Tag Archives: Rana Daggubati

Movie Review: Welcome to New York (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Note: This is a review of the 2D version of the movie.

Welcome to New York has plenty of laughs for the hardest of hardcore Bollywood fans, packaged in an enjoyable fish-out-of-water comedy.

When I say “hardcore,” I mean it. It’s not enough to be familiar with the biggest Bollywood hits of recent years. Welcome to New York requires an appetite for industry gossip, knowledge of awards shows, and a fondness for Karan Johar–particularly his talk show, Koffee with Karan.

The extremely meta setting for Welcome to New York is the 18th International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards, which were held in New York City last year. As in real life, Johar plays the host of the awards show. His actual co-host, Saif Ali Khan, is replaced in the film by Riteish Deshmukh, playing a self-deprecating version of himself who bemoans his underpaid, B-list status.

In order to boost viewership in India, awards show organizers Gary (Boman Irani) and Sophia (Lara Dutta) create a talent contest, giving two winners the chance to perform onstage during the show. Sophia uses the contest to sabotage the show and get back at Gary, choosing the two worst entries among all the submissions as the winners.

Those winners are Teji (Diljit Dosanjh), a small-town repo man and wannabe actor, and Jeenal (Sonakshi Sinha), a feisty fashion designer. Whisked away to New York, the two must overcome their differences to navigate their flashy new surroundings and make their dreams come true.

Meanwhile, an angry Karan Johar doppelgänger named Arjun (also played by Johar) plans to kidnap his lookalike before the awards show. Teji accidentally foils one kidnapping attempt, thinking he’s playing a version of the Rapid Fire Round from Koffee with Karan.

The plotlines aren’t well-integrated, but it hardly matters, given how silly the movie is. Teji’s and Jeenal’s budding friendship is sweet to watch, and Dosanjh and Sinha are both effortlessly likeable. Dosanjh’s Teji gets most of the fish-out-of-water jokes, such as when he calls Jeenal’s terrycloth robe a “coat that looks like a towel.” Their characters have some amusing interactions with Aditya Roy Kapur and Sushant Singh Rajput that play off of people’s mistaken tendency to conflate actors with their roles.

When it comes to playing a role, no one in Welcome to New York does so more enthusiastically than Karan Johar, who plays the most outrageous version of himself imaginable. He’s vain, snarky, and snobbish, and he’s hilarious. He gets to spout lines like, “You are a traitor, Riteish Deshkmukh.” The payoff to subplot in which Karan advises Rana Daggubati on his career after Baahubali is worth the price of admission alone. Lara Dutta and Boman Irani being as great as always is a nice bonus.

The most disappointing element of Welcome to New York is its music. Songs range from forgettable to annoying, and there’s precious little dancing to speak of.

Casual fans may find Welcome to New York too “inside baseball,” but Bollywood junkies will see their obsession pay off in a multitude of self-referential gags. The actors seem like they had fun making the movie, and that quality translates to an enjoyable experience for the audience.

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Movie Review: The Ghazi Attack (2017)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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This is a review of the Hindi version of The Ghazi Attack.

The novelty factor of an Indian submarine movie is plenty of reason to watch The Ghazi Attack, though the film itself is only so-so.

Set in 1971, when Bangladesh was East Pakistan, the film follows an Indian submarine as it tracks the Pakistani sub PNS Ghazi through the Bay of Bengal. The story is based on real-life events, though both countries differ on what actually happened.

Tensions are high as Pakistan cracks down on suspected Bengali militants in East Pakistan. India sends an aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal to disrupt the seaward supply route, and Pakistan dispatches the Ghazi in response. With all of its vessels otherwise occupied, the Indian Navy sends its own sub — the S21 — to investigate.

The S21 isn’t the Navy’s first choice, because its captain — Ranvijay Singh (Kay Kay Menon) — has a reputation for a hair-trigger. Singh is under orders not to fire on the Ghazi, but the admiral (played by Om Puri) doesn’t trust the captain. The admiral sends Lt. Commander Arjun Verma  (Rana Daggubati) on the mission to stop Singh from starting a war, no matter what.

Cynicism regarding institutions is expected in Hindi movies, with the government, the police, and the judiciary frequently portrayed as inept or callous, if not outright hostile to ordinary citizens. The Navy brass aren’t depicted that way in The Ghazi Attack. The admiral and his staff take a wide view of the conflict that seeks to minimize civilian casualties by avoiding war, if possible.

Captain Singh is cut from the same cloth as many Bollywood heroes: a man of action whose inherent righteousness empowers him to define morality as it suits him. He sees his only job as killing the enemy — the enemy being anyone in a Pakistani military uniform.

Singh’s sense of purpose stems from personal revenge, not any virtuous higher calling. He’s not fundamentally at odds with his military superiors — he just sees them as overly cautious — but his vendetta against Pakistan compels him to ignore the chain of command. Anyone harmed in his pursuit is collateral damage.

Verma’s presence serves not only as a check on Singh’s actions but provides an alternative moral point-of-view. Verma risks his own life to rescue two refugees from the wreckage of a merchant vessel sunk by the Ghazi: a little girl and a doctor named Ananya (Taapsee Pannu).

As debutant director Sankalp Reddy’s film progresses, Singh’s “shoot first” morality is unexpectedly endorsed as the preferred code of conduct, at least in terms of dealings between India and Pakistan. Singh is not only willing to risk the lives of the soldiers under his command in order to sink the Ghazi, he doesn’t care what happens as a result of his actions: not to himself, and not to the hundreds of thousands of civilians who would be endangered in the event of all-out war.

Things get downright silly when Indian patriotism is weaponized. The captain of the Pakistani sub (played by Rahul Singh) is driven into a blind rage just by hearing the Indian National Anthem.

Despite the movie’s questionable moral compass, The Ghazi Attack is enjoyable, thanks to compelling performances by Menon and Daggubati. Atul Kulkarni also deserves kudos as Executive Officer Devraj, a man whose personal views have more in common with those of Verma, but who trusts Singh enough to follow his dangerous orders. Pannu is wasted as a token female character who doesn’t even get to use her medical expertise when a pivotal emergency cries out for a doctor’s assistance.

It’s especially fascinating to see the kind of technology that powered Indian Naval submarines in the early 1970s. Maneuvers are executed by turning wheels and opening valves, which all looks ancient by contemporary post-digital standards (even though military submarine technology was already more than half-a-century old by the time of the events in the film). It’s a poignant reminder of the uniquely challenging conditions under which sailors wage war.

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Movie Review: Baahubali 2 — The Conclusion (2017)

4 Stars (out of 4)

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The whole reason I go to the movies is for the rare opportunity to watch a film as engrossing and magical as Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. Together with its predecessor, Baahubali: The Beginning, the Baahubali films are works of tremendous artistic achievement.

As the subtitles of the Baahubali (“The One with Strong Arms“) films suggest, they combine to form a single narrative and don’t work well as standalone films. There’s a tiny summary of the events of the first film at the opening of The Conclusion, but only enough to refresh the memories of those who’ve seen the original. It’s inadvisable to watch The Conclusion without first watching The Beginning (which is readily available for purchase/rent in the US via iTunes, Amazon, etc.)

With The Beginning having established the origin of the present-day hero, Shivudu (Prabhas), the prowess of his Herculean father Baahubali (also Prabhas), as well as the specific tragedy that tore apart the kingdom of Mahishmati, The Conclusion fills in the details of what led to the tragedy. As in so many epics, it was a fight over a woman.

That woman is Devasena (Anushka Shetty), who appears in The Beginning after suffering decades of torture at the hands of the king of Mahishmati, Ballaladeva (Rana Daggubati), Baahubali’s brother. The Conclusion shows Devasena in her youth, a beautiful princess with fearsome battle skills.

Baahubali meets Devasena as he and Kattappa (Sathyaraj) travel the countryside in disguise. When Baahubali falls for Devasena, it is as much for her strong will and sense of justice as for her looks. On the other hand, Ballaladeva decides to marry Devasena after merely seeing her portrait, without even laying eyes on her in person.

In The Beginning, the female warrior Avantika (Tamannaah Bhatia) waas ultimately sidelined by Shivudu after he literally washes the grime of battle from her so she will comport to his idealized vision of pristine loveliness. The women in The Conclusion have more agency and are accepted on their own terms. Devasena won’t take guff from anyone, no matter their rank. Queen regent Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan) is the embodiment of power, her eyes flashing with rage when the honor of Mahishmati is threatened. It’s gratifying to see two such authoritative female characters in a movie whose title refers specifically to physical strength. (Avantika rejoins the fray in The Conclusion in a satisfying return to her former martial glory.)

There is, of course, plenty of physical strength on display in the film. Prabhas is a physical specimen, and Daggubati looks like a titan. A shirtless battle between the two hulks is as satisfying as it is inevitable. Legendary fighter Kattappa is no slouch either, as showcased by Satyaraja’s nimble moves.

One newly introduced character in The Conclusion is particularly memorable. Devasena’s brother-in-law, Kumara Verma (Subbaraju), is in many ways a stand in for the audience as one of the few mere mortals in this world of demi-gods. He’s pompous and cowardly, and primarily the butt of jokes in the film, yet he rises to the challenge in a critical moment, proving Baahubali’s assertion that courage is more important than strength.

The joy of both Baahubali films — but especially the second one — is that they can be watched either purely for enjoyment’s sake or for the fun of parsing every minute detail, picking out all of the myriad influences. The story is borne out of traditions from across the globe, beyond its obvious roots in Indian religion, history, and mythology. The disguise sequence is Shakespearean. Song lyrics like, “Heart stealer, eternal enchanter” sound like epithets from Greek mythology like “Hector, breaker of horses.”

[The team behind the English subtitles deserves special kudos for their precise choices and linguistic flourishes, such as this memorable lyric: “The sky says ‘bravo’ with infectious esprit.”]

There are also modern influences. When Baahubali fights, he moves more like a video game character than a movie character. Large battle sequences clearly draw from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’d argue that the Baahubali movies are the most effective cinematic fantasy epics since LOTR.

I’d further argue that the Baahubali movies succeed in that regard precisely because they were made with greater budget constraints than similar Hollywood movies. Huge numbers of extras in brilliantly colored costumes give a life to crowd scenes that is missing from most CGI-heavy contemporary fare. Director S.S. Rajamouli employs his resources in a way that achieves a consistency of look, which in fantasy films is more important than realism.

Most importantly, Rajamouli and writer Vijayendra Prasad create a world of such detail and depth that one might forget that they did in fact create it. It feels real, like an alternative history of the world. It’s so easy to be swept up by Baahubali 2, to imagine a world of superheroes who believe in justice and mercy above all else. It’s wonderful.

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Thoughts on Baahubali

I write about Hindi-language movies almost exclusively at this site, but I have to make an exception for Baahubali: The Beginning. The Telugu-Tamil fantasy film became such a huge success internationally — with collections in North America alone well above $8 million — that producers commissioned a special edition of the film for international audiences. Editor Vincent Tabaillon is tasked with trimming the nearly three-hour epic for screening at festivals and shopping to distributors. I’m hopeful that the new edition will get a run in the US, even after we already got the original version. Baahubali is a movie that needs to be seen by as many people as possible.

I adore Baahubali. The world created by SS Rajamouli is so vast and colorful that it feels like a video game mashup. Its hero, Shivudu, is a superpowered version of Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake, but with beefier arms and no guns. Shivudu leaves his jungle home by climbing a massive waterfall, and then finding snowy fields that border an ancient metropolis, giving the feeling of progressing through the levels of a Japanese role playing game (e.g., Xenoblade Chronicles).

And if gorgeous settings, political intrigue, and epic battles aren’t incentive enough, stars Prabhas, Rana Daggubati, and Tamannaah Bhatia are all fabulous looking.

When considering the film’s re-edit, the most obvious material for Tabaillon to excise are battles and musical numbers. As cool as the giant battle in the second half of the film is, it goes on for a really long time. It’s possible to maintain a sense of the battle’s scale while trimming it rather significantly. As for the music, I’d personally prefer to see as much of it retained as possible, since the soundtrack is incredible — especially “Dhirava“.

Assuming that the goal of the Baahubali re-edit is to reach new fans who don’t otherwise watch Indian films, there are a couple of issues that could surprise or offend Western audiences, and I’m not sure they’ll be able to be satisfactorily addressed in the editing process. First is Shivudu’s “courtship” of Avanthika. Rather than just talk to her, he sneaks up on her twice and tattoos her. Not only is it creepy, but he doesn’t seem to appreciate that his actions endanger her and threaten her standing among her people. And, no, this isn’t just a case of American political correctness imposing itself on another culture. Indian critic Anna MM Vetticad wrote a thorough takedown of the sequence, going so far as to call it rape.

Another issue is the way the movie addresses skin color. Bollywood has a preference for fair-skinned heroines, and the US does more than its share of whitewashing in movies and TV shows, so it’s a common problem. But Baahubali uses makeup in some overt ways that send the message that light skin is good, dark skin is bad.

Avanthika first appears to Shivudu in a vision as a pale apparition who entices him to climb the waterfall. When he sees her in reality, she’s a warrior with sun-baked skin. During their love song, he dips her under a waterfall, washing away her tan so she looks like the pale goddess of his imagination. He isn’t content to love her the way she is. He wants his dream girl, and his dream girl is fair.

On the flip side, the villains who attack the kingdom in the film’s second half are played by actors covered entirely in black makeup. It’s not clearly identified as some kind of war paint, so this appears to be blackface on a massive scale. While blackface doesn’t have the same stigma in Indian films that it does elsewhere in the world, Western audiences — Americans especially — will cringe when they see this.

It would be difficult to make changes to the thousands of warriors who fight for the bad guys, but perhaps some CGI makeup effects could be added to the rival chieftain to make it clear that this is battle regalia, and not a bunch of lighter-skinned actors dressing up as “evil” black guys.

Nevertheless, I think Baahubali is a tremendous achievement, especially considering that it cost less to produce than most American romantic comedies. Hollywood studios are foolish if they don’t offer Rajamouli a superhero franchise to direct. I’m excited that new audiences will get to experience Baahubali thanks to this re-edit. More than anything, I can’t wait until the release of Baahubali: The Conclusion in 2016!

Movie Review: Baby (2015)

BABY_poster_20152.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A lot happens in Baby, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. A choppy story structure and underdeveloped characters make Baby feel like a TV mini-series shoehorned into movie format.

Writer-director Neeraj Pandey’s broad vision pays dividends in certain ways. Globetrotting Indian counter-terrorist operative Ajay (Akshay Kumar) follows his targets to visually interesting places like Turkey, Nepal, and Saudi Arabia. Ajay’s luckier than his poor boss, Feroz (Danny Denzongpa), who only appears in scenes set in office buildings.

Ajay’s first mission — in which he tracks a rogue special agent to Istanbul — starts the movie on a promising note. Ajay extracts enough information to thwart a bomb blast, and the rogue operative foreshadows future attacks before killing himself.

The attacks are the work of a radical Muslim cleric in Pakistan, Maulana Mohammed Rahman (Rasheed Naz). Ajay must disrupt Maulana’s network — which includes a local recruiter, a jailed militant (Kay Kay Menon), and a corrupt businessman (Sushant Singh) — to get to Maulana.

What makes the plot so jarring is that Ajay’s participation is the only connecting thread between operations. (Feroz coordinates the missions, but he never gets to leave his office.) Ajay is alone on his first mission in Turkey, while his subordinate, Jai (Rana Daggubati), foils the bomb plot in India. New flunkies join Ajay for his next mission, and he gets a female sidekick, Shabana (Taapsee Pannu), for the mission after that. It’s only after the militant escapes from jail that Jai reenters the story, after an absence in real-time of over an hour.

Segmenting the story this way keeps Ajay from forging strong connections with his people, thereby lowering the stakes. Would Ajay care if Jai died? It’s not like Jai is his partner or a trusted friend. He’s just a guy who shows up when called on and disappears when he’s not needed.

Worse still is Ajay’s forced family narrative. He shares two scenes early on with his wife (Madhurima Tuli) and two kids, but the kids are never seen again after that. The wife — whatever her name is — reappears for a spy-movie cliché scene, in which she calls to reminds him about their daughter’s birthday while he’s in the middle of frisking a suspect.

It’s another example of the low stakes for Ajay. His family is never endangered by his job, and he hardly thinks about them. In fact, he’s rarely in any real danger at all. The terrorists don’t realize he’s onto them, so they go about their business until he shows up. If they were tracking him in return, it would’ve raised the tension.

The movie’s lengthy 150-minute runtime also keeps Baby from being a truly thrilling thriller. Though effective early on, Pandey employees the same tension-building camerawork patterns repeatedly, making scenes that should be intense predictable.

Kumar is well-suited to anchor this kind of film. He plays the role straight, allowing Anupam Kher to lighten the mood as a reluctant hacker. Kumar also cedes the movie’s most exciting fight scene to Pannu, who is terrific in her minor role.

Despite the film’s bloated runtime, its villains are woefully underdeveloped. Menon’s character doesn’t have any dialogue after his opening scene, which is a shame given some great non-verbal acting he does during his character’s escape from prison. The cleric Maulana spouts some ideology early on but is likewise mute for most of the rest of the movie.

The silent villains may be a deliberate choice on Pandey’s part. De-emphasizing the terrorist’s ideology brings to the forefront a political opinion expressed by both Feroz and Ajay. Feroz explains to the Prime Minister that, when young Indian Muslims choose to fight for Pakistan, it’s India’s fault for making them feel unwelcome in their own country. That inclusive sentiment is one that any government that values diversity should take to heart.

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Movie Review: Department (2012)

1 Star (out of 4)

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Department is a comedy, right? It must be, because it made me laugh out loud.

Director Ram Gopal Varma’s latest political thriller focuses on a special branch of the police force designed to stop organized crime. The special department is cleverly named: “Department.” Whenever a character in the movie says the word “department,” it’s accompanied by a musical fanfare. It’s a lot like when someone said the “magic word” on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and all of the characters had to start screaming.

The Department is headed by Mahadev (Sanjay Dutt) and rising star Shiv (Rana Daggubati). Both prefer to shoot first and ask questions later, even if it means firing at a bad guy while standing in the middle of a group of children playing catch.

The main objective of the Department is ostensibly to stop a turf war between rival gangsters Gauri and Sawatya (Vijay Raaz). When gangster-turned-politician Sarjay (Amitabh Bachchan) gets involved, alliances become less clear and the Department falls apart.

Since the plot is just a disorganized excuse for innumerable bloody shootouts and embarrassing slow-mo chase scenes — look at Shiv leap over that small bag of rice! — I’ll ignore it for now. Department‘s biggest problems are visual.

Varma is clearly in love with camera technique. If there is a table with a glass top in his vicinity, you can be sure that he will position a camera under it to shoot a scene.

Department was shot using a number of cameras small enough to be mounted to almost any object, which Varma hoped would create “a completely new viewer experience.” It’s a technique Sam Raimi used back in the Evil Dead movies in the 1980s, to better effect. In order to get a first-person shot of the actors in Department, cameras are mounted on everything from a newspaper to a coffee cup. Ever wonder what driving a car is like from the perspective of the steering wheel? Watch Department and wonder no more.

Rapid cuts and awkward closeups make the action hard to follow, while some editorial choices are downright mystifying. Take, for example, the following sequence of shots.

  1. A man stands on the beach drinking from a coconut.
  2. Closeup on another man’s dreadlocks.
  3. Upside-down closeup on a messenger bag. The camera rights itself as a hand draws a gun from the bag and fires a shot at the man drinking from the coconut.

Why did the camera need to be upside down?! And why do we need a closeup of the dreadlocks? (It must be a theme, because there a number of strange closeups of body parts, including at least a dozen shots of dirty feet and toenails.)

About two hours into the screening that I attended, the picture flipped upside down. Only when the audio started running backwards — complete with upside down, backwards subtitles at the top of the screen — did I realize that this was a projection problem and not just another strange directorial choice.

Getting back to the plot, it contains a number of attempts at sexiness that nauseate rather than titillate. First, the item song “Dan Dan Cheeni” features an unintentionally hilarious performance by Nathalia Kaur, who gyrates as seductively as someone having a seizure.

Then there are Sawatya’s amorous underlings, DK (Abhimanyu Singh) and Nasir (Madhu Shalini), who exist entirely to try to heat things up on screen. They fail miserably. While soaking in a bathtub, Nasir strokes DK’s thick mat of wet chest hair with her un-pedicured feet as he blows cigarette smoke into her mouth. Gross!

If you’re in the mood for a laugh — punctuated by occasional dry heaves –see Department. It’s ridiculous.

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Movie Review: Dum Maaro Dum (2011)

1 Star (out of 4)

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Copious amounts of sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, fights, chases and torture fail to liven up the dull and disorganized Dum Maaro Dum.

An opening shot of a dead body, accompanied by a voiceover by Abhishek Bachchan about the deadly drug trade in Goa, suggest a riveting tale of murder and corruption in a beachfront paradise. As soon as the opening credits finish, boredom sets in.

The movie is immediately mired in the backstory of one of the side characters, a teen named Lorry (Prateik Babbar). Lorry can’t afford to join his girlfriend at college in America, so he accepts a job as a drug mule, in order to earn the money for tuition. What I just summarized in one sentence takes up 25 minutes of screentime.

Twitchy-looking Lorry gets busted at the Goa airport by Kamath (Bachchan), a formerly corrupt vice cop trying to redeem himself after the accidental deaths of his wife and son. Kamath sends Lorry to jail, but the kid won’t reveal the whereabouts of the mysterious drug kingpin “Michael Barbosa.”

Kamath gets help from a musician name Joki (Rana Daggubati) in exchange for leniency for Lorry. Joki’s ex-girlfriend, Zoe (Bipasha Basu), is currently seeing another major drug dealer, Lorsa Biscuta (Aditya Pancholi). If anyone knows where Barbosa is, it’s Biscuta.

The plot isn’t nearly as straightforward as the above recap. There are flashbacks to pointless backstory, which prevents giving the characters enough time to grow (and grow on us) as events unfold in the modern-day.

This presents a serious problem, as Kamath — the presumptive, though not explicitly defined, lead character — is a monster. In addition to Kamath’s corrupt past and his penchant for beating up suspects, he sodomizes a drug runner with a pistol in order to make the guy confess. The movie’s villains may rack up a higher body count, but Kamath’s methods are more brutal and vile.

Substituting backstory for character development brings the action of the film to a crawl. Boring exposition about events not germane to the current situation is punctuated by party scenes, sex scenes and fight scenes. If you spend most of the film rudely texting on your cell phone, only to look up when the music cues something exciting on-screen, you might be fooled into thinking Dum Maaro Dum is an exciting movie.

The climax of the movie is actually pretty clever — so much so that the producers canceled the gala premiere in order to preserve the secret ending. But it seems as though writer Shridhar Raghavan started with the climax and struggled to craft the story that leads up to it.

Perhaps the poster tells us everything we need to know about Dum Maaro Dum. The poster features the svelte torso of Deepika Padukone, who makes a special appearance in a performance of the title track. Padukone is onscreen for all of five minutes, in a dance number that happens one hour and 45 minutes into the film. It is the best part of the movie.

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