Tag Archives: Vinay Pathak

Streaming Video News: March 31, 2017

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with six new additions to the catalog. Older films like 2006’s Baabul and 2011’s Yamla Pagla Deewana (which was too self-referential) were added along with three movies from last year: Azhar, M.S. Dhoni — The Untold Story, and Akira, which released in US theaters as Naam Hai Akira. The Dhoni biopic was just okay, the Azhar biopic wasn’t great either, and Akira was just bad. The most intriguing new addition is the 2015 reality show The House That Made Me, in which actor Vinay Pathak interviews celebrities like Govinda, Remo D’Souza, and Irrfan Khan in their hometowns.

For everything else (Bollywood or not) new on Netflix, check Instant Watcher.

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Movie Review: Island City (2015)

IslandCity2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Island City was a part of the 2016 Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.

Writer-director Ruchika Oberoi’s debut film Island City explores the pressures of life in modern Mumbai through three connected narratives, with varying degrees of success.

The movie opens with “Fun Committee,” a story about a middle-aged salaryman, Mr. Chaturvedi (Vinay Pathak). He files into his cubicle at Systematic Statistics along with the other drones, an interchangeable cog in a giant machine.

To remedy persistent employee dissatisfaction, the company installs a “Fun Committee” to randomly award workers with a day away from the office. For a guy like Chaturvedi, whose job is his life, such a reward feels like a punishment.

According to an anonymous committee member heard only over the phone (voiced by Rajat Kapoor), the day away is scientifically planned to maximize “mandatory” fun. Chaturvedi is dropped off at a shopping mall, under orders to utilize a stack of coupons for free stuff like balloons and lollipops.

The film’s limited budget becomes a problem as the narrative shifts into a surreal examination of consumer culture. Retail employees sing when Chaturvedi redeems his coupons as shoppers mill about nearby. Are the shoppers also a part of the alternative universe inhabited by Chaturvedi and the store workers? Are they even aware of it? A bigger budget would’ve allowed Oberoi to build a more immersive world, avoiding the questions of who’s involved and who’s just a regular person who happened to be shopping on the day of a movie shoot.

Sympathy for Chaturvedi’s plight is undermined when he extends his frustration with his soul-sucking job beyond the callous management to his fellow employees. They’re just as much victims of the system as he is. “Fun Committee” ends on a grim note.

The second story — “The Ghost in the Machine” — is the best of the three. Housewife Sarita (Amruta Subhash) learns that her husband, Mr. Joshi, is in a coma. Sarita, her two young sons, and her mother endure neighbors dropping by to offer condolences in exchange for tea and cookies, but the family knows the truth: Joshi was an overbearing jerk, and their life is more enjoyable without him.

All four family members get hooked on a TV serial about an ideal man. The TV hero (Samir Kochhar) is handsome, affectionate, kind, generous, and polite: all the things Joshi is not. The serial allows the family to envision a better life, while comatose Joshi hovers over their dreams like a not-quite-dead ghost. The story is delightfully clever, especially in the way the TV serial’s narrative evolves to depict the family’s desires.

“Contact” is the last of Island City‘s short stories. Unlike the middle-class protagonists of the other narratives, “Contact” features a poor heroine. Aarti (Tannishtha Chatterjee) endures a hopeless existence, commuting for hours to a manual labor job at a newspaper print shop. Her father has arranged her marriage to a foul-mouthed boor, Jignesh (Chandan Roy Sanyal), who insists that dour Aarti smile without giving her a reason to.

An anonymous love letter professes to see the passionate fire hidden within Aarti’s sad eyes. The mystery awakens not just Aarti’s sense of curiosity but a belief that perhaps she deserves a more fulfilling life than the one she has. Chatterjee’s touching performance lives up her consistently high standards.

Island City is pessimistic about life for the average Mumbaikar. Hope is either a lie, or it comes at an astronomical cost. “The Ghost in the Machine” is the only one of the three tales that is fun to watch.

It’s hard to reconcile how the salaryman’s story fits with the other two. The image of the zombie-like office worker is well established, but Chaturvedi is there by choice. There’s no sense that he quashed some vibrant part of himself to take this job. He has no family to support. He’s there because there’s nothing more to him.

Contrast that with both Sarita and Aarti, whose opportunities are dictated by the men in their lives. Joshi forced Sarita to stop working in a career she loved. Aarti works in a dead-end job, and she’s forced to marry someone she finds repulsive. Not only are Chaturvedi’s self-imposed troubles deemed equivalent with those of the two women, they’re given prominence by being placed first in the story order.

It feels like there’s a piece missing from Island City that might have better connected the three stories. Maybe it was just a matter of weaving the narratives together rather than presenting them separately. As constructed, Island City only hits its stride after a third of the movie is already over.

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Movie Review: Johnny Gaddaar (2007)

JohnnyGaddaar3 Stars (out of 4)

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Bollywood loves its own history. Too many Hindi films cater to fans with a depth of Bollywood knowledge at the expense of newcomers to the genre, who feel left out of the inside jokes. The neo-noir thriller Johnny Gaddaar (“Johnny the Traitor“) avoids that trap, enthusiastically paying homage to the past while providing enough context to welcome Bollywood newcomers.

It helps that writer-director Sriram Raghavan really understands how and why stories work onscreen. That understanding manifests subtly in the two films he made after Johnny Gaddaar: Agent Vinod and Badlapur. In Johnny Gaddaar, his references are explicit, using clips from other movies to advance his own heist story.

“Johnny” is an alias used by Vikram (Neil Nitin Mukesh), junior member of a quintet that runs a gambling ring. Veteran crook Seshadri (Dharmendra) holds together the uneasy group, which consists of Vikram, casino owner Prakash (Vinay Pathak), financier Shardul (Zakir Hussain), and the crew’s muscle, Shivay (Dayanand Shetty).

Vikram breaks a cardinal rule by falling in love with Shardul’s wife, Mini (Rimi Sen). In order to get enough cash for the two of them to flee to Canada, Vikram decides to steal the money the group pooled for a deal with the corrupt policeman, Kalyan (Govind Namdeo).

Even though he’s the most educated member of the crew, Vikram is also the newest to a life of crime. He concocts a solid plan to steal the cash, going so far as to chloroform himself in order to time how long his victim will remain unconscious. Yet he lacks the wiliness of an experienced crook, and his plan goes wrong in ways he never anticipated.

The primary theme of the film is the danger of unintended consequences, not just the direct effects on one’s own life but the psychological damage incurred when one inflicts pain on others, intentionally or not.

Vikram and his gang aren’t violent. He doesn’t own a gun, and the others aren’t in the habit of carrying theirs with them. Shiva is a gentle giant. When Vikram experiences his first taste of violence, it disturbs him. Sadly, that first experience makes violence a possible response to future conflicts, in a way it never was before.

It helps that Mukesh — in his first film role — looks as young and slight as he does. He doesn’t appear the least bit tough. It’s easy to accept him as the naive character he plays.

There’s another theme in the film about the nature of love, namely that Vikram doesn’t know what real love is. How can he be sure of his feelings for Mini or her feelings for him when they developed under duress? Vikram protests to Seshadri that their love is real, and Seshadri just shrugs.

Seshadri is one of multiple examples of what true love is that Vikram ignores in pursuit of his affair. Widowed Seshadri reminisces while listening to a recording of his wife singing. Prakash dotes on his wife, Varsha (Ashwini Kalsekar), a proud working mom. Shiva has a sweet, budding romance with the nurse who cares for his ailing mother.

Shardul doesn’t seem like such a bad husband to Mini, at least by mafia-film standards. He comes home and wants to catch up on the day with his wife, but she can’t get away from him fast enough. Her disgust for him is so obvious that you almost feel bad for the guy.

Even Kalyan — who is the scariest character in the film — tries to warn Vikram about the danger he’s in. When Vikram confesses that his favorite actor is Amitabh Bachchan, Kalyan asks if Vikram has seen Parwana, a movie in which Bachchan plays an obsessed lover who resorts to murder when his beloved falls for another man. Of course, Vikram hasn’t seen the movie.

Clips from Parwana are interspersed throughout Johnny Gaddaar, along with snippets of other Bollywood and Hollywood films. For movie buffs, it’s fun to try to spot all of the references Raghavan includes in his movie. The references never derail the story, and Raghavan makes some explicit enough that even non-movie buffs can feel included (as when Seshadri says he feels like he’s in a scene from Scarface as the gang counts their loot).

Johnny Gaddaar is a balanced, solid thriller that feels like a love letter to films of the past. It’s worth watching just to see an early piece of work by a promising director.

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Movie Review: Badlapur (2015)

Badlapur_Poster3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Badlapur is a jaw-dropping thriller that examines the perils of revenge. After a pair of delightful comic performances in his two previous films, Varun Dhawan shines as a grieving husband who becomes a monster.

Heed the tagline at the end of the Badlapur trailer: “Don’t miss the beginning.” The movie opens with a bank robbery and carjacking. The owner of the car (played by Yami Gautam) and her young son are killed in gruesome — if somewhat accidental — fashion during the escape attempt. One of the robbers (played by Vinay Pathak) flees with the loot, while the other, Liak (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), turns himself in to the police.

Badlapur‘s plot follows two parallel stories: Liak’s life behind bars, and the quest for revenge undertaken by Raghu (Dhawan), husband of Misha (Gautam) and father of their son.

The movie is clearly inspired by the Korean film I Saw the Devil — most obviously in a scene in which a man in a car pulls up to a stranded female motorist — which was remade in India last year as Ek Villain. Badlapur is a more fitting successor to the Korean film than the acknowledged remake.

What differentiates Badlapur‘s lead character from the secret service agent at the core of I Saw the Devil is that Raghu has no special skills to aid his revenge quest. He works in advertising before the murders, and takes a job as a factory foreman after Liak is imprisoned.

Because he’s just a regular guy, Raghu’s plans seem a little disorganized. It’s not clear when he will feel his vengeance complete. He intends to wait until Liak’s twenty-year prison sentence is over, then follow Liak when he retrieves his share of the money from Harman (Pathak), his accomplice. Raghu’s timetable is accelerated when a well-meaning-but-naive charity worker, Shoba (Divya Dutta), asks Raghu to petition for Liak’s early release so he can seek medical treatment.

Raghu is content to wait to enact his revenge upon Liak and Harman, but he has far less patience for the women who willingly maintain relationships with the criminals. This goes for Shoba, Harman’s wife, Koko (Radhika Apte), and especially Liak’s girlfriend, Jimli (Huma Qureshi).

Jimli is first to experience Raghu’s rage. Because she is a prostitute, Raghu has no compunction about raping her, thus “ruining” her for Liak. That Raghu feels his money can compensate Jimli for the rape is the sign that he’s gone off the deep end. When Liak asks him what makes the two of them so different, Raghu doesn’t have a good answer.

Every performance in Badlapur is pitch perfect. Dutta and Apte are sympathetic, and Qureshi is superb. Pathak doesn’t get as much screentime as Siddiqui, but he features in the movie’s best scene, in which Harman and Raghu silently size each other up as they ride in an elevator.

Siddiqui is great, but Liak’s character is tricky to embrace. There’s only so much he can do since he spends much of the film in jail, and every scene reinforces that he’s a bad guy. The volume of storytime devoted to Liak has less to do with the character and more to do with a desire to keep Siddiqui on screen for as long as possible.

In only his fourth film, Dhawan extends his acting range in impressive fashion. His portrayal of Raghu is chilling. He’s far scarier than Liak or Harman, but he also has the capacity to act normal when it serves his purpose.

Badlapur has trouble maintaining momentum early on. Raghu’s brutalization of Jimli is followed by flashbacks to his romance with Misha and low-key scenes of Liak’s exploits in jail. Raghu feels a bit absent from the film’s ultimate resolution, but perhaps that fits given that he isn’t a criminal mastermind capable of engineering a dramatic climax.

One thing director Sriram Raghavan excels at is sound design. There isn’t much in the way of background music in Badlapur, and the movie is often punctuated by street noise like barking dogs. The undercurrent of everyday sounds makes the film feel more realistic, heightening its impact.

Not a movie for the faint of heart, Badlapur rewards its audience with great performances and a nuanced take on the revenge genre. If nothing else, it establishes Varun Dhawan as the most exciting young actor in Bollywood today.

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Movie Review: Bajatey Raho (2013)

Bajatey_Raho1 Star (out of 4)

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Dramatic tension is a necessary element of any film, even comedies. A hero has a goal, he must overcome obstacles to achieve it, and the consequences of failure must be dire. In Bajatey Raho (“Play On”, according to the subtitles of the title track), the heroes achieve their goal with minimal effort and little at stake. Why bother watching?

The story concerns the members of a family on the verge of losing their home. Flashbacks show the recently deceased patriarch, Mr. Baweja — a bank manager — unknowingly caught up in a scheme devised by the villainous Mr. Sabbarwahl (Ravi Kishan). Sabbarwahl stole the money from the neighborhood bank run by Mr. Baweja and pinned the crime on the manager, causing him to die from shame on his way to jail.

Faced with the prospect of having their house seized to cover the debts owed to their defrauded neighbors, the remaining members of the Baweja family set out to steal the money back from Sabbarwahl.

The composition of the Baweja family is confusing. Besides Mr. Baweja’s widow, Mummyji (Dolly Ahluwalia), and their son, Sukhi (Tusshar Kapoor), there’s an orphaned kid named Kabootar (Hussan Saad); Mintoo (Vinay Pathak), who’s either a nephew or a son-in-law; and Ballu (Ranvir Shorey), whom Mummyji refers to as Sukhi’s “brother,” but who probably isn’t, biologically speaking.

The large Baweja clan is an example of the film’s tendency toward character sprawl. There are so many people affiliated with Sabbarwahl — servants, gurus, underlings, future in-laws, sexy Russian yoga instructors — that it’s impossible to keep track of them or give them meaningful roles in the story.

The police give the Bawejas a couple of weeks to return their neighbors’ money or face eviction. This perfectly coincides with the timing of the wedding of Sabbarwahl’s daughter to a soap actor. The family devises a plan to steal the money during the wedding.

“Devises a plan” isn’t exactly accurate. Stuff happens, then after the fact, the audience is told it was part of a plan we never see discussed. In fact, the circumstances by which Sukhi’s new girlfriend, Manpreet (Vishakha Singh, whose performance is the only good thing about Bajatey Raho), agrees to participate in the theft are never disclosed. One minute she’s eating ice cream and dancing with Sukhi outside of a movie theater, the next she’s acting as a mole inside Sabbarwahl’s house while posing as a dance instructor.

Why would she agree to get involved in this criminal activity so soon after meeting him? Isn’t she afraid of jail? How does she know that Sukhi’s telling the truth?

All of the moral conundrums are glossed over. No one questions whether it’s right to steal from a thief, or whether Mr. Baweja’s name can truly be cleared if done through devious methods . The characters are divided into childishly simple categories. Sabbarwahl is the bad guy and the Bawejas are the good guys, so whatever they do is okay.

As far as bad guys go, Sabbarwahl is a wimp. He only once brandishes a gun, and he doesn’t have any menacing bodyguards. He’s rich enough to buy people off, obviously, but the Bawejas don’t ever seem to be in any mortal danger from him.

Absent threat to life or limb, surely there are lots of obstacles to the plan succeeding, right? Wrong. Everything works out exactly as expected. There’s never any threat that the family will have their covers blown (Sukhi and Ballu pretend to be caterers, Mummyji and Mintoo a rich lady and her bodyguard, respectively), nor does Sabbarwahl suspect that anyone is conning him.

So the Bawejas steal the stolen money back, and then lecture Sabbarwahl on the evils of mistreating the less fortunate. No chase scene, no shootout, no case of mistaken identities. The heroes get what they want without any trouble. The end. What a waste of time.

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Movie Review: Tere Mere Phere (2011)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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I don’t buy the premise that all married couples must fight. And when they do, I assume it’s usually over important stuff like money or child-rearing. Tere Mere Phere assumes that, not only do all married couples fight, but that even the pettiest of arguments can bring a couple to the brink of divorce. So much for the power of love.

Tere Mere Phere (“Our Wedding Vows”) begins several days into the unhappy honeymoon of Rahul (Jagrat Desai) and Pooja (Sasha Goradia). Flying home from their prematurely aborted road trip, they cause such a ruckus that their flight is forced to return to its departure airport.

Seeing Rahul and Pooja climbing in to their honeymoon camper van, fellow passenger Jai (Vinay Pathak) pulls a gun on them, demanding to be driven to the plane’s original destination. He has to make it to Shimla before his fiancée’s disapproving family can marry her to someone else. A few hours with incessantly bickering Rahul and Pooja convince Jai that marriage might not be worth it after all.

By introducing Rahul and Pooja at their most annoying, writer-director Deepa Sahi denies the audience the opportunity to relate to the couple. Rather than listening to them argue and thinking, “I’ve been there,” one looks at them and thinks, “Good grief, I’ve never been that obnoxious.”

There’s also something off about Sahi’s sense of what is funny. Not only are Rahul and Pooja unbearably irritating, but they don’t react appropriately to perceived slights. They blow up at each other over sitcom gender-role clichés — he’s messy; she’s too strict — but it’s played to comic effect when Rahul flirts with another woman to deliberately anger and humiliate Pooja.

It would be one thing if the bickering over inconsequential things were symptomatic of deeper problems, but flashbacks show the couple’s relatively smooth courtship. They’re actually cute as they joyously celebrate their perfect score on a magazine compatibility test. Sahi needed to show a lot more sweetness and a lot less combativeness between Rahul and Pooja to make them into a couple who deserve a happy ending.

Debutants Desai and Goradia don’t do their awkwardly-written characters any favors. Both actors seem to have studied at the School of Inappropriate Facial Expressions. When Rahul’s face is shown in a close-up, supposedly staring lovingly at Pooja, Desai’s intense grimace makes him look more like he’s planning to kill her.

Tere Mere Phere gets better performances from its more experienced actors. Vinay Pathak’s calm presence as Jai offsets Rahul & Pooja’s shrieking hysteria. Sushmita Mukeherjee is funny as Rahul’s overbearing mother, Seema.

But the real star of the film is the scenery. Shot in Himachal, Sahi wisely includes lots of shots of the region’s gorgeous mountains and rivers. For all their faults, at least Rahul and Pooja picked a nice place to honeymoon.

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Movie Review: Chalo Dilli (2011)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Chalo Dilli is a road trip comedy in which a mismatched pair of strangers are forced to rely upon each other to reach their destination. It’s basically Planes, Trains and Automobiles, only with Steve Martin’s uptight character played by a woman.

That woman is Lara Dutta, who also produced the movie. Dutta plays Mihika, a picky investment banking executive used to getting things her way. She heads to the airport in Mumbai wearing a tight skirt and high heels that look as uncomfortable for air travel as they will be for her inevitable trek through the hinterlands.

Mihika’s journey is disrupted by Muna (Vinay Pathak), a crude cloth merchant with a chivalrous streak. His incessant yammering on the plane prompts Mihika to put on headphones, causing her to miss the announcement that the flight to Delhi has been diverted to Jaipur.

What should be a six-hour drive back to Delhi turns into an overnight adventure for Mihika and Muna, who assumes the role of chauffeur when the driver Mihika has hired falls asleep. The car breaks down, and the odd couple spend many hours together making their way to Delhi any way they can.

This premise should work particularly well in India, with its stark contract between urban and rural environments. The contrast sets up plenty of fish-out-of-water scenarios for city-bred Mihika, who starts the movie disgusted at the thought of flying on a “budget” airline instead of in first class.

But the movie never takes full advantage of its opportunities for comedy. None of the situations Mihika and Muna find themselves in are especially unusual or outrageous. The people they encounter are generally normal and helpful. It makes for a boring trip.

Mihika does get to wake up to a beautiful sunrise in the country and meet friendly locals, which is supposed to open her eyes to Muna’s somewhat odd life wisdom: Don’t sweat the small stuff, because there’s probably something much more serious in your life that you should be worried about.

As much as Chalo Dilli fancies itself an uplifting film, it isn’t really. Manu’s happy-go-lucky demeanor masks an inner pain that manifests itself in cruel jokes at his wife’s expense. The final scene between Mihika and Manu is uncomfortable to watch.

Rather than ending there, the movie tacks on an epilogue montage voiced-over by Mihika detailing the ways the lives of the villagers she and Muna encountered were improved by the experience. The movie gives the contradictory message that the simple life is beautiful, but not so perfect that it can’t be improved by a little attention from some city dwellers.

Chalo Dilli also takes a conflicted view of gender equality. Mihika and Muna argue after he wonders why so many men would be willing to work for her. She accuses him of believing that women should stay home and have babies. So what does Mihika decide to do in the epilogue? Stay home and have babies.

If Mihika had expressed career or life dissatisfaction earlier in the movie, perhaps the choice would’ve made sense. But it’s quite a leap from Mihika making a small gesture, such as delaying a business trip in order to attend a party, to her chucking her whole career to have kids. Axe the unnecessary epilogue and this mixed message isn’t an issue.

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