Tag Archives: Rajkummar Rao

Chicago South Asian Film Festival 2017 Highlights

The 2017 Chicago South Asian Film Festival recently announced its lineup. This year’s event — which runs from September 28 through October 1 — includes a number of intriguing celebrity appearances. Here are some of the notable screenings and question and answer sessions:

  • September 28, 7 p.m.: Signature Move (Q & A with Shabana Azmi)
  • September 29, 8:30 p.m.: Newton (Q & A with Rajkummar Rao)
  • September 30, 2 p.m.: Sonata (Q & A with Shabana Azmi)
  • September 30, 7 p.m.: You Are My Sunday (Q & A with Shahana Goswami)
  • October 1, 5:30 p.m.: Trapped (Q & A with Rajkummar Rao)
  • October 1, 8:15 p.m: Gurgaon (Q & A with Akshay Oberoi)

Festival passes are already on sale. Tickets for individual screenings go on sale September 4.

Advertisements

Movie Review: Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the book by Nicholas Barreau at Amazon

Based on the book The Ingredients of Love by Nicholas Barreau — which itself draws inspiration from Cyrano de BergeracBareilly Ki Barfi (“The Sweet from Bareilly“) feels familiar but fresh. Delightful characters, wonderful performances, and a touching and funny love story make Bareilly Ki Barfi an example of the romantic comedy genre at its best.

Bitti (Kriti Sanon) is the black sheep of Bareilly, a tomboy with a fondness for booze and breakdancing. Her mother Sushila (Seema Bhargava Pahwa) frets that Bitti’s unladylike tendencies are driving away potential suitors. Her supportive father Narottam (Pankaj Tripathy) is happy to have a daughter off whom he can bum smokes.

Father and daughter are aware of the societal norms that Bitti is up against. “Being a girl is a complete disaster,” Bitti says. Narottam doesn’t have any wisdom for her, but he stays by her side as they stand on their balcony looking glum.

Bitti runs away from home, but a book she buys on the train platform entitled “Bareilly Ki Barfi” prompts her to return. The protagonist of the book, Babli, is the spitting image of Bitti. Assuming the book to be the work of a secret admirer, Bitti asks the bookseller, Munna (Rohit Choudhary), for help finding the author, a man named Pritam Vidrohi. Munna instead sends her to his best friend, Chirag Dubey (Ayushmann Khurrana).

Five years earlier, Chirag wrote “Bareilly Ki Barfi” about his ex-girlfriend, Babli. In order to protect his identity, Chirag bullies timid Pritam (Rajkummar Rao) into claiming authorship. Chirag hopes that Bitti can replace Babli, but he doesn’t own up to being the book’s true author, vetting Bitti first. He instead acts as go-between for Bitti and “Pritam,” writing letters on his behalf, spending time with Bitti, and gradually falling in love.

Unable to put off Bitti’s requests to meet Pritam in person, Chirag and Munna track Pritam to Lucknow, where he fled to avoid the mobs of zealous book readers that never materialized (Bitti is the first person to ever buy the book). Pritam is as meek as ever, and it’s easy for Chirag and Munna to pressure him into returning to Bareilly. They force Pritam to adopt a brash, chauvinistic avatar designed to repulse Bitti, thus clearing the way for Chirag. Of course, things don’t work out the way Chirag plans.

One of the themes of Bareilly Ki Barfi is that we are who we are. Bitti won’t change herself to suit the demands of a conservative potential groom. Pritam’s tough-guy act has the unexpected effect of imbuing his natural helpfulness with a cool air, instead of his usual subservient aura. By refusing to acknowledge his true identity, Chirag deprives himself and Bitti of the love they both want.

Munna says something interesting to Chirag as his buddy’s manipulation of Pritam intensifies: “You’re not the villain.” It’s meant to absolve Chirag of wrongdoing, but it highlights the way Chirag’s deceit is changing him for the worse. The longer he continues the charade, the further he strays from the man he and Bitti want him to be.

While the plot of Bareilly Ki Barfi echoes stories that have come before, the setting and characters provide a refreshing update. Bitti and her family are so likeable, and Pritam’s Amitabh Bachchan-inspired boss act is a hoot.

There’s also a lot to like about the story’s construction. Barielly Ki Barfi is directed by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari (who debuted with 2016’s impressive Nil Battey Sannata) and written by her husband, filmmaker Nitesh Tiwari. An economy of characters ensures that everyone matters, even minor players like Pritam’s mom and Bitti’s best friend, Rama (Swati Semwal). A runtime of around two hours keeps the action moving, allowing the Tiwaris to wrap the movie up before it becomes tiresome.

Best of all is the cast. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Khurrana and Rao as Chirag and Pritam. Khurrana is a master of facial expressions, from his brilliant smiles for Bitti to his stony glares for Munna. Rao has the challenging job of essentially playing two parts and switching between them often, and he does so with ease. The whole supporting cast is terrific as well.

This is the Kriti Sanon performance I’ve been waiting for. She’s been little more than a helpless damsel in distress in her first two Hindi films, and it’s gratifying to see that she’s capable of so much more. Hopefully filmmakers follow Tiwari’s lead and look beyond Sanon’s beauty,  capitalizing on her humor and ease in front of the camera.

Links

Movie Review: Aligarh (2016)

Aligarh4 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the DVD at Amazon

Aligarh was featured at the 2016 Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.

Director Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh can be summarized as a film about a professor who loses his job for being gay, but the story is less about the issue and more about the man who reluctantly becomes the face of a civil rights movement.

64-year-old Professor Siras (Manoj Bajpayee) arrives at his apartment on the campus of Aligarh University on a foggy night in 2010. The young man driving the rickshaw brings the professor’s bags upstairs for him but doesn’t come down. The camera lingers voyeuristically outside the building. Moments later, two men — one holding a video camera and one holding a billy club — sneak into the apartment. We hear shouts from within.

The next day, a Delhi journalist named Deepu (Rajkummar Rao) spots a local news item about an Aligarh professor suspended for his involvement in a gay sex scandal. With the recent overturn of India’s Section 377 law that criminalized homosexuality, this seems like a clear violation of Professor Siras’ civil rights.

In Aligarh, Deepu discovers that neither the professor nor his friends share the reporter’s zeal for justice, hoping instead that the matter will go away on its own. The element of the case that piques Deepu’s interest — the videotaped violation of the professor’s right to privacy — is the same one that makes the professor hesitate. He’s an intensely private person, and speaking about the violation publicly will only invite more attention.

When waiting for the issue to blow over ceases to be an option, Siras opens up to Deepu. Siras resists referring to himself as gay, wondering how a person’s being can be encompassed by a three-letter word. He explains that he was attacked not for his sexuality but because of internal university politics. Outing him as gay was just the most expedient method to get him expelled from a conservative, predominantly Muslim school.

The interactions between Deepu and Siras are a delight to watch for how different the two men are. Deepu talks loudly and fidgets in his seat. He even listens aggressively, hunched forward, recorder in hand. By contrast, Siras sits still as a stone. He drinks slowly. He speaks slowly. He is not in a rush.

Out of respect to its protagonist, Aligarh‘s story unfolds at an unhurried pace. There’s an economy of camera movement, with Mehta and cinematographer Satya Nagpaul favoring still shots. Minutes are spent in closeup on Siras’ face as he cries while singing along to an old movie song.

Bajpayee is impossible to ignore in any scene, and Mehta puts the actor’s particular gift to good use. A court hearing regarding Siras’ reinstatement features the two opposing lawyers in the foreground arguing precedent, but one’s attention is drawn to the professor sitting in the corner behind his lawyer, dozing off from boredom.

Rao is one of Mehta’s favorite actors, and with reason. He’s terrific yet again as a young man with a great deal of empathy, but lacking a bit in wisdom. Pairing him opposite an actor as gifted as Bajpayee is magic.

Just as Siras opens Deepu’s eyes to a broader view of humanity, Aligarh provides an important lesson in understanding why a person may choose not to fight. Siras’ sexual orientation is only one part of him, and in the decades that he’s been forced to keep it hidden, he’s cultivated other aspects of his life that give him joy, such as poetry, music, and teaching. He fears that defending the attack on one aspect of his personality could put the other parts at risk. Deepu and the activists who rally to the cause are slow to realize that what’s best for Siras the gay man may be different than what’s best for Siras the professor.

Links

Movie Review: Hamari Adhuri Kahani (2015)

HamariAdhuriKahani1 Star (out of 4)

Buy the DVD at Amazon
Buy the soundtrack at Amazon

“He is so stupid.” In an otherwise quiet theater, one woman spoke for all of us as Emraan Hashmi’s character in Hamari Adhuri Kahani set out to do something moronic. This is not a good movie.

That’s not to say that Hamari Adhuri Kahani (“Our Incomplete Storyin English) isn’t fun, albeit unintentionally. The audience laughed heartily when Hashmi’s character’s mother said, in all seriousness, “Who is this wandering soul who feels like a kindred spirit?” More chuckles when a hotel owner asked, “Is this a business meeting or an insulting session?”

Hamari Adhuri Kahani is among the most earnest, corniest movies ever. It feels like it was written by a clever 15-year-old girl who isn’t as worldly-wise as she thinks she is. That it is actually written by a man in his mid-60s — Mahesh Bhatt — is a problem.

Vidya Balan plays Vasudha, a hotel florist and single mother of a 5-year-old son, Saanj. Her husband, Hari (Rajkummar Rao), ran off just after Saanj was born, yet Vasudha is regularly caught off guard by questions about her husband’s whereabouts. After five years, she doesn’t have a pat answer?

Her world is turned upside down when her exemplary customer service impresses hotelier Aarav (Hashmi). Aarav is a teen-girl-fantasy: a lonely rich guy who wants nothing more than to make all of Vasudha’s dreams come true. That he wants to do so primarily to make up for his own childhood as the impoverished son of a single mother who worked in a hotel just makes things weird.

Vasudha and Aarav are overly melodramatic about everything. He makes an entire plane full of passengers wait so that he can smell some flowers that remind him of her. She’s torn by the fact that she’s married, even though Hari is a cartoonish jerk who may be a terrorist.

As if emotional fireworks aren’t enough, there are actual fireworks. Also a hotel fire, bullets, and landmines. Essentially, Hamari Adhuri Kahani is a series of wordy, teary-eyed scenes with cheesy dialogue followed by explosions.

Since every scene is overwrought, it’s impossible to misunderstand what’s happening in the movie. Still, international audience members will miss out on the significance of many cultural and religious references. Vasudha’s marriage fulfills some sort of religious obligation, and though the particular religion isn’t named, it’s clear that she’s basically property transferred from her father to her husband. (I can’t verify if this is orthodox to the religion depicted, but director Mohit Suri’s point is explicit.)

Vasudha’s future plans are also questioned in cultural context: is she going to be like Sita in her marriage to Ram or like Radha in her relationship with Krishna? Again, I’m not overly familiar with either parable, but the meaning is apparent: does Vasudha want to be a devoted wife even at the expense of her own life (Sita-Ram), or does she want a more egalitarian kind of love (Radha-Krishna)?

The cultural and religious references are used to criticize the historically unequal treatment of women in India. One older woman says ruefully, “Even after they are dead, men still control a woman’s body.” The movie’s feminist sentiment feels hollow for a couple of reasons.

First, Vasudha is a dud. It’s hard to care about such a passive heroine. When she finally decides to take action, the action is to beg Hari to stop being such a jerk.

Second, Vasudha’s romance with Aarav is a relic of Bollywood stalker love stories. In a dramatic conversation in the middle of desert in front of an approaching sandstorm, Aarav uses as proof of Vasudha’s love for him…a piece of paper upon which he has written her name multiple times. Wait, what? How exactly do his schoolboy doodles prove that she loves him?

It doesn’t ultimately matter, since Vasudha eventually begs Aarav to teach her how to love again (more begging!). There’s not much Balan and Hashmi can do with such one-dimensional characters. Same for Rao, who just shows up periodically to be mean in different wigs.

The resolution to Aarav’s arc is telegraphed, yet it’s so cornball that it’s hard to believe that Suri will go through with it until it actually happens. When it does, it is sublimely ridiculous. Hamari Adhuri Kahani is stupid, yet I left the theater with a smile on my face.

Links

Opening June 12: Hamari Adhuri Kahani

The romantic drama Hamari Adhuri Kahani — starring Vidya Balan, Emraan Hashmi, and Rajkummar Rao — opens in Chicago area theaters on June 12, 2015.

Hamari Adhuri Kahani opens Friday at the AMC River East 21 in Chicago, MovieMax Cinemas in Niles, AMC South Barrington 30 in South Barrington, and Regal Cantera Stadium 17 in Warrenville. It has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 9 min.

Dil Dhadakne Do carries over at all of the above theaters, plus Regal Gardens Stadium 1-6 in Skokie, Regal Round Lake Beach Stadium 18 in Round Lake Beach, and AMC Loews Woodridge 18 in Woodridge.

Tanu Weds Manu Returns gets a fourth week at MovieMax, South Barrington 30, Cantera 17, and Woodridge 18.

Other Indian movies showing in the Chicago area this weekend include Premam (Malayalam) at the Muvico Rosemont 18 in Rosemont and MovieMax, which also carries Ranna (Kannada), Kerintha (Telugu), Inimey Ippadithan (Tamil), Romeo Juliet (Tamil), Jyothi Lakshmi (Telugu), and Ivide (Malayalam).

Movie Review: Dolly Ki Doli (2015)

DollyKiDoli1 Star (out of 4)

Buy the DVD at Amazon
Buy the soundtrack at Amazon

Was footage accidentally left out of Dolly Ki Doli? That’s the only way to account for a climax and resolution that come completely out of left field.

Sonam Kapoor plays Dolly, “The Plundering Bride” as she’s known by the police. She flits around the outskirts of Delhi, marrying eligible bachelors and drugging and robbing them on their wedding night. She arranges marriages with men of various religions and traditions, requiring her to change her appearance and mannerisms to appeal to each family she’s marrying into.

Dolly is a seductress only in a fantasy sense. She never so much as allows her grooms to kiss her, delaying their affection with excuses* until the drugs she’s administered have taken effect.

While Dolly’s swindled grooms — including nouveau riche braggart Sonu (Rajkummar Rao) and horny loser Manjot (Varun Sharma) — are jerks, so is she. Dolly works with a group of fellow cons who pose as her family, and her fake brother, Raju (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), is in love with her. Dolly knows this, and she ridicules Raju for it.

Dolly’s pride derails their criminal enterprise. After being rejected as a prospective bride by Manjot’s mother for being too tall, Dolly insists on pursuing Manjot in order to take revenge on his family. This mistake lands her in the clutches of police officer Robin Singh (Pulkit Samrat), who has his own reasons for pursuing Dolly. The history between Robin and Dolly isn’t developed enough for the film’s final act to feel remotely believable.

While Kapoor imbues Dolly with a fun vibe, that’s the thief’s only positive attribute. She lacks chemistry with her potential beaus, and she lacks character depth. Dolly says that she’s a thief because she’s good at it. That’s a valid enough reason, but the movie gives no sense of what ambitions Dolly has for her future, when she can no longer keep up the con.

I’m still not sold on the acting abilities of Samrat and Sharma, who got their big breaks in 2013’s Fukrey. Ayyub is earnest as lovelorn Raju, but the script gives his character no room to grow.

What Dolly Ki Doli does show is what a terrific actor Rajkummar Rao is. Sonu tracks down Dolly not for revenge but because he genuinely loves her. He stares at her with such devotion and longing that one secretly hopes Dolly will return to him. It’s a quality performance that deserved a better film.

* – I’d like to thank Dolly Ki Doli‘s subtitles for me teaching me a nauseating euphemism for menstruation I’d never heard before. When Dolly puts off one of her grooms by saying she’s having “ladki problems” (“girl problems”), the subtitles read, “I’m chumming.”

Links

Movie Review: Shahid (2012)

Shahid4 Stars (out of 4)

Buy or rent the movie at iTunes
Buy the DVD at Amazon

The best and worst aspects of humanity are on display in Shahid, a biographical film based on the life of the lawyer Shahid Azmi. Azmi’s assassination while defending an innocent man against terrorism charges embodies the personal and social costs of choosing quick, easy solutions at the expense of the truth.

Rajkummar Rao plays Shahid, whose own past mirrors the lives of the men he defends in court. As a teen, Shahid witnesses the gruesome murders of his neighbors in a religious riot in his Muslim neighborhood. Feeling powerless, he joins a militant Islamist training camp, only to flee after a few months.

Upon his return home, Shahid is arrested when his name is found in a terrorist’s diary. Torture and coercion at the hands of the police result in Shahid’s imprisonment for seven years.

In jail, Shahid finds his calling. Two fellow prisoners — a kindly professor and a reformed militant — recognize Shahid’s intelligence and steer him away from the terror recruiters in the jail. Professor Saxena (Yusuf Hussain) tutors Shahid and War Saab (Kay Kay Menon, who is delightful in every scene) finances Shahid’s studies.

On the outside, Shahid finishes his law degree and discovers how easy it is to manipulate the legal system. Shahid’s first case of note involves a computer repair man named Zaheer who lends his laptop to a friend. Unbeknownst to Zaheer, the friend uses the laptop to plan a terror attack, and Zaheer is implicated in the crime.

Despite having no direct evidence tying Zaheer to the crime, the prosecutor, More (Vipin Sharma), drags the trial on for years. Shahid’s persistence results in Zaheer’s eventual release and earns Shahid a reputation as a defender of unjustly persecuted Muslims. Shahid himself is violently targeted while defending a man wrongly accused of participating in the Mumbai terror attacks of November 26, 2008.

What stands out in the two trials depicted in the film — the real Shahid earned seventeen acquittals in his brief career — is how weak the state’s cases are. More’s stalling tactics are outrageous. In the second case, the prosecutor’s arguments are easily disproved.

Why would a government spend so much time and money to convict innocent men when those resources could’ve been spent trying to catch the real perpetrators? The prosecutor in the second case, Tambe (Shalini Vaste), reveals the answer when she says that even citizens who weren’t personally endangered during the attacks now feel scared in their own homes. The government needs to convict someone — anyone — so that the people will feel safe again.

As flawed as the justice system is, its agents aren’t depicted as monsters. Prosecutor More has one of the sweetest moments in the film. Following an intense argument with Shahid, More spies a sandwich in Shahid’s briefcase and tries to goad the young lawyer into splitting it with him, dissolving Shahid into giggles.

Shahid himself is far from perfect. He’s a lousy husband to his wife, Mariam (Prabhleen Sandhu), a former client. He refuses to address the persistent threats made against him, keeping his family in the dark even though their lives are in danger, too.

The character closest to perfect is Shahid’s devoted brother, Arif (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who’s great in the film). Arif covers for Shahid when he joins the militants and encourages him to study law, even if it means Arif must support the family financially by himself. When Arif finally blows up at Shahid, it seems deserved.

Director Hansal Mehta uses the camera to emphasize how the justice system can diminish an individual. During Shahid’s initial interrogation, he huddles on the floor naked, the camera positioned at the ceiling to make him appear tiny compared to the police officer towering above him. In his first difficult days in prison, Shahid tells Arif to stop coming to visit him. Arif is fully in focus while Shahid stands behind a screen, the camera partially fulfilling Shahid’s wish to fade into obscurity.

Rao navigates skillfully through all the ups and downs in Shahid’s life. Rao’s infectious smile comes to Shahid’s face easily and often during the character’s first trial and initial courtship of Maryam. As the story progresses and the cycle of unjust imprisonment of innocent men persists, Shahid’s smile all but disappears.

Links