to police authority. She finds her perfect ally in Gaitonde, a local constable with a taste for violence and a grudge against Vijay.

Despite the presence of several law-abiding police officers, the film operates on the assumption that the police as an institution cannot be trusted (by no means a unique sentiment in Bollywood). Precisely because of that assumption, Kamat disappointed me when he resorted unnecessarily to my biggest Bollywood pet peeve: a montage of people across India watching news footage of the events in the film.

If police abuse of power is such a given, why would the events of this small-town story become national news? And why does it need nationwide attention to be meaningful? Why does it matter what some random people in other parts of the country think?

After a tense first half, the film bogs down in the middle, as Meera investigates multiple witnesses, growing tired of their Stepford-like corroboration of Vijay’s alibi.

Though the story is aimed at movie buffs who may be able to guess at many details, it is fun to hear Meera and Vijay lay out their reasoning to their officers and family, respectively. Their deductions are handled in a logical way that doesn’t feel condescending.

Yet, the very ending of Drishyam betrays the film buffs in the audience. Without giving away details, during a conversation with Meera and Mahesh, Vijay does something stupid that no intelligent character in a thriller or mystery film should (or would) do.

The scene is presumably included in order to establish the character’s moral righteousness, but it’s unnecessary for a couple of reasons. First, it’s doubtful that anyone would find him immoral after having watched the first two-and-a-half hours of the film. Second, it makes him a less complex character. Instead of being a good guy who did something morally questionable, the scene tries to absolve him of wrongdoing, altogether.

It’s okay if movie heroes aren’t perfect. It can make them more relatable. If only Drishyam trusted its cinema-savvy audience to accept an imperfect hero, the movie itself could have come close to perfection.

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Movie Review: Ankhon Dekhi (2014)

AnkhonDekhi4 Stars (out of 4)

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“I don’t think we should look for messages in films,” said filmmaker Rajat Kapoor at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival press conference this past weekend. “It’s reductionist.” Such a sentiment suits Kapoor’s movie Ankhon Dekhi (“Through My Own Eyes“), which closed the 2014 festival. It’s a film that is at its most moving when it is simply experienced.

Veteran character actor Sanjay Mishra plays Raje, a middle-aged man with a comfortable life and a family he loves. He lives in a small flat in Delhi with his own wife and kids, plus his younger brother, Rishi (Kapoor), Rishi’s wife, and their son.

When the gossipy priest’s son exposes Raje’s daughter Rita’s (Maya Sarao) romantic relationship with Ajju (Namit Das), Raje meets the boyfriend to see if he’s as much of a lout as everyone says he is. Raje discovers that Ajju is a harmless puppy dog of a man. This causes Raje to commit himself to only trusting that which he sees for himself.

This new governing principle makes it hard for Raje to continue working as a travel agent. How can he tell a customer how long a flight to a foreign country will take when he’s never made the trip himself? Worse, Raje’s new way of operating creates a rift between him and Rishi.

Ankhon Dekhi doesn’t attempt to make sweeping philosophical statements through Raje’s choices. The characters discuss broad issues, such as the aspects of language that are more convenient than they are accurate, but Kapoor avoids tying up the narrative with a tidy moral lesson.

Instead, the movie feels like a window into Raje’s life for a short period of time. We see how his values affect his family and how they influence his neighbors. He gains a loyal following at the barbershop, and his acolytes sometimes take his ideas to ridiculous extremes.

There are breathtaking moments in Ankhon Dekhi, when the cast and crew function in complete harmony. Look around in busy scenes such as when Raje holds court in his living room and notice how perfectly every supporting actor is executing his or her role. The acolytes listen to Raje attentively; Rita listens disinterestedly; Raje’s wife (Seema Pahwa) frustratedly tries to do her chores with a house full of people.

Such scenes highlight just how hard it is to make a really good movie. The right actors need to be cast. They need to have clear motivation in every scene, no matter how small their roles are. The director has to get the technical aspects of the shot just right.

There are many such perfect scenes in Ankhon Dekhi. It’s a remarkable achievement for Kapoor, who wrote the film, in addition to directing and acting in it. It’s impossible to imagine anyone executing the role of Raje better than Mishra. Ankhon Dekhi is a delight to watch.

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CSAFF 2014 Starts Tonight

The 2014 Chicago South Asian Film Festival opens with a bang tonight. Actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui will be on hand for a local premier of his film Liar’s Dice.

The festival continues Friday through Sunday, September 19-21, with lots of other great films and artists in attendance. Saturday features a screening of Siddiqui’s film Monsoon Shootout, as well as showing of Brahmin Bulls that includes a Q&A with actor Sendhil Ramamurthy moderated by Prashant Bhargava, director of the excellent movie Patang.

CSAFF 2014 closes on Sunday night with a screening of Ankhon Dekhi, attended by writer-director-actor Rajat Kapoor.

Click here for ticket information.

CSAFF 2014 Schedule

The lineup for the 2014 Chicago South Asian Film Festival has been announced. In addition to all of the features and shorts that will air during the festival, a number of artists will be in attendance as well. Sendhil Ramamurthy will be on hand to discuss his film, Brahmin Bulls, while actor/director Rajat Kapoor will close the festival with a Q&A session regarding Ankhon Dekhi. Prior to the screening of Ankhon Dekhi, Kapoor will moderate a conversation with acclaimed writer and lyricist Javed Akhtar.

The festival’s big draw is undoubtedly actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who will conduct Q&A sessions for two of his films playing at CSAFF 2014: Liar’s Dice and Monsoon Shootout.

The festival runs from September 18-21, and tickets are available now. Click here for the full schedule.

Movie Review: Rann (2010)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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It’s both sad and comforting to know that, on the other side of the world, people are as distrustful of the mainstream media as they are in America.

Rann (“Battle”) explores news organizations’ struggle for ratings supremacy and their ability to steer public opinion based on their coverage of news stories.

Amitabh Bachchan stars as Vijay Hashvardan Malik, a TV news pioneer who prides himself on truthfulness. As Vijay’s network loses advertisers to rivals that engage in tabloid journalism, his son, Jay (Sudeep), struggles to convince him to add more sensationalism to the network’s broadcasts.

With the network’s financial trouble widely known, Jay’s brother-in-law, Naveen (Rajat Kapoor), proposes to Jay a plan to save the network: favorable coverage of a shady politician named Mohan Pandey (Paresh Rawal) in exchange for advertising dollars from Naveen’s company.

Jay conveniently comes into possession of a video that tarnishes the reputation of Pandey’s main political rival. Jay convinces his father to broadcast the video in the name of truthfulness, and suddenly the network’s financial problems disappear.

A new reporter at the network, Purab (Ritesh Deshmukh), grows suspicious and investigates the politician’s story. What he discovers shakes his faith in the industry and in Vijay, the man who inspired him to become a journalist.

The collusion between the industrialists, politicians and networks is eerie and believable.  Bachchan and Deshmukh are quietly effective as a pair of idealists who come to realize that they’re playing a rigged game. Rawal is especially creepy as Pandey, who laughs off the bloodshed he inflicts as though it were a natural part of politics.

[I have a question for any Indian readers: Pandey is flanked by bodyguards who openly carry machine guns. I’ve seen this in other Hindi movies as well. Do politicians in India really travel with such visibly heavily armed guards? Just curious.]

Despite the universal appeal of the story, American audiences may struggle with poorly translated English subtitles. The subtitles also occasionally get lost against background shots of news programs with moving crawls at the bottom of the screen.

I’ve only seen two of Ram Gopal Varma’s films, but it’s clear that he’s an auteur with a distinct style and a love of filmmaking technique. In fact, I’d say he suffers from an over-reliance on camera technique. His cameras constantly swoop for dramatic effect and zoom in for close-ups of the actors’ faces. On those rare occasions when the camera is static, it’s positioned underneath a glass coffee table, or the shot is framed by an actor’s foot resting on said coffee table. Varma also inserts hilariously over-the-top musical cues to alert the audience whenever anything of import happens.

I found these directorial tics distracting in Varma’s Sarkar Raj, and they bugged me in Rann, as well. Rann‘s plot is riveting and so well acted that I wanted to focus on the story, not on the cinematography. With a story this good, we in the audience know how we’re supposed to feel without the aid of directorial gimmicks.

Rann‘s runtime is 2 hrs. 25 min.