Tag Archives: Taapsee Pannu

Movie Review: Judwaa 2 (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Even with a new cast, Judwaa 2 feels dated.

Judwaa 2 is less of a true sequel to 1997’s Judwaa than a reboot, switching out Salman Khan in the lead role for Varun Dhawan (son of the director of both films, David Dhawan). Unlike a lore-heavy fantasy or superhero flick, watching the original Judwaa isn’t a prerequisite for watching Judwaa 2.

The reboot opens with Mr. Malhotra (Sachin Khedekar) flying home for the birth of his twin sons. A seemingly friendly fellow passenger named Charles (Zakir Hussain) slips some contraband into Malhotra’s bag, but Malhotra has already alerted the police, who attempt to apprehend Charles when he shows up at the hospital to collect his goods.

Charles escapes with one of the newborn baby boys as a hostage, accidentally dropping him on some train tracks. Charles blows up a building, lying that the boy was inside and vowing to come back some day for Malhotra’s other son. This seems like a disproportionate revenge response given that the police were already on to Charles and Malhotra just made their job a little easier.

As the cops haul Charles away and Malhotra grieves for the son he believes to be dead, a train bears down on the dropped baby. The boy — who will shortly be named Raja by the lady who discovers him — gets a metaphysical assist from his brother, Prem. The doctor who delivered the boys explained to the Malhotras that, because the boys were born attached at the arm (separated by a surgery that doesn’t even leave a scar, LOL), they share a connection that occurs “one in eight million” times. When the boys are within even a few miles of one another, they will feel each other’s emotions and physical sensations.

Sensing Raja’s fear at the oncoming train, Prem — displaying remarkable muscle control for a newborn — rolls to his side in his crib, causing Raja to roll safely off the tracks as the train passes by. The sequence is exactly as stupid as it sounds, made stupider by cheap-looking CGI.

The Malhotras flee to safety in London, where Prem grows up to be a wimpy nerd who is nevertheless built like a Mr. Universe contestant. Raja is a brash street urchin with a heart of gold who gets into trouble when he beats up rich guy Alex (Vivan Bhatena) for being a jerk. Raja and his adopted brother Nandu (Rajpal Yadav) flee to London to escape Alex’s wrath. Nandu is excited at the opportunity to sexually harass the air hostesses on the flight, and Raja hits on Alishka (Jacqueline Fernandez), the beautiful woman sitting next to him.

With the long-lost brothers finally in the same city, their metaphysical link reactivates. Raja feels the pain when a bully grabs Prem’s junk, and Prem slaps people when Raja gets into a fight. Prem also kisses his cute classmate Samaira (Taapsee Pannu) and her mother (Upasana Singh) when Raja smooches Alishka in an attempt to hide his face from the police.

While multiple Baahubali references root the story in the modern day, elements such as lazy plotting and the normalization of sexual harassment make Judwaa 2 feel out-of-date. There’s no reason why the gags involving the female love interests couldn’t have been updated to reflect the progressive direction many Hindi films have adopted regarding gender politics.

It’s a missed opportunity, considering the caliber of Judwaa 2‘s two leading ladies. Jacqueline Fernandez is perhaps Bollywood’s best female physical comedian. She sells every scene she’s in, no matter how silly she’s asked to be. If you can take your eyes off of her impressive dance moves, watch her expressive face during her song performances. She’s a total pro.

Taapsee Pannu’s performance is a reminder of her incredible versatility. She proved her dramatic chops in Pink and her action skills in Baby and its follow-up Naam Shabana, a spin-off created just for her. Judwaa 2 is a return to her roots in Hindi cinema; her debut film was the 2013 comedy Chashme Baddoor, also directed by David Dhawan. Judwaa 2 not only finds Pannu playing for laughs again, but dancing up a storm and flaunting a physique as impressive as any of her Bollywood contemporaries.

Varun Dhawan is charismatic in his double role, but there’s not much that we haven’t seen from him before. His resume is already heavy on comedies, and this isn’t one of the better ones. It’s not just the poor treatment of the female leads at his characters’ hands that makes Judwaa 2 feel like a throwback. There’s an offensive fight sequence involving a group of black men whom Raja refers to as “the West Indies team.” Raja repeatedly taunts them, ending his sentences with a Caribbean-accented “mon,” even though the men themselves say the word “man” with British accents.

Other than those issues, Judwaa 2 isn’t as morally problematic as it could have been (faint praise, indeed). The dance numbers are fun, and Fernandez and Pannu make more out of their roles than they’re given to work with. Judwaa 2 is a watchable movie, but not a memorable one.

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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: Naam Shabana (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Taapsee Pannu’s supporting character Shabana was the best part of the 2015 spy thriller Baby, so spinning off an origin story for her made perfect sense. However, Naam Shabana is dull, doing neither the character nor the actress who plays her justice.

Too much time is spent on the “origin” part of Shabana’s story. We know that she is being recruited by a spy agency thanks to a number of long-distance shots of her overlaid with the markings of a camera’s viewfinder. It’s the same view through which two Indian spies scope out notorious gangster Mikhail in Vienna, right before Mikhail kills both of them.

The long-shots of Shabana are interspersed with the events of her ordinary college life. She’s on the university judo team, she hangs out with her pals, and she takes an economics class with Jai (Taher Shabbir Mithaiwala), a hunk with a crush on Shabana. She shares the details of her tragic childhood with Jai, adding backstory on top of backstory.

By the time the inciting incident triggers Shabana’s first contact with the head of the spy agency, Ranvir (Manoj Bajpayee), the movie is a quarter of the way over. There’s so much build up just get the ball rolling. Even then, the ball rolls very slowly.

Shabana first has to prove herself to the agency, even though they’ve been following her for years. There’s the obligatory training montage. Right when we’re ready for her to take the field and kick butt, Shabana disappears from the narrative for a full twenty minutes while other agents track down a crook named Tony (Prithviraj Sukumaran), whom they hope can lead them to Mikhail. When Shabana finally rejoins the fray, the action is interrupted by a ridiculous item number featuring Elli Avram.

Naam Shabana has about ninety minutes of material stretched to fill two-and-a-half hours. When one example of something would suffice, we’re shown two, just to pad things out. Although Baby creator Neeraj Pandey didn’t direct Naam Shabana — that credit belongs to Shivam Nair — Pandey did write the screenplay, complete with his tendency toward overly long runtimes.

A further disappointment is the way Shabana’s character is fleshed out from her small role in Baby. She’s mostly robotic, with a brief moment of hysteria that is drowned out by composer Sanjoy Chowdhury’s over-the-top score. (Did anyone else find the film’s closing theme awfully similar to the opening of “Day Tripper” by The Beatles?)

Shabana’s primary relationship is with her supportive but concerned mother (played by Natasha Rastogi). Their relationship provides the perfect opportunity to explore the natural pulling away from parents by young adults as they leave school and start their own lives–only taken to the extreme when the young adult becomes a spy. Instead, Mom simply vanishes from the story once Shabana joins the agency. It’s a huge miss in that it would’ve given a talented actress like Pannu more to do than just look cool in fight scenes (which she definitely does).

Cameos by key Baby cast members like Akshay Kumar, Anupam Kher, and Danny Denzongpa are well-integrated, but they come too late to rescue Naam Shabana from its plodding pace.

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Movie Review: Running Shaadi (2017)

runningshaadi2 Stars (out of 4)

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Running Shaadi‘s problematic characters and convenient solutions hamper this romantic-comedy, at the expense of its likeable lead actors.

Amit Sadh plays Bharose, right-hand-man to a bridal shop owner in Amritsar. Bharose is in love with the boss’s daughter, Nimmi (Taapsee Pannu), who falls in love with him in return after he helps her out of trouble. The trouble is an unplanned pregnancy following a fling with a fellow student at her high school. Bharose takes Nimmi out of town to get an abortion, at her request.

This scene is important not only because it depicts abortion as a routine medical procedure, but because the filmmakers refrain from using it to define Nimmi’s character. Too often, movies and television shows insist on portraying female characters as torn by the decision to have an abortion, as if they’d never considered the possibility of an unplanned pregnancy before. Nimmi has the procedure and moves on with her life, and Bharose’s feelings for her don’t change because of it. Kudos to writer-director Amit Roy and his co-writer Navjot Gulati for their progressive handling of the subplot.

Throughout Running Shaadi, female characters assert control over their romantic and sexual lives. Nimmi does as well, and in doing so ditches Bharose in favor of her new, more sophisticated college classmates.

Disenchanted with romance, Bharose enlists his tech-savvy roommate Cyber (Arsh Bajwa) to create a website to assist couples wishing to elope: RunningShaadi.com. (Days before the movie’s release, a court order required the filmmaker to mute every utterance of the words “dot com,” which is hugely distracting.) They develop elaborate escape plans and enlist a lawyer to facilitate the paperwork for marriages across caste and religion.

Where RunningShaadi.com’s service falls apart is that it doesn’t handle the fallout from the marriages, which clearly wouldn’t require elopement if the couples’ families approved in the first place. Bharose knows that family disapproval is a huge, sometimes dangerous problem, but he’s possessed of naive confidence that he can smooth out any disagreements. Something tells me that parents willing to shoot their own children rather than see them marry partners of their own choosing aren’t interested in reconciliation.

Bharose’s naivete is tied to a personal belief that he doesn’t express to his clients: he doesn’t really approve of elopement, as evidenced by his reluctance to utilize his own company’s services when faced with his own romantic difficulties.

Most of Bharose’s romantic troubles are caused by Nimmi, who is not an easy woman to love. She repeatedly does stupid things to endanger herself, Bharose, and Cyber. She’s also not especially nice to Bharose, calling him “illiterate” to emphasize the class divide between the two of them. Pannu does what she can with Nimmi, but our sympathies always lie with Bharose, thanks to Sadh’s charming performance.

It’s hard to feel the romance between Nimmi and Bharose, because Cyber is with them all the time. Even during romantic song numbers, the couple gazes longingly into each other’s eyes as Cyber looks on in the background.

As the film progresses, the main characters take less and less of a role in solving their own problems, instead letting happenstance provide convenient solutions. In key regards like the main plot, the central romance, and the resolution, Running Shaadi is ultimately unsatisfying.

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Movie Review: Pink (2016)

pink3 Stars (out of 4)

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Pink is a clear, convincing skewering of the double standards women are held to regarding their sexuality, and an indictment of the way those standards enable violence against women.

Two vehicles speed toward Delhi late one night. One car carries three male friends, one of whom bleeds profusely from a head wound. A cab ferries three somber women, the only indicator that something is wrong being Minal’s (Taapsee Pannu) smudged lipstick.

We can guess what happened. The bleeding man, Rajveer (Angad Bedi), forced himself on Minal, who defended herself with a glass bottle. She and her roommates Andrea (Andrea Tariang) and Falak (Kirti Kulhari) hope that the guys — Rajveer, Dumpy (Raashul Tandon), and Minal’s schoolmate Vishwa (Tushar Pandey) — will leave things be.

The men seem willing to until another friend, Ankit (Vijay Verma), whips them into a frenzy of wounded male pride. They harass and torment the women, hoping to drive them out of town. When the women file a police report, the men use the political clout of Rajveer’s family to file a counter charge of attempted murder against Minal.

All of this occurs under the watchful eye of the women’s odd neighbor, Deepak Sehgal (Amitabh Bachchan). He walks the neighborhood wearing a black mask and stares intimidatingly at the women’s apartment. Yet the former attorney reveals himself to be an ally, emerging from retirement to defend Minal in court.

One important note for international viewers is that the English subtitles leave much to be desired, and not just because of spoken English dialogue that doesn’t match the captioning. I understand enough Hindi to tell when translated subtitles don’t quite capture what is being said, sacrificing content for brevity, and that happens a lot in Pink.

Poor subtitling may explain why I found some parts of the story confusing. It’s unclear precisely what mental illness forced Sehgal to retire, or why he comes across as sinister early in the film. Bad translating may also be to blame for a perplexing scene late in the film featuring Falak on the witness stand.

Where director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury and writer Ritesh Shah excel is in the film’s structure. They start with the aftermath of the instigating event and proceed from there, without flashbacks or man-on-the-street reactions (thank heavens). Cases of rape are almost always “he said, she said,” so the audience is limited to the same kind of evidence that a jury might have. Only during the closing credits do we actually see the events that led up to Minal braining Rajveer with the bottle.

Pannu, Kulhari, and Tariang give nuanced performances that portray the range of emotions the women experience in a realistic way. Minal is the “strong” one, but there are limits to what even she can endure. Falak’s instinct to agree to whatever terms will make their problems disappear most quickly is understandable.

Likewise, the actors playing the perpetrators portray their characters as generally normal guys who bring out the worst in each other. Vishwa is reasonable and even a little sympathetic when he’s not with his friends, though he’s clearly not strong enough to stand up to them. Rajveer isn’t a cartoon villain, but rather an entitled bully. He’s gets what he wants because no one stops him.

The morality tale exacted by the younger characters is distilled into tidy lessons by Bachchan’s character during the courtroom scenes. I’m not sure if lawyers in real Indian courtrooms are allowed to monologue as long as Sehgal does, but his words are impactful.

The movie proceeds at a cautious pace to make sure that the audience has time to absorb the moral message being doled out. For those already versed in feminism and issues of violence against women, the pacing feels slow. But Pink is a movie made to change minds, and hiring a legend like Amitabh Bachchan to deliver the message is a smart way to ensure that people listen.

[Update: Thanks to @karansingh9008 and @Djimitunchained for letting me know via Twitter that Sehgal’s illness wasn’t explained in the Hindi dialogue either.]

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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: Chashme Baddoor (2013)

Chashme_Baddoor_(2013_film)_Poster3 Stars (out of 4)

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Chashme Baddoor is an enjoyable comedy, and I’m not just saying that because Ali Zafar is adorable. And his hair looks so soft. And when he smiles, I feel like I’m floating.

Knowing that David Dhawan is responsible for both the film’s direction and updating the screenplay from 1981’s Chashme Buddoor, I expected the film to be as crude and tedious as some of his other recent comedies, like Rascals and Do Knot Disturb. Though it has a few annoying elements, Chashme Baddoor is a sweet, funny film about the ways love can interfere with friendship.

The plot focuses on three best friends living it up in Goa: bookish Sid (Ali Zafar) and two aspiring Lotharios, Jai (Siddharth) and Omi (Divyendu Sharma). Their landlady, Ms. Josephine (Lilette Dubey), and the tough-guy owner of the local bar, Mr. Joseph (Rishi Kapoor), can’t understand why a guy with as much potential as Sid hangs out with two losers.

The film introduces Jai and Omi first, which is something of a mistake, since they’re not as likeable as a Sid. The apparent risqué humor of Omi’s romantic poetry doesn’t translate well from spoken Hindi into English subtitles, and Jai is too brash. Their antics are often accompanied by irritating musical cues that had me reaching for my earplugs.

Jai and Omi take turns trying to woo the cute new girl in town, Seema (Taapsee Pannu). Both flame out, but conceal their failure from each other and Sid, inventing stories of romantic conquest. When Sid — having never seen Seema before — falls for her, Jai and Omi conspire to break the couple apart before Seema can reveal their rebuffed flirtations and subsequent lies.

More than just a pretty face, Zafar does a fine job playing Sid as a regular guy. He’s shy, but not mousey; scholarly, not nerdy. Sid’s presence has a calming influence on his buddies, and Omi and Jai are at their best when they’re with Sid.

Pannu likewise does a fine job with Seema, who is feisty without becoming a shrill caricature. She’s youthful but a bit more worldly and confident than Sid, enough to lead him to believe that she could be a lot more worldly than him.

Anupam Kher plays a double role as Seema’s father and uncle. Kher’s characters are even more outrageous than Omi and Jai and are accompanied by even noisier sound effects. This isn’t my favorite performance by Kher.

Kapoor and Dubey, however, are very cute as Joseph and Josephine, a pair of single adults whose courtship is heartwarming. Their story could’ve been more thoroughly integrated into the main plot, but they are delightful every minute they are on screen.

Even during its darkest moments, Chashme Baddoor never gets too dark. When romances and friendships are at risk of falling apart, there’s always a sense that the relationships can be saved, because the characters are all good at heart. This is unapologetic light entertainment that succeeds because it maintains a carefree air throughout.

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