Tag Archives: Shalini Vatsa

Movie Review: Ludo (2020)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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The movie Ludo uses its namesake board game as a metaphor for life, its characters one dice roll away from fortune or ruin. Writer-director Anurag Basu’s black comedy is beautifully made and laugh-out-loud funny.

Anyone who has played the games Aggravation, Sorry!, or Trouble is familiar with how Ludo works. Players from four different colored corners of the game board roll dice, moving their pieces around the board in the hopes of being the first to get all their pieces safely “home.” Basu assigns different characters to the colored corners, and they meet up with one another throughout the story. Right at the center is Sattu Bhaiya (Pankaj Tripathi), a hard-to-kill gangster with ties to all of them.

In the red corner is Sattu’s former right-hand man Bittu (Abhishek Bachchan), fresh out of prison and eager confront his old boss. Bittu charges in after a meeting between Sattu and the yellow corner’s Akash (Aditya Roy Kapur), who needs Sattu’s help removing a sex tape from the internet. The blue corner’s Rahul (Rohit Suresh Saraf) is at Sattu’s hideout as well, having been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

An explosion sets the characters off in different directions. Rahul drives off with some of Sattu’s stolen cash and a cute, opportunistic nurse named Sheeja (Pearle Maaney). Akash also hits the road, joined by Shruti (Sanya Malhotra) the woman from the sex tape who’s due to marry someone else in a matter of days. Bittu’s plan to find a way back into the life of the wife who left him while he was in jail and the young daughter who doesn’t remember him is derailed when he meets another precocious little girl, Mini (Inayat Verma), who needs help faking her own kidnapping in order to get her distracted parents’ attention.

While all this is happening, the characters from the green corner are trying to get out of their own mess. Alu (Rajkummar Rao) has been in love with Pinky (Fatima Sana Shaikh) since childhood, although she never reciprocated his feelings. Pinky turns up with her baby to ask for Alu’s help getting her husband Manohar (Paritosh Tripathi) out of jail, where he languishes, wrongly accused of a murder committed by Sattu.

Director Basu doesn’t judge his characters for wanting what they want, even if what they want isn’t exactly good for them. Alu is the best example of this. He knows his one-sided devotion to Pinky gets him into trouble and keeps him perpetually single, but he’s miserable when she’s not around. Is it so bad for him to not want to feel awful?

Bittu’s story is the most complicated and emotional. He spent six years waiting to get back to his daughter — who was an infant when he went to prison — but she doesn’t know he exists. She thinks Bittu’s ex-wife’s new husband is her father. Spending time with Mini gives Bittu a chance to act in a fatherly role, making him question whether what he wants for himself is really what’s best for his daughter.

Bachchan’s performance when he’s playing Bittu the Gangster comes off as more pouty than menacing, but he’s terrific as Bittu the Dad. Little Inayat Verma is impossibly adorable, and she and Bachchan are so much fun together. Yet we know their relationship is only temporary. Almost all of Bittu’s options will leave him brokenhearted.

Given Pankaj Tripathi’s recent track record of stealing virtually every movie he’s in, Basu wisely put Tripathi in the middle of things from the start. His character’s introduction — dramatically exposing his inner thigh to pull a gun from a leg holster — is perfection. After the cute pairing of Bittu and Mini, Sattu is part of the film’s second best partnership. While he’s bedridden, Sattu forms a friendship with no-nonsense nurse Lata Kutty (Shalini Vatsa), one of the few people he can’t intimidate. It’s unexpected and delightful.

To keep his dark comedy from becoming too dark, Basu amplifies its other elements. Bright colors differentiate the storylines, but they also cheer up even violent scenes. Character closeups feel a little closer than normal. The excellent soundtrack and score by Pritam are prominent in the mix, setting the tone overtly. Ludo is loud, both aurally and visually, but it feels just right.


Movie Review: Peepli Live (2010)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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In the United States, India’s image is that of an increasingly modern nation on the path to prosperity. It supports a glamorous movie industry. A well-educated, English-speaking workforce makes India an attractive place for American companies to outsource customer service jobs. South Asians living in the States are, on average, one of the most financially successful demographic groups.

With so many positive examples, it’s easy to overlook the fact that a large portion of Indians still live in poverty. Slumdog Millionaire exposed Americans to the plight of the poor in large cities, but some of India’s poorest citizens live in rural areas that tourists never see and that get little news coverage.

Peepli Live — a movie produced by Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan — presents international audiences with a vivid depiction of rural life. The farmers in the movie live in a kind of destitution unimaginable in America. Homes with no running water or electricity, food cooked over fires fueled by cow dung, not even a private place to relieve oneself.

Such conditions prompt Peepli Live‘s lead characters, brothers Bhudia (Raghubir Yadav) and Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri), to consider drastic measures. A local money-lender refuses to give them a loan but recommends a government program for impoverished farmers. If a farmer commits suicide, the government allegedly will pay his family $2000 — enough money for Bhudia and Natha to pay back the bank loan they took out to buy seeds and fertilizer from the large, American agricultural firm, “Sonmanto.”

Elder brother Bhudia initiates a conversation in which both he and Natha politely offer to kill themselves for the sake of the family, which includes their ancient mother and Natha’s wife and three kids. The conversation ends when Bhudia calls Natha’s bluff (“I’ll kill myself.” “No, I’ll kill myself.” “Okay, you kill yourself!”). While it makes no sense for Natha to kill himself — he’s the one with the wife and kids, after all — he’s reluctant to challenge his big brother.

A freelance reporter overhears Natha speaking about his planned suicide and prints a story in the local newspaper. The story catches the eye of a large TV news channel. Reluctant to miss out on the story, dozens of news crews descend on Natha’s house, spawning a figurative (and, eventually, literal) circus.

Local politicians try to turn Natha’s suicide to their advantage. The politicians in power are desperate to change Natha’s mind so that they look like they care about poor farmers. Their opponents want Natha to kill himself. No one cares that Natha doesn’t actually want to die.

When the plot focuses on the farmers, Peepli Live is a great movie. There’s a hilarious enmity between Natha’s mother and his wife, Dhaniya (Shalini Vatsa), who runs the household under a barrage of vulgar insults from her mother-in-law. Though by no means a tender woman, she doesn’t want her husband to die. Yet their situation is so dire, there don’t seem to be many alternatives.

The movie slows down shortly after the news vans roll in to town. The newscasters aren’t nearly as compelling as the farmers, but they dominate screentime in the second half of the movie. Bhudia seems to disappear altogether, and his lippy mother is relegated to lying silently on her cot.

Part of the point of the movie is the disconnect between urban and rural life: the way big city broadcasters promote sensational stories about farmers’ struggles for only as long as the stories earn ratings and without offering a solution to the problem. By shifting the focus from Natha and his family and onto the news crews covering them, Peepli Live is guilty of the same surface treatment of the issue that it’s criticizing.

The movie ends with a card that explains that, from 1991-2001, eight million farmers in India quit farming. And? Is that a bad thing, given how hard it is to make a living in agriculture? If so, what should the government do about it? Like the news channels it criticizes, Peepli Live entertains and asks questions, but doesn’t offer any solutions.