Tag Archives: Sayani Gupta

Movie Review: Article 15 (2019)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A big city bureaucrat appointed to oversee a small town police department gets tangled in a web of politics, caste, and greed in the dynamite thriller Article 15.

Ayan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is the ideal audience avatar. He rolls into the town of Laalgaon, telling his girlfriend Aditi (Isha Talwar) over the phone that the place looks like something out of an ’80s movie. He notes the freshness of the country air. It’s a world apart from the large cities — domestic and international — that Ayan is used to.

Besides the predictable culture shock, there’s something strange about the town. Despite what Ayan said about the fresh air, there’s a pall over the town that bathes it and its inhabitants in sickly yellow or gray tones (per cinematographer Ewan Mulligan). Ayan meets a former classmate, Satyendra (Aakash Dabhade), who is evasive and twitchy instead of the cheerful friend Ayan remembers. The rest of the cops — led by Ayan’s second-in-command, Bhramadatt (Manoj Pahwa) — are eager to close the case of two Dalit (lower caste) girls who were reported missing days earlier and found murdered. Only Ayan seems interested in the whereabouts of a third girl reported missing with them.

At first, Ayan is too smug to see what’s really going on, buoyed his sense of worldliness and the power accorded his position. He accepts Bhramadatt’s assessment of the murders as “honor killings” committed by the girls’ fathers, and he’s dismissive of Gaura (Sayani Gupta), the sister of the third missing girl. Only when he discovers that Bhramadatt is stalling him on the results of the postmortem and when his own men are attacked by Dalit activists does Ayan realize that he’s missing crucial pieces of the puzzle.

Laalgaon is governed by a rigid, complicated interpretation of the caste system. There are layers within layers, so that everyone ranks slightly above or below someone else. It reinforces social systems governing occupations, food handling, even whose shadow is allowed to fall on whom.

Money perpetuates the caste system in town, even though using it to discriminate against certain groups is officially prohibited by Article 15 of the Indian Constitution. By marginalizing the lowest castes, the people at the top ensure a steady supply of what is essentially slave labor. American audiences will notice similarities to how the white power structure here replaced lost laborers following the abolition of slavery, as explained in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th. The activist group in the Article 15 is in part a sort of militant labor union, and when they strike, the film shows in disgusting detail how dependent the town is on the workers who do the “dirty” jobs no one else wants.

Some people in Laalgaon have transcended certain aspects of their caste, such as Jatav (Kumud Mishra), who became a police officer with Bhramadatt’s help, even though his father was a school janitor. The status elevation turned Jatav into one of the most vocal critics of those below him, and his fear of falling back down the ladder keeps him subservient to those above. His eventual realization that turning his back on his people only made things worse is hard-earned and painful.

The scene that best captures the all-encompassing nature of Laalgaon’s power dynamics involves Bhramadatt and Jatav. As both men sob, Bhramadatt shakes Jatav, accusing him of ingratitude and endangering their very lives by aiding Ayan’s investigation. (More than one character states that the worst that will happen to Ayan is he’ll be transferred, while the locals who help him will be killed.) Though Bhramdatt ranks higher socially than Jatav, both serve the rich and politically connected at the top. Seeing these gray-haired men so terrified drives home how precarious their lives have always been in a place governed by something other than the rule of law.

Pahwa and Mishra are the standouts in a film full of amazing performances. Gupta is resolute in the face of a system designed not to help people like her. Same for Ronjini Chakraborty as the junior Medical Examiner who knows the truth of what happened to the murdered girls. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub’s portrayal of the Dalit revolutionary leader is terrific.

Aditi tells Ayan at one point that she doesn’t want him to be a hero, she wants him to be the man who doesn’t wait for the hero to arrive. That sentiment governs the way Khurrana plays Ayan. There’s a problem to solve, and Ayan does it without a lot of flash, using the skills he has at his disposal. Khurrana’s understated performance suits the movie perfectly.

Article 15 has a few moments that feel a little preachy, but they’re born of director Anubhav Sinha’s and writer Gaurav Solanki’s passion for the film’s message of justice. Their movie is thoughtful and relevant, with jaw-dropping surprises. Article 15 is a must-see.

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Movie Review: Jolly LLB 2 (2017)

jollyllb22.5 Stars (out of 4)

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In spite of a compelling performance by Akshay Kumar as Jolly LLB 2‘s flawed hero, narrative inconsistencies keep the well-intentioned black comedy from achieving its full potential.

Kumar plays Jolly Mishra — a different character from Arshad Warsi’s title character in the original Jolly LLB — an ambitious lawyer who yearns to be more than an errand boy for the more established attorney, Rizvi. In order to raise money to establish his own practice, Jolly assures a pregnant young widow, Hina (Sayani Gupta), that Rizvi will take on her case, collecting the fees from her up front and keeping them for himself.

Hina’s case is politically dangerous. She believes that her husband, Iqbal (Manav Kaul), was falsely arrested on terrorism charges and murdered by police, all for the sake of securing a promotion for notorious Officer Suryaveer Singh (Kumud Mishra). With crooked, wealthy Lucknow attorney Sachin Mathur (Annu Kapoor) defending Singh, every other lawyer knows that Hina’s case is a lost cause.

When Hina learns from Rizvi that he never agreed to take her case, she realizes that Jolly duped her, declaring as much in front of Jolly, his wife Pushpa (Huma Qureshi), and his father, who spent decades working as Rizvi’s legal secretary. Devoid of hope, Hina kills herself. Rizvi fires Jolly, and Jolly’s father tells his son he never wants to see him again.

Jolly is a complicated character. He’s a doting husband to drunken Pushpa and a loving father to their son, but he doesn’t work for any ideals higher than his own ambition. It’s impossible to pay penance for driving Hina to suicide, but Jolly takes on her case in the hopes of righting some of the wrongs he did by her and her family. Kumar’s grounded performance makes us believe that Jolly can become a better man by the end of the movie than he is at the beginning.

The case pits Jolly — who has the truth on his side — against the nakedly corrupt Mathur, who is sleazy in typical sleazy movie lawyer fashion. The presiding Judge Tripathy (Saurabh Shukla) isn’t explicitly corrupt, just distracted by his daughter’s upcoming nuptials.

Tripathy is the weak link in Jolly LLB 2. It’s hard to figure out how exactly he fits into the story. He’s not funny enough to provide true comic relief, but he’s clearly too light for a somewhat grim case involving suicide and extrajudicial police killings. He’s prone to drawing out conversations, leading to dull patches. Unlike the other characters, his balance is off.

The judge is also tasked by the script with driving the tension in the courtroom, but he’s not consistent in the way in which he does so. Tripathy believes or discounts witnesses’ testimony depending on the needs of the story at that moment, not because of any internal logic. Some of his other decisions are so blatantly provocative that it dispels the illusion of organic story flow. We can all but see writer-director Subhash Kapoor pulling the strings.

In Jolly LLB 2‘s favor, Kumar and Qureshi look great together and share a comfortable rapport. Rajiv Gupta is the film’s unsung hero as Jolly’s harried assistant, Birbal. Shukla’s dance sequence as Tripathy rehearses for his daughter’s wedding is pretty funny.

Jolly LLB 2‘s sentiment is admirable, especially at a time when citizens in India and around the world are desperate for reassurance that their justice systems aren’t fundamentally irreparable. The story just needed more refining to maintain a consistent tone throughout.

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Movie Review: Parched (2015)

parched4 Stars (out of 4)

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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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Movie Review: Margarita with a Straw (2015)

MargaritaWithAStraw3 Stars (out of 4)

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Buy the DVD at Amazon

Margarita with a Straw is an insightful coming-of-age story about how a young woman with cerebral palsy explores her sexuality.

The focus on sex differentiates Margarita with a Straw from other stories of young people overcoming obstacles. The point of writer-director Shonali Bose’s narrative isn’t just to uplift the audience but to shine a light on an often ignored aspect of the lives of young adults with disabilities.

Laila (Kalki Koechlin) is in many ways a normal college student. She’s cheerful and outgoing. She’s interested in pornography. She writes lyrics for a rock band. She teases her best buddy, Dhruv (Hussain Dalal), for leering at women.

But Laila’s cerebral palsy distances her from her friends without disabilities. Her wheelchair limits her mobility; she spends a birthday party eating cake alone in the kitchen while the rest of the band sits out on the balcony. A speech impediment hampers her ability to communicate quickly in person, so she’s more fluent chatting online.

Dhruv, who also uses a wheelchair, levels a biting criticism at Laila, charging that spending time with “normal” people won’t make her normal. She’s devastated when her confession of romantic feelings is rejected by Nima (Tenzing Dalha), the handsome singer in her rock band.

The rejection spurs Laila to seek new adventures, and she enrolls at New York University. There she meets Khanum (Sayani Gupta), a beautiful, blind international student. Khanum — a lesbian — is the first person to express sexual desire for Laila, and Laila enters into a romantic relationship with her.

As happy as Laila is at finally finding love, she’s only been interested in men to this point. Her own confused feelings are coupled with concerns about admitting the truth to her parents.

Laila’s mother (played by Revathy) is not only Laila’s caretaker, but also her confidant. But Mom fears Laila’s blossoming interest in sex, changing the subject when Laila first mentions her crush on Nima. Whether it’s a fear of her daughter growing up or a fear of Laila being hurt, Mom is not ready to accept that her daughter is a young woman. The word “bisexual” is not in her vocabulary.

Koechlin’s commitment to her role is remarkable. Her accent is impeccable, and her every movement conveys how difficult mundane tasks are for those afflicted with cerebral palsy. While I support the idea of casting actors with disabilities to play disabled characters, I suspect that a casting notice for a “performer with cerebral palsy willing to participate in sex scenes with both men and women” wouldn’t find many takers in India.

Revathy’s performance is moving, but Mom’s role in Laila’s life comes to dominate the narrative as the movie progresses. The story is about a young woman finding her own identity outside of the shadows of her parents, but the way Laila is forced to do so feels unfair. The ending scene is well-intended but a little corny.

Nevertheless, Bose’s story is an eye-opener. Just because raging hormones don’t top the list of challenges faced by young people with disabilities, it doesn’t mean they’re not an issue.

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  • Margarita with a Straw at Wikipedia
  • Margarita with a Straw at IMDb