Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal (The Incessant Fear of Rape)


You really don’t want to get on her bad side.

(2018) Drama (Mumba DeviShalini Vatsa, Chitrangada Chakraborty, Kritika Pande, Vinay Sharma, Ahmareen Anjum, Sonal Joshi. Directed by Aditya Kripalani

In our patriarchal society, rape has been a hidden problem, one that is often not taken seriously by the powers that be. A large percentage of rapes go unreported because often the investigation and trial are nearly as bad if not worse than the actual sexual assault. As bad as things are in the United States however, they are infinitely worse in India.

Delhi is the rape capital of India (and quite possibly the entire planet). The women of Delhi live in a constant state of fear and hyper-awareness. At 8 pm, women know that the time for extra vigilance has come and being away from their homes is taking a terrible chance. Ladies-only taxi services have sprouted up because of the number of women who have gotten into taxis only to be driven to a remote spot and raped by the driver. Ladies only services only pick up women and have female drivers.

One such service is run by Shaila (Pande) who is also a student and a self-professed feminist. One evening she picks up a group of women to take home; Chitra (Chakraborty), a martial arts instructor, Vibha (Vatsa) an office worker and Shagun (Joshi), a police officer. Traffic, as is typical at rush hour, is bad and the women decide to stop an get a bite to eat before continuing on their way home. At a roadside eatery, they are harassed by a tough guy on a motorcycle, the kind of thing women around the world have to endure. It doesn’t end there, however.

As they are driving a cyclist pulls up next to them and makes some lewd remark- s which causes an accident…sort of. The motorcyclist ends up sprawled on the side of the road and the women come up with an idea; they are all tired of living in fear of being raped. They wanted to have men feel that same fear – maybe if they were to understand how it felt to know they could be violated at any time changes might actually come.

They take the guy (Sharma) to an abandoned room which had been used by criminals who had since been arrested. They lock him in a metal cabinet and leave him there with the intention of figuring out how to break him to the point where he becomes certain that he can be raped at any time.

The women use a variety of techniques to break him down, by treating him as a servant girl to chloroforming him and spraying pepper spray into the cabinet. Chitra turns out to have a lot of anger and often has to be restrained; Shagun reminds her that when they react to their captive, they are putting the power in his hands. Their job is to make him react to them. They are streaming video of their various indignities being visited upon him live to the Internet but what will happen when the day comes to actually convince the man in their possession that he is about to be raped?

Kripalani also directed the 2017 feature Tikli and Laxmi Bomb which dealt with the abuse of sex workers. This takes a broader look at rape culture and the effect it has on women. In all honesty, I don’t think there’s ever been a movie like this. Sure, we’ve seen our share of movies about women pushed to the edge (and often over it) by a sexual assault but those are generally revenge thrillers. There are elements of that here but I wouldn’t say this was a revenge thriller per se.

As with his previous film, Kripalani films largely on the streets of Mumbai and the movie has an authentic feel. While there are more sets in this film than in the last, the movie doesn’t feel static at all. There is kind of gravity pushing and pulling the film towards the inevitable climax which although somewhat anticlimactic in some ways, feels like the right direction for Kripalani to go in.

]Both Chakraborty and Pande appeared in his last film; they both deliver strong performances, particularly Chakraborty who is turning out to be an excellent actress. Chitra is a seething cauldron of rage who doesn’t need much prompting to erupt but at the same time she has a surprisingly vulnerable heart which is revealed in a moving conversation with Vibha late in the film. All of the characters have a personal connection to sexual assault which get revealed at various places in the film.

More or less this is cinema verite. There isn’t a lot of frills and the budget for the movie was likely not very large. The cinematography is a bit murky in places, like a ballroom lit by a 20 watt bulb.

I can’t imagine how women deal with the constant threat; the rules they have to follow – don’t get into an elevator alone with a strange man, when in a bar never drink anything you didn’t watch the bartender make and hand directly to you, always carry a rape whistle or pepper spray on your person, always park in well-lighted areas close to an exit. Be aware of what you’re wearing because that may be considered an invitation, or at least be used against you during the trial in the unlikely event that the crime goes to trial. These are things that men don’t deal with, can’t even conceive of. When the #MeToo movement began and women started posting that they had been victims of sexual harassment and/or assault, I had always known that the percentage of women who had gone through that horror was high but I didn’t realize how high it really was. I was shocked at how many friends and family had survived it.

There has been some blowback about the film; some men see it as threatening and even encouraging violence. I don’t know that I disagree; however, as far as understanding where that rage comes from, I can completely understand and even applaud the filmmakers for daring to tap into the rage of women, something that most men fear to do.

While the film has played the festival circuit, the producers tell me that Netflix has picked up the movie and will be streaming it this summer. I certainly hope so; I think a lot of men who could benefit from seeing it. The tragedy is that they probably aren’t aware that they are part of the problem.

REASONS TO SEE: A very timely premise considering the rise of people opposing rape culture.
REASONS TO AVOID: The lighting is a bit too dark.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some profanity and violence, sexual references and descriptions of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The words tottaa, pataaka, item and maal in Hindi are words that are used in Northern India to tease women. They loosely translate to “hot,” “sexy” and so on.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rape Squad
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Diamantino

A Suitable Girl


In India, marriage is almost compulsory and the pressure to be a bride enormous.

(2017) Documentary (The Film Collaborative) Amrita Soni, Dipti Admane, Ritu Taparia, Seema Taparia, Keshav, Janardan, Kara Devi, Nishu, Neha. Directed by Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra

 

In recent years there has been more interest in the United States about Indian culture. As more natives of the subcontinent have gone to school here and established careers here, there has been a resulting influx of Indian cuisine, Indian films and music here in the States.

One thing that has remained true about Indian culture is the importance of marriage. The pressure on young people to get married once they reach a certain age (for young women it can be as early as 14 years old) grows more intense the longer it takes for them to find a life partner. A whole industry has arisen in India to help Indian men and women find suitable mates. These marriages are generally arranged, as they have been for centuries, by the parents rather than on the young people themselves.

This documentary focuses on the distaff side of things (a BBC documentary, A Suitable Boy, is forthcoming with similar attention on the male point of view) and in particular three women at various stages in the process. Amrita, from New Delhi, has a nice career in the financial business, an industry where women have actually made some inroads. However, she has found a husband – young Keshav who is taking his bride from urban Delhi to rural Nokha – where she believes her experience will help her father-in-law’s business.

Dipti is a bright young teacher who at 24 is in danger of becoming an old maid. She doesn’t have the svelte figure Indian men are fond of; she’s curvy and a touch on the heavy side but still beautiful. Her attempts to find romance through classified ads have generally gotten her nowhere and she has turned to a swayamvar which is something of an Indian speed dating service to improve her chances – more on that in a moment. Finally there is Ritu, a worldly and beautiful young woman who has a thriving career at Ernst and Young in Mumbai. Her mother Seema works as a matchmaker which one would think would improve her chances but she turns down most of the prospects she is introduced to. Seema isn’t actively looking for her daughter – she feels that it would be akin to a surgeon performing surgery on herself – which raises a few eyebrows amongst their circle of friends and family.

For Amrita, her new life isn’t what she envisioned it to be. For one thing, her father-in-law falls ill within months of her arrival and most of her time is spent doing more domestic chores. Because her father-in-law is a more conservative traditional man, western clothes are absolutely forbidden (although she has a stash of them to wear when she visits her parents) and she is under constant criticism by her new mother-in-law, who refers to her as Keshav’s wife (to which she gripes “I have a name. Call me Amrita”). Despite the fact that her new parents have plenty of money, a beautiful house and servants, she feels that her life has taken a turn for the worse.

The swayamvar is actually an eye-opener for the viewer. The men who attend are asked to share personal details about their lives, their finances and what they’re looking for in a mate. It is almost like a cattle call audition and the event is attended mainly by divorced men who are far from desirable in Indian culture; most of them are much older than what Dipti is looking for. Discouraged, she turns to online dating services but as rejection piles upon rejection, her self-confidence takes a big hit.

Ritu eventually finds someone suitable but he is working in Dubai, which distresses her parents. Ritu will move thousands of miles away from her parents. In fact, in Indian culture, the bride moves in with the groom and often into the home of the groom’s parents. This becomes her family and while she doesn’t cut off all contact with her own parents and family, it is expected that her focus will be on her new family. Accordingly, the weddings – which are elaborate affairs – are a time not only of joy but also of sorrow for the bride’s side of the ceremony.

It is a very different process of finding a life partner (a phrase used often in the film) than we’re used to here in the West. Here, generally the young people search for themselves, relying mainly on physical attraction to select their husbands and wives to be. For the Indians part, they tend to point to our high divorce rate here when defending their own system. One wonders, however, that as the roles of women change in India as they invariably will how this will affect the current system of arranged marriages?

The documentary itself is decent enough, in a cinema verité style following the women over the course of three to four years. One of the objections I had was that often that things were going on that aren’t explained by voice-over or graphic. I have a passing familiarity with Indian culture but there were times that I was completely in the dark about things and had questions; for example, at one point Seema visits a “face reader” with pictures of various suitors for Ritu, all of whom are rejected by the face reader. Are visiting these face readers a common practice? What kind of training do they undergo? How legitimate are they? You won’t find out here. However, it should be remarked that the filmmakers show a very even hand in showing the various emotions of the women they are following; there is no judgment and the audience is left to draw their own conclusions.

The subject is a fascinating one. Arranged marriages are still practiced in India and among ex-pats here in the States and elsewhere. While there are plenty of Bollywood films that cover the process, this is one of the few documentaries that walks us through the process from the bride’s point of view. For that alone it’s usefulness is invaluable.

REASONS TO GO: The stories of the various women are pretty interesting.
REASONS TO STAY: A lot of things go unexplained during the film, leaving the viewer frustrated unless they are fairly well acquainted with Indian culture.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two directors shared the “Albert Maysles Best New Documentary Director” award handed out at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet..
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love and Marriage in Little India
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The 15:17 to Paris

Tikli and Laxmi Bomb


Another day at the office.

(2017) Drama (Self-Released) Vibhawari Deshpande, Chitrangada Chakraborty, Divya Unny, Upendra Limaye, Suchitra Pillai, Kritika Pande, Mia Maelzer, Ralchi Mansha, Bageshi Jeshirao, Manasi Bhawalkar, Mayur More, Kamil, Saharsh Kumar Shukla. Directed by Aditya Kripalani

 

Prostitution may be the world’s oldest profession but it certainly hasn’t gotten any respect. Sex workers are often characterized as drug addicts who have no other skills other than lying on their back. Most societies, including America, tend to keep prostitutes at an arm’s length in popular culture. Often they aren’t referred to and when portrayed in popular culture they are either victims or plucky hookers doing their utmost to get out of the business.

In India, like most other countries, being a sex worker is a dangerous occupation. Laxmi (Deshpande) has been one for awhile. She works for a pimp named Mhatre (Limaye) for whom she is mainly an administrator although she hangs out on the streets with the other girls. She rarely turns tricks herself however. One night, Mhatre brings a Bengali woman named Putul (Chakraborty) into the fold and instructs Laxmi to show her the ropes. Instantly Putul – whom Laxmi soon dubs Tikli – annoys the older woman. Tikli has a mouth that often gets her into trouble, and as free-spirited as she appears to be she has a hair-trigger temper as well.

Tikli soon notices that the women are treated horribly by Mhatre and his security man JT. When the somewhat incompetent security man doesn’t pick up the phone when she’s frantically calling for help, she extricates herself from a potentially horrible situation with a hidden knife and heads back to the street corner to kick the man who was supposed to be protecting her in the gonads.

Laxmi is horrified and is certain that this will bring the wrath of Mhatre down on her and it does; he arranges for the girls to be detained at the local police station where a group of corrupt cops take turns raping Tikli. Eventually she comes home, grim-faced and Laxmi begins to feel some sympathy for her, even though she doesn’t like her much. Mhatre has forced Tikli to live with Laxmi and Tikli snores and farts and smokes, all of which annoy Laxmi.

But Tikli has ideas that frighten Laxmi, like the revolutionary thought that if the girls are not getting protection anyway that there’s no use for the pimp or his muscle so they may as well work for themselves. That means paying a percentage of their earnings to the local crime lord who is the boss of Mhatre, but if they can get the girls to pool their earnings and work together, the plan might just work. Most of Mhatre’s stable goes with Tikli especially when Laxmi supports the plan although one intransigent veteran hooker named Manda (Pillai) refuses. More and more girls begin to defect to the gang of prostitutes who now call themselves the Tikli and Laxmi Bomb gang. They come up with an ingenious loyalty program to lure and keep repeat customers.

All of this gets the attention of their old boss who is none too pleased with the willful Tikli or the girls in the gang. Things begin to get more and more serious as Mhatre and his men launch escalating reprisals but Tikli and Laxmi are determined to beat the system but with the system so stacked against them can they prevail?

First-time director Kripalani is going for authenticity, filming on the mean streets of Mumbai and often in subdued lighting. That makes the picture dark and murky at times but it also feels like you’re right there on the streets with them. Kripalani also wrote the novel the movie is based on and while the story is fictional it has the ring of the real to it, making the story and characters believable in ways other narrative features can’t compare to.

I don’t know how much research was done into the lives of these ladies but it feels like there was a lot. The movie doesn’t gloss over anything, from the vulnerability to physical attacks that sex workers around the world are subject to, to the camaraderie – and occasional rivalry – the girls have. I don’t know if there is a drug problem among Indian prostitutes – many prostitutes in the States use alcohol and recreational drugs to help them deal with the psychological ramifications of their job – but it isn’t really depicted her. The ladies all smoke and love to go to clubs to dance; occasionally they even drink but there isn’t a lot of that going on in the movie.

Chakraborty is absolutely delightful as the spunky Tikli and Deshpande gives a multi-layered performance as Laxmi. It was the latter character who intrigued me more; she doesn’t dress as seductively as her fellow sex workers, rarely wears make-up and comes off almost tomboyish but she is serenely beautiful in her own way.

Despite the sexual subject there’s no overt nudity or at least nothing is shown beyond bare shoulders and legs. The sexuality isn’t what I’d call gratuitous here; it is handled as matter-of-factly as the women themselves would normally. In a lot of ways I thought of this film as a kind of Norma Rae for sex workers and you wouldn’t be far off the mark.

The movie is just a shade under three hours long so this isn’t a movie you get into lightly. It requires a commitment of time and patience and American audiences are notorious about lacking both. The movie isn’t generally available yet in the States for streaming purposes and continues to make the rounds on the Asian festival circuit but the producers haven’t ruled out appearances in American festivals or on streaming services here in the States. This is very different than what Americans tend to think of as Indian films; American audiences are only just discovering that Indian films are as diverse and as high-quality as the Sub-Continent itself and this particular film is one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any serious lover of all things cinematic.

REASONS TO GO: A realistic look at the plight of sex workers. The score has a bluesy edge that is unexpected and welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting is a little rough around the edges. The movie might be a little bit too long for attention-challenged American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity as well as rape – the latter mainly implied rather than depicted graphically.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed on street corners in Mumbai largely used by sex workers and their clients.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lipstick Under My Burkha
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Blade of the Immortal

Lipstick Under My Burkha


lipstick-under-my-burkha(2016) Dramedy (M-Appeal) Shshank Arora, Plabita Borthakur, Sonal Jha, Aahana Kumra, Vikrant Massey, Ratna Pathak, Korkona Sen Sharma, Jagat Singh, Sushant Singh, Vaibbhav Tatwawdi. Directed by Alankrita Shrivastava

miami-film-festival-2017

India is a modern democracy but in many ways they are still catching up. Women are certainly starting to demand freedoms and consideration they’d never dream of asking for even a decade ago. Indian women have always been considered to only aspire to happy homemaking. That’s not quite true anymore.

Four women leading separate lives in the rural city of Bhopal (yes, the same Bhopal where Union Carbide’s gas leak killed so many – it is referenced only briefly that the husband of one of the characters died in that tragedy) are all looking to break out of the molds they’ve been placed into. First there’s Usha (Pathak), known to everyone as Auntie; she’s a canny businesswoman who’s been a widow for most of her adult life. She spends most of her time with the children but she has a secret obsession nobody knows about; erotic romance novels, in particular one called Lipstick Dreams.

Leela (Kumra) is a beautician who is unwillingly engaged to an earnest but essentially colorless guy in an arranged marriage. She has a thing for her Muslim photographer whom she is having sex with at nearly every opportunity and wants to run away with him to the big city where they can start on their own fresh. Then there’s Shirin (Sharma) who is a married mother of three whose husband travels a lot for work. When he’s at home, the sex is almost painful for her and he seems to be utterly incapable of pleasing her or caring to. She has managed to build a sales career without his knowledge because she knows if he knew about it he would forbid it but there’s a promotion on the horizon and there would be no way to hide it from him then. Finally, there’s Rehana (Borthakur), the teenage daughter of strict Muslims who attends college, changing from her Burkha into Western clothes on her way to school and back into the Burkha on her way home where she works in the family business – ironically sewing Burkhas. However she wants to be a more typical teenage girl, hanging out in discos, flirting with boys and doing all the things forbidden her by her conservative parents. And of course, they find out all about it.

Usha gets involved with a swimming instructor who brings out her inner sensuality and she does something unthinkable for a woman her age – heck, for any Indian woman, while Leela is caught between the lover she wants and the wealthy young man who wants her. Shirin makes a discovery about her husband that could change everything and when Rehana gets arrested at a demonstration, the wheels get rolling on an arranged marriage for her. Will these women ever be free to lead the life they want?

Feminism is very nascent in India but it is slowly beginning to take hold. This isn’t the first feminist film to come out of the Sub-Continent, but it just might be the most potent. Shaking up societal norms is part of cinema’s function and this film fulfills that in about every way possible. Some in India have objected at the eroticism displayed in the film. While by American standards it’s fairly tame, it is surprising to see something from India that is this forthright about sex.

I’m not trying to condescend Indian society – certainly our own culture has plenty of problems, particularly now. It is somehow comforting to see Indian women – artists and ordinary women – rising up and demanding fair treatment. It reminds me a little bit of the years that NOW was a political force. I hope that this kind of movie is just a taste of things to come.

REASONS TO GO: A gutsy examination of the role of women in modern Indian society. There is a frank scene of female sexual desire in a 55 year old actress which some may find shocking.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a bit more erotic than some might be used to from Indian cinema.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly frank sexual content and a whole lot of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: India’s Film Censor Board refused to certify the film, citing scenes of sexuality and female empowerment, sparking outrage throughout India.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Eyes
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Wolves

The Lunchbox (Dabba)


Irrfan Khan reads his fan mail.

Irrfan Khan reads his fan mail.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Lillete Dubey, Nakul Vaid, Bharati Achrekar (voice), Yashvi Puneet Nagar, Denzil Smith, Shruti Bapna, Nasir Khan, Lokesh Raj, Sadashiv Knodaji Pokarkar, Aarti Rathod, Krishna Bai, Raj Rishi More, Santosh Kumar Chauraslya, Swapnil Sinha, Baaburao Sankpal. Directed by Ritesh Batra

There is something about human nature that demands connection. We need to have it almost as much as we need to eat and drink. Without it, we wither away like a flower that receives no water. That connection must be genuine, too – it is far too easy to be alone in a crowd.

Ila (Kaur) diligently prepares lunch for her husband Rajeev (Vaid). She gets advice on how to make her meal more delicious from her Auntie (Achrekar) who lives upstairs and helpfully sends spices down in a basket through the kitchen window, a kind of makeshift dumbwaiter. Every afternoon, a dabbawallah picks up her lunch, compactly stored in aluminum containers stacked in a canvas bag, and delivers it to her husband’s office. In Mumbai, millions of these lunches are delivered each day from homes and restaurants. Researchers from Harvard University once observed and analyzed their system and discovered that only one in a million deliveries ever went to the wrong address.

My savvy readers can guess where this is going. Ila’s lunch is mis-delivered to the office of Saajan Fernandes, a government bureaucrat who is getting ready to retire. He’s kind of a prickly sort and has been since his wife passed away. Shaikh (Siddiqui), a young go-getter, has been tapped to replace him and is eager to be trained in the job. Shaikh is a bit of a butt-kisser and this irritates Saajan terribly, so he finds ways of avoiding his overeager replacement.

The lunch he receives from Ila is delicious – much more so than the bland and lifeless crap he normally gets from the local restaurant. Saajan devours the entire contents of the lunchbox and sends it back empty to Ila who is pleased. Rajeev almost never eats all of the lunch she sends him, returning part or sometimes all of it. Thinking she has pleased her husband, she makes herself look as pretty as she can (which is dang beautiful indeed) and waits for him to come home.

To her dismay, when he returns home it’s the same thing – a cold distance between him and his desultory response to her questions about the meal make it clear he hadn’t eaten a morsel of it. Puzzled, she sends her next lunchbox out with a note hidden in the naan bread. Saajan finds the note and is intrigued, responding back. Soon the two are corresponding back and forth, their anonymity allowing them to be more confessional than they would normally be. These two lonely people – Saajan alone without company, Ila in a loveless marriage – form an unexpected bond.

In fact, loneliness is a theme in the movie. All three of the main characters – while Shaikh is preparing to get married, he is an orphan who has no family at all – are lonely in some way. It is the communication between Saajan and Ila that transforms the three of them. We can see the anonymous messages left with the naan as a kind of metaphor for modern social media, how we as a society have become more dependent on anonymous faceless communication with people we don’t know on Facebook and services like it, sharing intimate things about our lives with people we’ve never been in the same continent with. It is a fascinating phenomenon when you think about it and speaks to our own need for communication and connection more eloquently than anything I could possibly write.

Khan is one of India’s most respected and beloved actors, having made something of a splash here in this country as well, albeit mainly in supporting roles. Here you get to see him at his best; his eyes communicate his misery and loneliness even though he demonstrates great compassion through all his grumpy exterior. It really is an amazing performance and were he a western actor, this movie would undoubtedly have been released in the fall for Oscar consideration. Still, perhaps someone will take notice and we will get to see more of this wonderful actor.

Kaur has been nominated for acting awards for her performance here which stands up even with Khan at his best, which is saying something. Not only is she a spectacular beauty, she manages to convey the stress of her situation through tired eyes. She manages to be a loving mother to her daughter and a loving daughter to her mother (Dubey) even as Ila’s father (N. Khan) is dying of lung cancer. It’s an affecting performance.

Granted the plot is essentially light and fluffy, but then remember this is the country of Bollywood and light and fluffy entertainment is really their hallmark, but there is depth here that likewise reminds us that this is also the country that produced Satyajit Ray. While this isn’t quite to the standards of that master’s work, it does serve to remind us that like Indian cuisine, Indian cinema can have unexpected moments that make us re-evaluate our opinions of what it is we’re consuming. This is truly a film worth seeking out if you can.

REASONS TO GO: Sexy but not overtly so. Kaur is absolutely gorgeous and both she and Khan provide moving performances. The food looks really yummy!

REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat lightweight. The ending was ambiguous which may be unsatisfying for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  The tone and material may be a bit too adult for small children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Irrfan Khan, one of India’s most respected actors, is best-known in the U.S. for his appearances in The Amazing Spider-Man and Life of Pi.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Same Time, Next Year

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Oculus

The Reluctant Fundamentalist


Which one will blink first?

Which one will blink first?

(2012) Drama (IFC) Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Martin Donovan, Nelsan Ellis, Haluk Bilginer, Meesha Shafi, Imaad Shah, Chris Smith, Ashwath Batt, Sarah Quinn, Chandrachur Singh, Adil Hussain, Ali Sethi, Deepti Datt, Gary Richardson, Victor Slezak, Ashlyn Henson, Cait Johnson. Directed by Mira Nair

What creates a terrorist? How does one go from being a devout member of one’s religion to a wild-eyed fanatic willing to kill – and die – for his/her faith?

After an American professor (Richardson) is kidnapped after attending a movie in Lahore, Pakistan, a colleague of his at the university, Changez Khan (Ahmed) is interviewed by journalist Bobby Lincoln (Schreiber). Changez has fallen under suspicion of being connected to a terrorist group mainly based on his anti-American rhetoric and firebrand speeches in the classroom  He’d also met with a notorious terrorist cell leader

However,  Changez had started out as a rapidly pro-American, a big believer in the American dream. Born in Lahore to a poet (Puri) and a housewife (Azmi) who had been well-to-do at one time but who had blown through the money they had as poetry even in Pakistan isn’t a job that brings in high earnings. Changez gets a scholarship to Princeton and when he graduates is pegged by Jim Cross (Sutherland) to be a gifted evaluator of business worth which makes him a valuable commodity with a bright future at Underwood Samson who evaluate the value of companies and come up with ways to increase that value. It’s a pretty lucrative field and Changez looks to be on the fast track to success.

As he banters with his friends Wainwright (Ellis), Clea (Quinn) and Rizzo (Smith), Changez falls for Erica (Hudson), the artistic niece of  Underwood Samson’s CEO. It isn’t long before they move in together, although Erica has a deep melancholy – her previous boyfriend had died in a car accident and she’s still grieving. Even though Changez moves slowly and gives her as much leeway as she wants and she clearly has feelings for him, she still feels like she’s cheating on her dead lover.

Everything changes though when the Twin Towers come down on 9/11. Changez is in Manila on business when it happens and when he finally comes home, he is stripped and forced to undergo a humiliating body cavity search. People begin to view Changez with suspicion, particularly now that he’s sporting a beard to reconnect with his Pakistani roots. He is growing more and more distant from his family which hits him hard when he goes home for his sister Bina’s (Shafi) wedding.

The final straw is when he goes to Turkey to evaluate a publishing company that one of Underhill Samson’s clients had just purchased. Even though the company had done much to promulgate Turkish culture and that of their neighbors (Changez’ dad had even had a book of his poems published there) the numbers point to liquidating the assets and shuttering the doors. Changez has an epiphany and refuses to do it. He quits his job and returns home, finding a job teaching.

So now things in Lahore are a powderkeg as American CIA and local police are detaining and arresting students at the University and conducting random searches. Even Changez’ family has received a visit of the state police simply because of their association with him. It won’t take much for this powderkeg to blow. So how involved is Changez with the kidnapping. Had his treatment in America paved the way for his conversion into jihadism? Or is he simply an innocent victim of circumstance?

Nair, who has on her resume some impressive efforts (not the least of which are Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake) has another one to add to that list. Based on a novel by Mohsin Hamid that is largely a monologue by Changez, she utilizes some brilliant cinematography and a terrific cast to explore the complex themes of the book.

Changez is largely a cypher. On the surface he seems a gentle, kind soul who adheres to non-violence but in practice he spent his Wall Street career practicing a kind of economic violence. While he eventually turns away from it, there is that sense that he is blaming America for allowing him to willingly participate in an admittedly immoral career. He made his choices but took no responsibility for them even after he quit. In that sense, Changez is unlikable and I personally find it a bit refreshing to have a character who turns a blind eye towards his own imperfections – most of us are like that.

Ahmed, a Pakistani-born British rapper and actor has a great deal of charisma and reminds me of a young Oded Fehr in looks and manner. He holds his own in his scenes with Schreiber who is an excellent actor so it’s no small feat. Their scenes are the most compelling in the film and it is their confrontation that provides the essence of the film.

Sutherland and Puri do great work in supporting roles. Hudson, who is also capable of strong roles, kind of gets a little lost here – it could be that she plays her character, who is weak and clings to her grief like Linus and his security blanket, too well. There are never the kind of sparks between her and Ahmed that I would have liked to have seen although that possibly was deliberate on Nair’s part. However, a good deal of time is spent on the relationship between Erica and Changez and quite frankly that is the weakest part of the story.

The film’s climax is powerful as we are left to ponder whether we are creating our own enemies out of our own arrogance and insensitivity, which I think is clearly the case. If so, then we come by that hatred honestly but we refuse to acknowledge it, one more reason for people in other countries to despise us. It isn’t until the final five minutes of the film that we discover where Changez’ sympathies lie and whether or not he is involved in the kidnapping. In a way it’s almost a moot point; ultimately this isn’t about who Changez is. It’s about who we are.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking and balanced. Fine performances by Ahmed, Sutherland, Schreiber, Puri and Ellis.

REASONS TO STAY: The film is far more powerful when focusing on Changez’ conflicting feelings about America than on his relationship with Erica.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a fair amount of swearing, some violence and a bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hudson was initially unable to do the film because she was pregnant at the time that shooting was scheduled to take place. When shooting was delayed until after she had her baby, Hudson was able to take the role.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Rush (2013)

Mere Brother Ki Dulhan


Mere Brother Ki Dulhan

Katrina Kaif comforts Imran Khan who has a pathological fear of lightbulbs.

(2011) Bollywood (Yash Raj) Imran Khan, Katrina Kaif, Ali Zafar, Tara D’Souza, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Arfeen Khan, Suparna Marwah, Parikshat Sahni, Kanwaljit Singh. Directed by Ali Abbas Zafar

 

We try to do the right thing by our family; when they need something, they get it no questions asked. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Of course, in trying to help sometimes we wind up doing more harm than good.

Luv (Zafar) is an Indian expatriate living in London as an investment banker. He has been dating fellow Indian ex-pat Piali (D’Souza) for awhile but he doesn’t really know what he wants out of life. He is habitually late for dates and is a bit miserly, despite being really well-off. She, on the other hand, has tried to be a traditional Indian girl for him and chafes at the restrictions. She wants to be free. He wants to be free. They break up.

Except Luv doesn’t really want to be free. He wants to settle down, have a wife and family but he feels like he won’t have a shot at it in London. He calls his brother Kush (Imran Khan) in Mumbai, where he is an assistant director (which director Ali Abbas Zafar was before directing this, his first feature film as a director) and begs him to find him a wife since the two of them have similar taste in women. Kush has a hit on his hands, but family comes first so he agrees to head home to Dehradun where his father, the Colonel (Sahni) awaits, bristling a bit because his son and not himself is arranging the marriage.

Kush auditions a number of ladies whose interests seem to lie more in Luv’s bank account rather than in him, but then Kush meets Dimple Dixit (Kaif) whom he knew in college; she’s outspoken, non-traditional and vivacious and Kush knows she’s the perfect woman. After a conversation via Skype, Luv agrees and the wedding is on.

Kush helps Dimple plan the wedding, taking her out on errands and assuring her that his brother is the right man for her but slowly the two find themselves attracted to each other and eventually fall in love. But what to do? To cancel the wedding would bring shame on both families but Dimple and Kush cannot be without each other. They must think up some kind of plot to turn Luv’s path in a different direction.

I have to say that I was charmed by this film. Kaif and Imran Khan, two of the biggest stars in India (roughly equivalent to Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks here) have some terrific chemistry together; they make an attractive couple even though they couldn’t be more different. Khan as Kush is easy-going, sensitive and sweet; Kaif as Dimple is a lot more of a hot pepper – bold, spicy and irresistible. She’s a bull in a china shop; he’s more of a teddy bear.

And yet it works really well. Zafar is also an appealing lead, insanely handsome and as pop stars go, surprisingly talented in the acting realm. All three of the leads could transition to American stardom which is something that hasn’t happened yet, a Bollywood star making it big in the States much as Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Jacky Chan and Jet Li have. I think it’s bound to happen and I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next five years stars such as these begin to appear in American productions.

The big knock on this movie in most of the reviews I’ve read has been that the story is somewhat derivative of other movies and that’s a pretty fair complaint. Quite frankly you aren’t going to see too many surprises in the script or storyline and I think you’ll be able to see where this is going pretty much from the very first few scenes. That’s all right though, because it’s pulled off with enough charm and warmth that I didn’t really mind that this felt like I’d seen it before.

Music is important in Bollywood films, and it’s pretty good here. While mainly made up of “American Idol”-esque pop with a bit of an Indian undertone, the hooks are pretty nice and a couple of the songs were really outstanding (keep your ears peeled for “Dhunki” and “Madhubala,” both of which I enjoyed thoroughly).  The dance numbers are no more and no less annoying than those you would find in a typical episode of “Glee.”

I must admit that my experience with Bollywood cinema is rather limited but I have noticed of late that the production values have improved as have the scripts. There are some terrific actors and actresses out there as well and quite frankly the product coming out of India is every bit as good for the most part as what is coming out of the United States (in general). As romantic comedies go, this one presents enough charm and chemistry to make it a worthwhile viewing; it is available to stream on Netflix at this time for those interested in watching it. There are other Bollywood-centric sites that have it for streaming as well, but not all of them have English translations so be aware of that. In any case, it holds up pretty well among most romantic comedies coming out from Hollywood and if you don’t mind the subtitles (about two thirds of the dialogue is in Hindi but there’s a good deal of it in English) you might find yourself succumbing to the charm of this surprisingly irresistible flick.

WHY RENT THIS: Upbeat and charming with attractive leads.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bollywood is an acquired taste. The plot stretches credibility.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some smoking and drinking but that’s about it; pretty harmless.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although they have similar names, the director Ali Abbas Zafar and the actor (and popular singer) Ali Zafar aren’t related.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19M on a $5.8M production budget; this is a Hindu hit!

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom