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:
The realism that made the relationships in 2008’s Rock On!! so compelling is missing from Rock On 2, replaced by bizarre behavior masquerading as drama.
Following the events of the original film, the surviving members of the rock band Magik (RIP, keyboardist Rob) had a good run for about three years, playing shows and running their own recording label. Then the suicide of an aspiring musician broke them up once again.
Fast-forward five years to the present day, and formerly destitute guitarist Joe (Arjun Rampal) is a wealthy club owner and reality show judge. Drummer KD (Purab Kohli) still dabbles in music, leaving him with enough free time to narrate the film. Singer Adi (Farhan Akhtar) is living near Shillong on a farmers’ collective, despite having no background in farming whatsoever.
There’s a real logical leap required for Adi’s choices to make the slightest bit of narrative sense, let alone make him a hero. His overblown reaction to the aspiring musician’s suicide is to flee to the hinterlands of India (Shillong is on the other side of Bangladesh), not only breaking up his band and depriving Joe and KD of their source of income, but also abandoning his wife, Sakshi (Prachi Desai), and their then three-year-old son.
Somehow, Adi’s version of penance for playing a minor role in a troubled young man’s death means punishing everyone who loves and depends on him. As Adi puts it: “Every time I’ve tried to make music, I’ve hurt someone.” Substitute any other activity for “make music” to hear how dumb and selfish that rationale sounds: “Every time I’ve tried to clean the bathroom, I’ve hurt someone.”
Adi’s commitment to his new farming community isn’t as solid as he thinks it is. Days after rejecting an in-person plea from KD, Sakshi, Joe, and Joe’s wife, Debbie (Shahana Goswami), to return to Delhi, a suspicious fire destroys the farmers’ crops and homes. Adi gives the farmers some cash and heads back to his old life, telling the farmers to call him if they have any problems.
More than a month goes by without Adi giving so much as a thought to his buds in Shillong, let alone check on them to make sure they’re okay. When his former right-hand man finally rings to say that everyone is starving, Adi yells, “Why didn’t you call me sooner?!” Probably because he was trying not to die, you entitled dope!
Adi’s solution to raise awareness of the farmers’ plight is, not surprisingly, to hold a Magik reunion benefit concert, including new band members Jiah (Shraddha Kapoor) and Uday (Shahshank Arora, whose role is too small for an actor of his caliber). Yet dumbass Adi has the bright idea to hold the concert in a field in Shillong, Woodstock-style.
Consider all the reasons why this is stupid. All of the infrastructure for the concert — stage, restroom facilities, equipment storage — has to be built from scratch, at great expense. All the people with the money to afford concert tickets — the farmers are all broke, remember — live far away, meaning they have to travel (at great expense) just to get to the show.
Joe owns a freaking music club! Just have the concert at his place and charge a couple hundred bucks a ticket! All that money that went into setting up the stupid concert and travel expenses could’ve gone directly to the farmers instead of enabling Adi to waste it on another vanity project to ease his troubled conscience.
Joe is the only rational character in the story, dutifully fulfilling his responsibilities, while refusing to be blamed for things that aren’t his fault. Yet he’s written as a kind of villain, just because he considers events in context and isn’t guided entirely by his emotions. Joe, you’re the real hero of Rock On 2.
P.S. Since this is a movie about a rock band, I should mention the music. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy did a great job writing songs in distinct styles for Jiah and for Magik. Shraddha Kapoor has a good voice, and her character gets the film’s best songs, including “Tere Mere Dil” and “Udja Re” (both embedded below). Magik’s numbers are okay, but I don’t think I can keep trying to convince myself that I like Farhan Akhtar’s singing voice.
Midnight’s Children takes the fascinating history of India since Partition and muddles it up with a bizarre personal story that’s impossible to connect with.
The events of the film — which are narrated by Salman Rushdie, who wrote the novel on which the film is based — begin well before Partition, starting with the meeting of the main character’s grandparents in Kashmir, 1917. They raise their children, including Mumtaz (Shahana Goswami), the main character’s mother. She has a brief, fruitless marriage to a man named Nadir before she marries the main character’s father, Ahmed Sinai (Ronit Roy) and changes her name to Amina. The first marriage becomes relevant later when the parentage of the main character, Salim, is called into question.
There’s good reason for this, since Salim is not the Sinais’ biological son. At the very moment the British left India and divided it into India and Pakistan — midnight, August 14, 1947 — two boys were born in the same hospital: the Sinais’ biological son, Shiva, and Salim, the son of a busker whose wife dies in childbirth. Inspired by her revolutionary boyfriend, a nurse named Mary (Seema Biswas) switches the boys, forcing the rich boy to grow up poor and making the poor boy rich.
After the boys go to their respective, incorrect homes, Mary feels guilty. Not guilty enough to confess, mind you, but Mary becomes Salim’s nanny so that she may watch over the boy. She also watches Shiva beg outside the Sinais’ mansion every day.
There are practical reasons for her to choose the path she does, but Mary’s act of penance seems cruelly inadequate. Rather than helping the boy she doomed to a life of poverty, she makes things even easier on the boy whose life was likely going to be a comparative piece of cake.
As the boys grow up, they discover that the hour of their birth gave them (and thousands of other kids born on the same night) magical powers. It’s unclear what Shiva’s powers are, but Salim can summon visions of the other “midnight’s children” by sniffing. It’s not as cool as the superpower of a girl named Parvati, who can make things disappear.
The superpowers aren’t really important to the story, until they are used as an excuse to round-up the now-adult “children” during Indira Gandhi’s rule-by-decree in the mid-1970s. Salim admits in his narration late in the film that things didn’t work out as well for “midnight’s children” as they had hoped. So, a thousand kids with freaking superpowers are no match for India’s internal conflicts and perpetual problems with Pakistan. What a depressing sentiment.
While the idea of paralleling India’s troubled progress with the lives of two of its citizens is compelling, the magical realism isn’t well-integrated into the story, and it keeps the audience at arm’s length. Also, Salim’s constant runny nose is gross. The story would’ve been more interesting without the magic.
The film boasts an impressive lineup of actors who typically perform in Indian films, but fans of traditional Bollywood fare should watch the film with caution. There’s a fair bit of sex and some nudity, plus coarse language. This is not a film for the whole family (not to mention that kids would be bored out of their mind by the movie’s plodding pace).
Another note of caution is that the performances are uneven. Seema Biswas and Shahana Goswami at terrific as always, as are Ronit Roy and Soha Ali Khan, who plays Salim’s little sister, Jamila, as an adult. But Anupam Kher and Rahul Bose are over-the-top as Salim’s great-grandfather and uncle, respectively. They’re the most obvious examples of a distracting strain of quirkiness that pervades the film.
Worst of all is British actor Satya Bhabha as adult Salim. His intense performance seems more suited to the stage than to film. With so much weirdness inherent in the story, a strong main character is needed to anchor the movie. I’m not sure if the fault lies more in Bhabha’s performance or the way Salim is written, but, either way, Salim isn’t a strong enough anchor.
Let me illustrate the failure of director Madhur Bhandarkar’s Heroine with an anecdote from the showing I attended. During a completely serious moment late in the film, Arjun Rampal’s character, Aryan, tells Kareena Kapoor’s Mahi tenderly, “You look beautiful.” The audience laughed.
Heroine is so overwrought and lacking in subtlety that it’s impossible to take seriously. Emotional switches are flipped on a dime, accompanied by dramatic musical cues that are unnecessary because Kapoor’s instantaneous turns from happy to sobbing, shaking fury make it impossible to misinterpret Bhandarkar’s intent.
Kapoor plays Mahi, a superstar actress whose position at the top of the Bollywood hierarchy is threatened by newcomers willing to bribe entertainment journalists with shopping vacations. Mahi’s personal life is on the fritz, too, as her married actor boyfriend, Aryan, dawdles on his way to divorce court.
The couple breaks up, Mahi abuses pills, goes through a PR makeover, dates an athlete (played by Randeep Hooda), and does an indie film to gain some acting chops. The indie film debacle results in a night of drunken lesbianism with a co-star (played by Shahana Goswami). Mahi cries a lot through the melodramatic course of her career, angrily smoking cigarette after cigarette, as if they are responsible for her personal and professional troubles.
Kapoor’s performance is all over the place. I don’t fault her, because I think it’s what Bhandarkar wanted. The problem is that, no matter what she does, Mahi is always wrong. Things always end badly for her. She’s a character with no control over her destiny. It’s hard to connect with a character in such a helpless position. The moral of the story seems to be, “Don’t become an actor.”
When not in emotional roller coaster mode, the film is too “inside baseball.” I’m interested in the film industry, and even I couldn’t care less about scenes in which Mahi discusses changes to the marketing budget with her production team.
The good elements of Heroine are limited to Goswami’s awesome cleavage and multiple shirtless shots of Hooda and Rampal. The dance number “Halkat Jawani” is entertaining, too.
There are two scenes from Heroine that will stick with me because I’m not sure how to explain them, both involving reading material. In one scene, a slimy co-star invites Mahi back to his hotel room, hoping to seduce her. Before she arrives, he places a James Patterson novel on a bedside table. What is this supposed to signify about him? “Hey, Mahi, I know nothing turns chicks on more than popular genre fiction.”
In another scene, an argument between Mahi and Aryan is observed with fiendish glee by up-and-coming actress pretending to be engrossed in an Archie comic. Why Archie? What’s the symbolism? What does it mean?!?!
After heavily promoting the most expensive movie in Indian cinematic history, the makers of Ra.One created high expectations for their film. Even if it’s not the instant classic it aspired to be, Ra.One is exactly what it should be: a fun action flick with some great special effects.
The film stars Shahrukh Khan as a nerdy programmer named Shekhar. He lives in London with his wife, Sonia (Kareena Kapoor), and their son, Prateek (Armaan Verma), a preteen fascinated by the dark side. In order to improve his image in his son’s eyes, goody-two-shoes Shekhar creates a video game in which the villain is all but indestructible.
The virtual villain, Ra.One — whose name is a play on Raavan, the demon in the Ramayana — is programmed with an artificial intelligence that takes umbrage at being beaten by young Prateek, who plays under the gamer handle “Lucifer.” Ra.One accesses a prototype technology created by Shekhar’s company that imbues holograms with physical substance, allowing Ra.One to materialize in the real world and hunt Lucifer.
When Prateek figures out what has happened, he realizes his only hope is to make the game’s hero, G.One (a play on the Hindi word for “life”), corporeal as well. G.One looks exactly like Shekhar, only buffer and cooler. Will G.One be able to protect Prateek from the world’s ultimate villain?
$40 million — a monstrous budget for a Hindi movie — pales next to the hundreds of millions spent on Hollywood action films. But director Anubhav Sinha uses his resources wisely and gets great results. A chase through the streets of London is heart-stopping, as is a thrilling showdown between Ra.One and G.One in a junkyard.
It’s only when Sinha relies too much on computer-generated images do the limits of the budget show. G.One fights a gang of thugs with a CGI soccer ball that looks phony and insubstantial.
3-D is deployed in a satisfying way throughout, adding depth to scenes rather than projecting images out into the audience. It enhances the movie’s pleasing aesthetic. An early dream sequence and the final battle are stunning, with a high-contrast style reminiscent of director Tarsem Singh.
The film’s dance numbers are well-executed and full of energy. Khan and Kapoor genuinely look like they enjoy dancing together; they have a nice rapport off the dance floor as well. Shahana Goswami and Tom Wu round out the likeable cast of heroes as Shekhar’s coworkers, Jenny and Akashi.
At times, the movie’s ultimate message — that one should always, as my mom says, “do good and avoid evil” — gets muddled. Prateek isn’t just a moody preteen; he’s also somewhat of a bully, making jokes at the expense of an overweight classmate. I’m not sure he’d be so quick join the good guys if his life weren’t in danger, and Verma’s bland performance didn’t convince me otherwise.
Prateek’s not the only one with a nasty streak. Jokes that depict gays as uncontrollable sex addicts and make fun of Akashi for being Chinese (everyone calls him “Jackie Chan”) are, if not mean-spirited, then ill-considered.
Based on the number of prints distributed internationally and the inclusion of American rapper Akon on the soundtrack, the makers of Ra.One clearly hoped to expand the reach of the film beyond India. By that metric, were they successfully in creating a globally appealing action film?
Almost. Ra.One is undoubtedly entertaining, visually appealing and easy to understand for viewers who must rely on subtitles. But, at 155 minutes, it’s just too long. It’s hard to sustain an appropriate level of tension for that much time, and Ra.One falters during a dull 25-minute-long section in the middle in which nothing much happens besides the newly corporeal G.One clumsily navigating his surroundings.
Eliminate that 25-minute interlude and some of the insider Indian movie references, and Ra.One becomes a taut, 2-hour thriller with universal appeal. In that format, there’s no reason why it — or future Indian event films — can’t compete with East Asian martial arts flicks for fans of action films made outside of Hollywood.