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:
Through the medium of an absurd local singing competition, Loins of Punjab Presents offers insight into the desi experience in America, as well as plenty of laughs.
This English-language comedy follows the contestants and crew of the first “Desi Idol,” a Bollywood singing contest in New Jersey. The $25,000 cash prize is supplied by Loins of Punjab, the Northeast’s preeminent purveyor of pork loins.
Contestants include a nerdy financial analyst named Vikram (Manish Acharya, who wrote and directed the film); angry rapper Turbanotorious B.D.G (Ajay Naidu); and Sania Rehman (Seema Rahmani), an actress belatedly embracing her Indian roots in the hopes of finding more career opportunities in Mumbai.
There’s also 17-year-old Preeti Patel (Ishita Sharma) and her pushy family. Her parents — dad Sanjeev (Darshan Jariwala) and mom Alpa (Loveleen Mishra) — indulge their daughter’s singing “hobby” and are confused when a high school guidance counselor suggests that Preeti study music in college. The Patel parents generously suggest that if Preeti doesn’t want to be a doctor, she can become an engineer instead.
One contestant is willing to use nefarious means to achieve victory. Socialite Rrita Kapoor (Shabana Azmi) needs the prize money so that she can donate it to charity and win her ongoing PR war with her nemesis: Bubbles Sabharwal.
Though some characters and subplots are more successful that others, there are a lot of gems in Loins of Punjab Presents. Azmi is delightfully villainous. Jariwala plays up his accent, scolding the hotel concierge — played by go-to Bollywood white guy Alexx O’Nell — to find the right reservation by checking the “asses,” when he means “s’s.”
Other performances of note include Jameel Khan as Mr. Bokade, the event’s sleazy promoter; Bokade’s straight man, Mr. White (Kunaal Roy Kapur in one of his first roles); and Rani Bansal, who’s sneakily good in a small role as the contest’s female MC.
Beyond the humor, there are some meaningful subplots, such as the relationship between a Jewish Indophile named Josh Cohen (Michael Raimondi) and his desi girlfriend, Opama (Ayesha Dharkar). She encourages him to participate, only to be confronted by hostility at the presence of a white man in an Indian singing competition.
Josh & Opama’s subplot dovetails with Sania’s to raise questions about national, ethnic, and cultural identity. How obligated are we to embrace our family’s cultural heritage when we have the option to adopt another? What does culture even mean in a country that prides itself on multiculturalism?
Acharya’s film nicely balances serious ideas with humor. It’s also amusing to watch seasoned performers like Azmi, Khan, and Jariwala act in something outside of Bollywood. Loins of Punjab Presents is a lot of fun.
Neerja would be a riveting picture even if it weren’t based on a true story. The fact that it is makes the movie all the more remarkable.
The story begins late in the evening of September 4, 1986, and the action switches between simultaneous events in Mumbai, India, and Karachi, Pakistan. In Mumbai, twenty-two-year-old flight attendant Neerja Bhanot (Sonam Kapoor) returns home from work for a brief rest between shifts. She’s the life of the party and the pride of her parents: father Harish (Yogendra Tiku) and mother Rama (Shabana Azmi).
Meanwhile, in Karachi, a group of Palestinian terrorists prepare to hijack a plane and fly to Cyprus to free their jailed comrades.
Back in Mumbai, Neerja gets ready for her first opportunity to serve as head purser on Pam Am Flight 73 from Mumbai to New York, with stops in Karachi and Frankfurt. Worry-wort Rama wants Neerja to give up the job she loves to focus on her burgeoning modeling career. Bubbly Neerja says good-bye to her folks and her boyfriend, Jaideep (Shekar Ravjiani).
Introducing the terrorists at the same time as Neerja ratchets up the tension early in the film. As the smiling flight attendants greet the boarding passengers in Mumbai, our stomachs churn, knowing who’s waiting for them at their first layover.
The movie maintains its tension by introducing another parallel storyline once the plane lands in Karachi and the two initial storylines intersect: that of Neerja’s anxious parents, waiting for news in an age before cell phones and the internet. Harish waits in his office at the newspaper, but Rama is stuck at home, fretting with chores and trying to convince herself that everything will be all right. Even when the action cuts away from the danger on the plane, our respite is to watch parents wonder if their daughter is alive or dead. It’s heart-wrenching.
Despite her fears, Neerja epitomizes professionalism. She alerts the cabin crew to the hijacking, allowing the pilots to escape. With no one to fly them to Cyprus, the bewildered terrorists hold the passengers hostage, growing angrier as the hours drag on. Throughout, Neerja finds ways to subvert the terrorists murderous plans, keeping her passengers calm and her crew focused. She keeps repeating that she’s just doing her job, as though it’s easy to do with a gun pointed at her head.
Kapoor is amazing, portraying not just Neerja’s courage but her vulnerability as well. She’s not some hardened superhero, but a woman two days shy of her twenty-third birthday. Still, her moments of doubt are brief, her wits sharp. It’s a career performance by Kapoor.
Rama is interesting. She’s raised Neerja to be a dutiful wife, only to wind up with an independent, self-reliant daughter. It’s only through Neerja’s heroic actions during the hijacking that Rama finally comes to see her daughter for who she really is, opening her mind up to more progressive possibilities for other girls. Azmi’s performance is complex and sympathetic.
It’s only a shame that Neerja’s father doesn’t get as much screentime in the present-day scenes as her mother does. It’s his words — in flashbacks — that Neerja remembers when things are at their worst. She’s very much her father’s daughter — his “brave girl” — yet his feelings during the crisis are glossed over.
This is a really remarkable story, and Neerja does great justice to the woman who inspired it. The movie is easily accessible to international audiences, which is fitting Neerja’s commitment to protecting all of her passengers, regardless of the country on their passport.
One new Hindi movie opens in the Chicago area on May 3, 2013. Sadly, it’s not Bombay Talkies*, but Shootout at Wadala looks like it could be a cool action flick. The trailer features Anil Kapoor using wet laundry to beat up a guy, for Pete’s sake!
The Reluctant Fundamentalist reminds us that the traumas of our personal lives don’t stop for global catastrophes. The movie’s title alone doesn’t tell the whole story. Radical Islam is just one facet of a compelling narrative about some of the major issues of the last twelve years.
The tale of modern times is told through the experiences of Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed). Now a professor in his native Pakistan, Changez is questioned by a journalist — Bobby (Liev Schreiber) — about the kidnapping of an American professor at the same university. Changez stalls in revealing details of the kidnapping to Bobby by explaining how his experiences shaped his conflicted view of America.
Eager to improve the declining fortunes of his artist parents — played by Om Puri and Shabana Azmi — Changez moves to America in the late 1990s to study business. He gets a job at a Bain Capital-type firm that specializes in making companies more profitable, usually by laying off employees. He falls in love with Erica (Kate Hudson), the artsy niece of the head of his firm.
The attacks of 9/11 happen while Changez is on assignment in the Philippines, and he returns to the U.S to find that the rules of society have changed for him. In the film’s most disturbing scene, the rest of his team members waltz through airport security while Changez is subjected to an invasive strip search solely because of his ethnicity. His relationship with Erica deteriorates, and Changez wonders if America is really where he belongs.
After playing a villain in Trishna, Ahmed shows his versatility in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Ahmed makes Changez sympathetic and relatable as he navigates a society that isn’t the pure meritocracy he expected it to be. His best friend, Wainwright (Nelsen Ellis), is the only other member of a racial minority employed at their firm. Among whites — including his boss, played by Kiefer Sutherland, and even his girlfriend — Changez feels treated like a token and not a real person.
In addition to the presence of Bollywood veterans Puri and Azmi, fans of Hindi films will find a lot of thematically familiar material in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Changez’s troubled romantic relationship with Erica suffers as much from an undercurrent of prejudice as it does from problems in Erica’s past. He likewise struggles with disappointing his parents, who aren’t impressed by his material ambitions, even when they benefit from them. With a runtime of 130 minutes and a leisurely approach to storytelling, the pace of the film will feel familiar to Bollywood fans as well.
Early in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Changez tells Bobby that understanding only comes with patience. It’s a criticism of American mistakes in the country’s rush to deal with Islamic terrorism, but it is also good advice for how to watch the movie. Those willing to embrace the personal drama within the movie’s larger story about American interference in Pakistan will be rewarded.
In my attempt to find the best way to explain why I like an unconventional movie like Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola as much as I do, I found my answer in my review of director Vishal Bhardwaj’s previous effort, the magnificent 7 Khoon Maaf:
“7 Khoon Maaf is an all-or-nothing film. It either works for you or it doesn’t. Its strangeness will be a turn-off for some viewers, while others will lament a lack of explosive action scenes. But, if you’re in the mood for something a little different, beware: Susanna might just steal your heart.”
I feel the same way about Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (MKBKM, henceforth). I love it, but I understand why some people won’t. It’s a slow burn, with characters that are hard to pin down and a few odd elements that have to be accepted on faith rather than understood with reason. I think it’s fabulous.
The plot of MKBKM is the opposite of high-concept. In short, the story is about a wealthy man’s attempt to convert his land and the small village that sits on it into a massive factory, shopping mall, and apartment complex. Naturally, the villagers object to the plan, as do the man’s servants, his daughter, and strangely enough, the man himself.
See, the rich man, Mandola (Pankaj Kapur) has a dual personality: he’s a ruthless, ambitious tycoon in the sober light of day, and a populist by night, once he starts drinking. His handler, Matru (Imran Khan), is supposed to keep Mandola away from liquor. But Matru has little incentive to do so, as Mandola is a nicer guy when he’s drunk. Early in the film, an inebriated Mandola leads the villagers in a protest outside the gates of his own mansion, until he sobers up and realizes what he’s doing.
Mandola wants the factory in part to woo a fetching government minister, Chaudhari Devi (Shabana Azmi), and also to secure a prosperous future for his only daughter, Bijlee (Anushka Sharma). He’s gone so far as to get Bijlee engaged to the minister’s son, Baadal (Arya Babbar), who, Matru repeatedly reminds Bijlee, is an idiot. Matru and Bijlee are, of course, a far more appropriate couple, despite their differences in economic class.
Bhardwaj includes a number of quirky elements in the film to elevate it beyond a simple parable about the dangers of progress at any cost. A scene in which Mandola confirms his plans with Chaudhari explicitly evokes images of the witches in Macbeth and takes place amid ruins on a hilltop reminiscent of Weathertop in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Promos for MKBKM featured one of the recurring visual themes: a life-sized hot pink buffalo that Mandola sees whenever his longing for his beloved liquor becomes too strong.
My favorite oddball touch is the way Bhardwaj deals with something that would’ve been a throw-away gag in any other movie. When Baadal first sees Bijlee in the movie, he’s accompanied by an African folk dance group that he purchased in an attempt to impress her. Rather than just disappear after the joke is over, the folk group remains through the rest of the film. They take over a room in Mandola’s mansion, join in dance numbers, and protest alongside the villagers.
That detail alone makes the movie for me. What else would one expect to happen to a foreign dance group transported to rural India? Bhardwaj — who co-wrote the screenplay with Abhishek Chaubey — takes a practical problem and turns it to his advantage.
The performances are great throughout: Pankaj Kapur growls his way through his dialog as cantankerous Mandola; Anushka Sharma is as spunky and lovable as ever; Azmi and Babbar are appropriately diabolical; and Imran Khan is clever and sexy as a budding revolutionary, whose sidekicks include an old man, a blind preteen, and a transvestite.
Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola is a must see. Even if you don’t love it, you won’t see anything else quite like it.
Many American comedies of the 1980s were characterized by amusing situations, rather than genuinely humorous dialog (think Mannequin or Soul Man). The decades haven’t been kind to films of this style, because they simply aren’t funny. The British comedy It’s a Wonderful Afterlife relies on this ’80s style of humor, and as such, already feels dated.
The movie opens with a man — having been force-fed too much spicy curry in by a faceless villain — receiving treatment in a hospital room, only to have his stomach explode, spraying its contents all over the room. There’s no context for the gag, so it’s not at all humorous, just disgusting. Not a good way to start a movie.
The exploding man is explained to be the latest victim of a serial killer targeting members of the Indian community in the London suburb of Southall. The police, led by inspector Smythe (Mark Addy), enlist the help of a detective of Indian descent named Raj (Sendhil Ramamurthy) to search for clues within the community.
Raj is the childhood friend of Roopi (Goldy Notay), an overweight young woman still recovering from being dumped by her fiance. Roopi’s mother, Mrs. Sethi (Shabana Azmi), is desperate to see her daughter married — so desperate that she’s been killing prospective husbands that have rejected Roopi, as well as their family members, using her culinary skills.
Mrs. Sethi is haunted by the ghosts of her victims, who can’t move on until Mrs. Sethi is dead. The only other person who can sense the ghosts is Roopi’s best friend, Linda (Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins), who’s renamed herself Geetali after a spiritual awakening on a trip to India. Mrs. Sethi promises to kill herself after Roopi is married, provided the ghosts help her accomplish her mission.
It’s a Wonderful Afterlife is full of missed opportunities. The ghosts, who should be a goldmine of humor, instead offer bland observations and little in the way of assistance to Mrs. Sethi, as they have no supernatural powers. Their decaying visages are pointlessly gross.
Mrs. Sethi should be a source of comedy herself, but she’s dull as well. She never exhibits a hint of the kind of rage one would need to feel in order to commit murder (all but one of the murders happen off-screen). Her conversations with the ghosts are just boring exposition.
Part of the movie’s problem is that the Roopi and her mother get overshadowed by the ghosts, the cops, and especially Linda. Much screen time is spent on Linda’s psychic abilities, scenes in which Roopi, the heroine, acts as a passive observer. Roopi’s budding romance with Raj is shown in a short musical montage, yet a multiple scenes are devoted to Linda’s engagement to Dev (Jimi Mistry). Linda’s even the star of the film’s climax, a revolting homage to the movie Carrie.
Sally Hawkins is good as Linda, and newcomer Goldy Notay gives a strong performance as Roopi as well. I’d have preferred that she be given more to do, as the movie is all about Roopi’s want of a husband, after all. Still, there’s not much that could have saved It’s a Wonderful Afterlife — not even a pandering shot of Sendhil Ramamurthy shirtless — since the alleged comedy just isn’t funny.