Category Archives: Movie Review

Heaven on Earth : Unsatisfying

heaven-on-earthDeepa Mehta’s latest is a classic example of what happens when a respected and capable director gets so famous and achieves such international recognition that nobody around is willing to speak the truth to him/her. The intentions of Heaven on Earth( titled Videsh in India) are honorable; domestic violence, espectially in immigrant homes where the bride arrives from India without support systems in place, is a serious issue. The director herself introduces the subject in the opening sequences of the movie.

Chand Grewal ( Preity Zinta) comes to Canada as a new bride, never having met her in-laws before the day she arrives from India. At first her new family seems welcoming and normal but the relationship turns abusive almost immediately. Shocked by her circumstances and powerless to change them, Chand retreats into a sort of fugue state in times of stress, muttering lines from a fairy tale her mother told her as a child. She is put to work in a local garments factory ( the pay of course goes right to her husband) and befriends a Jamaican co-worker who recognizes the signs of abuse and tries to help her out.

At this point the movie veers into fantasy territory. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot but viewers familiar with Girish Karnad’s play Nagamandala will figure out what’s coming without any trouble. Chand’s ordeal gives her the strength to leave the marriage.

Preita Zinta gives the performance of a lifetime and surely deserves an award for this. She subsumes herself in the role better that the mainstream Bollywood star can ever hope to do and projects a vulnerability that will bring tears to your eyes. Sadly, the movie does not do justice to the issue she represents. The film has many scenes reflecting Chand’s powerlessness and the lack of support from her family back home, yet suddenly at the end Chand packs up and leaves, passport in hand. Where will she go? Who’s helping her?

Deepa Mehta makes a plea to victims of domestic abuse to reach out for institutional help ( WNI has featured Narika among the prominent advocates for such women in the Bay Area) but nowhere are these important organizations mentioned in the movie. Ultimately Chand finds the courage in herself and breaks away from her situation on her own, a choice not available to many women terrorised by their husband’s families and financially dependent on them.  Also the scenes with the snake are just too far-fetched for this movie which touches upon a real, contemporary and relevant subject..domestic abuse is no fantasy.

Heaven on Earth feels like an indulgence on the part of the director. There is no doubt that Deepa Mehta is competent. Each scene is shot with sensitivity and she is really good at portraying disfunctional families and cruel behavior. But overall the movie does not work. It seems hastily made and feels like it is pandering to the issue of domestic violence.

Delhi 6: Quixotic

delhi-61With Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, one is never quite sure what one is going to get. The former ad maker directed the successful and critically acclaimed Rang De Basanti in 2006 but it took a good five years before that for us to forget the wildly experimental Aks, a nightmarish movie featuring long Hamlet-style soliloquies and body-swapping killers.

Delhi 6 falls somewhere between the two. It has somewhat of an activist message like RDB and uses totems and symbols like Aks. The storyline is thin. NRI Roshan( Abhishek Bachchan) returns with his grandmother to the crowded Delhi district where generations of his family lived, wall-to-wall( literally) with many old friends and neighbors. He gets to experience the chaotic, claustrophobic and closely-knit community his parents left behind when they moved to America and to decide whether he belongs there.

That is about it. The movie is a series of snapshots of life in Delhi( Zip Code 6); the interfering neighbors, the family squabbles, the communal relationships that, despite the avowals of harmony can change from love to hate in a flash.

The film is heavy with symbolism; Roshan is the new India – western-oriented but with a yearning to connect with his roots. His love interest Bittu(played by a charming Sonam Kapoor) is the middle class girl struggling to break free of the shackles of her culture and environment. That she attempts to do so by auditioning for a reality show is a piece of delicious irony. (Television is considered to be one of the driving forces in creating the appetite for material goods that could propel the apathetic suburban India into the new century.) Grandmother Annapurna( Waheeda Rehman) represents the conservative India – affectionate and loving but also religious and superstitious, she is content with letting the status quo be, whether it is treatment of untouchables or communal tensions. “Stay out of it” is her guiding principle.

Then there is the “Black Monkey”. It is a mythical figure that is referred to from the first scene of the movie yet no one ever sees it. The monkey functions as a potent symbol of all the amorphous fears that divide and separate Indians from each other, a mirror to the evil that lies in all of us, a point the filmmaker drives home without subtlety in the form of a madman who carries around – you guessed it – a mirror. The monkey, a source for many comedic moments, is also the catalyst for the shocking denouement of the film. (SPOILER ALERT: Squeamish viewers can rest assured that all is well at the end.)

Delhi 6 is an experimental film and I applaud the fact that movies like that, with no coherent narrative but lots of style can find financing in these times. Perhaps the producers were expecting another Rang De. If so, they (and you) will be disappointed. It is not a film made for box-office success. Rather it is a meandering, nostalgic trip down memory lane, a director’s indulgence that really doesn’t care if you like it or not. The only concession to the audience is the presence the two leads and an ensemble of excellent actors, many of whom have just one or two lines.

Abhishek Bachchan is at his relaxed best. His chemistry with Sonam is great though the relationship is not fully developed in the movie. Vijay Raaz as the abusive local law enforcement is pitch-perfect. Other art-house stalwarts like K.K.Raina and Atul Kulkarni give the movie a polished professional touch.

Delhi 6 is a very well-produced, well-directed and well-acted movie. But those expecting a conventional film with a beginning, middle and end can skip it. It is meant for audiences with the patience and curiosity to explore a different kind of artistic vision.

My Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5.

The President is coming: Silly fun

200px-the_president_is_comingOne might wonder why a movie, whose central premise is President George W. Bush’s visit to India, was released after he left the office. But as an Indian American, I was glad to have the distance and be free to laugh at the mockery this movie makes of our last President, glad to have woken up from the nightmare of the last 8 years.

The President is Coming(TPIC) is a clever little movie made in the style of a “mockumentary”, like NBC’s The Office. W made a trip to India in 2006, badly in need of some TLC from one of the few countries in the world where he was still a Big Man on Campus. In India his  ego, much bruised from the fiascoes of Iraq and Katrina, was assured of the balm of sycophancy. While there were a few protests here and there, he received a royal reception in official circles, the kind only a post-colonial  nation with a Raj hangover can offer.

Writer Anuvab( no that’s not a typo) Pal’s fancy was tickled by all the hype and hoopla surrounding that visit, and he set out to imagine a scenario where the 43rd President, in his trademark stubbornness, gets it into his head that he needs to shake a “Young Indian’s” hand.  This leads to a frenzy over which “Young Indian” is to be chosen. In true reality TV style, 6 finalists from various social and cultural strata are chosen to be trained and assessed to compete for the awesome prize of shaking W’s hand.

The finalists are, in no particular order, a Bengali intellectual, a Gujarati stockbroker, a Marathi social worker( a graduate of IIM Ahmedabad, no less!), a call center manager, a rich Paris Hilton like socialite and a techie from Bangalore. they each have their own eccentric reason for wanting to shake hands with the President; as the story progresses, we discover more and more about them.

Yes, the characters are stereotypes, but these are different from the ones we usually see on screen and the humor is biting. I laughed out loud at several moments in the movie, even when the comedy descended to sophomoric levels( this reviewer though Harold and Kumar at White Castle was hilarious).

The entire movie feels like a college skit( same level of raunchiness) but it it still very very funny.  The only recognizable actor is Konkona Sen Sharma as Maya Roy, the intellectual whose superciliousness and ability to quote poetry impress the heck out of Samantha Patel( Shernaz Patel) whose agency has the job of selecting the hand-shaker. But everybody else turns in very fine performances too. Satchit Puranik as the reverse snob Ajay Karlekar( ha!)  is terrific as he expresses bigotry towards women, Muslims, rich people, and just about everybody else.

The characters are all slightly overdrawn and veer towards caricature but the script makes up for it. Kunaal Kapur’s direction stays true to the smart script, which exposes the varied neuroses coexisting peacefully in India.

Worth a watch.

The President is coming

*ring – Konkona Sen Sharma, Shernaz Patel,

Written by Anuvab Pal

My rating – 3 stars out of 5.

Luck By Chance: Pleasant

200px-luckbychanceThere is an axiom in the publishing industry that says ” Write what you know.” Certainly director Zoya Akhtar seems to have taken it to heart in her debut movie, Luck By Chance. Daughter of famous poet, composer and writer Javed Akhtar, Zoya uses the movie industry in Mumbai as a backdrop for the story of a couple of struggling actors who come to try out their luck in the big bad city.

Luck By Chance, which is also written by Ms. Akhtar, stars brother Farhan as Vikram Jaisingh, the son of a prosperous shopowner from Delhi who rejects the family business to pursue his dreams of success in Bollywood. He signs up for the usual classes in singing, dancing, horseriding and martial arts. (As one veteran acting coach points out astutely, it is much harder to be a Bollywood hero than a Hollywood one.) Vikram is distilled ambition, pointed like a laser beam at the main chance, and damn everyone who gets in the way. Vikram meets and hooks up with Sona Mishra( Konkona Sen Sharma) who has conducted a Faustian bargain with a producer to keep her dreams of a lead role alive. How their struggles play out is the subject of the movie.

Farhan Akhtar is great as the scheming Vikram, proving conclusively that he is not one a one-film wonder( Rock On) and that his acting chops rival his directorial talents( Dil Chahta Hai, Don). Despite his brooding looks( I call him the intelligent woman’s heartthrob) he plays the shallow and conniving Vikram very convincingly. A well developed physique adds to the credibility of his ambition.

The same cannot be said for Konkona. She is a superb actress and is as good as ever in LBC, but the premise that she thinks she is leading lady material seems thin. Or maybe not, given the number of girls who probably wash up on the shore of the metropolis, convinced they have what it takes to make it big. Anyway, her looks leave no doubt about her eventual fate.

The movie is well directed and beautifully acted. Rishi Kapoor is terrific as producer Romy Rolly who gets his failed actor brother to direct a movie. Dimple as the typical actress mama is perfectly cast. Hrithik Roshan supposedly has a “guest role” but he takes up a good bit of time as Zafar Khan, the number 2 superstar behind Shahrukh. Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy’s music is melodious.

With Zoya Akhtar’s connection with the movie business, the number of movie types that show up in cameos are too many to list and the opening credits pay tribute to the unknown workers who toil behind the scenes. The montage captures the bemusement of tailors, stuntmen, spot boys and grips as the light is shined upon them; it is a moving segment to anyone fascinated by Bollywood.

But LBC is too subtle, too low key and much too predictable.  You know how the materialistic movers and shakers in Bollywood are going to behave( though Juhi Chawla as Romy’s loving and concerned wife is somewhat of a surprise). Scenes are telegraphed way ahead of time so there is no element of surprise. As coach Saurabh Shukla says to his aspiring actors, “You need to be a little bit larger than life in Bollywood”. The same can apply to this movie. This is not a criticism of realism in film, but  for a movie to catch the audience’s imagination, it must leave them exalted by the experience. Luck By Chance fails to do that, though I would recommend it as a fine debut effort.

Luck By Chance

*ring: Farhan Akhtar, Konkona Sen Sharma, Rishi Kapoor, Dimple Kapadia, Hrithik Roshan

Directed by Zoya Akhtar.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 5.

Movie review – Sunset/Goodbye

By Lehkikaa

The thing about writing a review is that it does set an expectation for constructive criticism. So while I enjoyed the two films and applaud the entire Krea team for treating us to their creations, I gotta do what I gotta do.

Sunset struck home, it was very easy to identify with the story. The complex bond that marriage is- made of respect, love, banter, sharing, bartering, bargaining; pickled into an steadily thumping undercurrent by ages of being together- was instantly brought to life by TAR’s sensitive dialoges, aptly ‘un’-acted by Mama as Mithran and Geetha as Lakshmi. It was a great start to the film.

Mama was the typical mama in India (characterized by an ease, a sense of belonging), the typical taata to his grandson, typical older NRI walking along somewhere in the Bay area (characterized by a reserve in demeanor), and the I-don’t-want-to-interfere-in-your-lives attitude that parents adopt when living with their grown children in their homes. It was a seamless portrayal by a green actor, superb.
The penny-drop moment however was not the end, it was the stilted nature of the three adults in the 2 minutes of screen time they shared- Sukanya playing Ashoks’s wife, Naveen as Ashok, and Mama, as they sit down to dinner. It was in sharp contrast to the emotionally charged warmth created by other scenes, and spoke volumes about the change in Mama’s life. We get a glimpse of the formality underlying the relationships, a void one could cut through; Sukanya’s asking her father-in-law for chapathis; Naveen is just coming to grips with what it means to be a family man, which the senior Mr. Mithran almost chokes on. That scene could very easily have been overdone, but it was not. Kudos to the director on this one, and in general, to maintain a tight reign on the acting. The art department did a good job on recreating an Indian room as well.
That said, let’s talk about the got-chas: Mark’s dialog was very Indian. An American could perhaps meet with such a twist in his life, but his choice of words would be different. Also, I agree with one comment made after the screening, the sunset should have been shown.
A big got-cha; Krea definitely needs to work harder on the carry-forward association of ideas in successive scenes- There were illusions of flashback, even though it was all in the present time. For example, Mrs. Mithran passing away merited at least a photo with a garland in the next scene- How is the audience to know that she was not at the hospital for just an observation like Mithran said, that what one just saw was not flashback? Also, not sure why the sun was lighting Mama’s eyes as he slept- for a few seconds, it made one feel like the next scene was a dream.
Good-bye was more a blank canvas for Vidhya Subramanian (playing the lead as Sudha) than a fully conceptualized film. There was no story, and unlike in Krea’s earlier stage- production- Rabbit Hole, there was no sensitive portrayal of family members trying to cope. Indeed, the film could easily be a monologue.  Dheepa, as the director, should have  insisted on TAR ‘finishing’ his characters and dialog. There were flashes of brilliance, like Sudha suggesting that she could just as well jump off the Golden Gate Bridge or planning the death-shower, so there is potential there. Perhaps TAR and Dheepa should work on building depth and consistency in the script before filming. Sure, it was an experimental project, but hey, you are sending this film to be judged around the world.
Vidhya continues to be watchable, but one is already tired of watching her cry or suffer. We get it, she can act sad. It will be nice to see her with a multi-faceted character or situations the next time. It did get me thinking though that perhaps instead of a lead, Vidhya should do a cameo instead. Aruna’s 2 seconds of screen time as the distraught relative/ friend of Sudha was spellbinding. Sukanya’s body-language in her 2 seconds instantly made one cringe for Mama. Interestingly, in Rabbit Hole too, Sukanya had connected with the audience in the instant she came onto the stage. Her body-language, costume, style, everything is illuminating at the get-go. By contrast, Vidhya flings her net out to the audience slowly, both while dancing and acting. In Goodbye, her body-language is aloof, non-committal even, till the scene where she holds on to the sink for support when hearing the voice-message.
However, the audio quality was so bad during the playback of the voice-message, one missed what it was about. Did the doctor actually impart bad news? Or did she simply say the reports were in- If so, then Vidhya perhaps over-reacted? Even so, that gesture was the highlight of the film.

The characters of the husband and daughter needed some screen-time, or else they shouldn’t have been introduced at all. Even a single scene would have sufficed. Or, instead of showing Sudha’s coping physically, we could easily have been given a glimpse into how she was coping mentally. Some private moments of her coming to grips with her imminent departure…one does not finish with the coping when one first hears bad news, the grief comes in waves. Also, the Carnatic refrain at the start was perhaps in Asha Ramesh’s voice? Or was the audio quality poor? It didn’t seem like Vidhya was singing at all.
To sum up, both films were held together by the lead-actors, with sometimes being uplifted, and at other times with no support from, the script. For her next project, Dheepa must not settle for flashes of brilliance, rather, should get immersive, and prod/ cajole /inspire / threaten her script-writer to make the characters live and breathe on an even flow.  And TAR, tease those flashes of brilliance into a stream of consciousness!


Directed by Dheepa Ramnujam, Script and dialogs by Madhu, aka T. A. Ramanujam

My rating: Sunset – 3 stars out of 5; Goodbye – 1.5 stars out of 5.

Lehkikaa is the pseudonym of a member of the Bay Area community involved in the performing arts. She can be reached at and looks forward to your comments and feedback.

Movie review – Ghajini

We’ve had more than one comment to my article on the top 5 Bollywood movies of last year that suggest Ghajini should have been given the top spot. Well, first of all, Ghajini was released after my vacation deadline and secondly, having seen the original in Tamil a few years ago, I was pretty sure there would be no error of omission on my part.

The Tamil/Telegu version of Ghajini, directed by A. Murugadoss, was released in 2005. Loosely inspired by the convoluted Christopher Nolan film Memento, it deals with a man suffering from anterograde amnesia who is searching for the killer of his wife. His only clue is a dying whisper from her -“Ghajini”. Since a blow to his head prevents him from remembering anything that happened more than 15 minutes ago, the protagonist tattoos the most important information on his body and uses pictures and notes to help him stay on track. Some visceral memories of her death keep the flame of revenge alive even though every day is literally a blank slate for him.

Unlike the complex and layered plot of Memento, Ghajini‘s plot is pretty straight forward. Girl meets boy, love happens after many cute misunderstandings, girl gets killed by gangster, boy takes revenge. This being an Indian movie, the romantic angle takes up a big chunk of time. What is different is the treatment, which involves chronological leaps back and forth and jump cuts to give some of the violent scenes an edgy, MTV feel.

Tamil movies can be inventive but loud and crude ( watch Anniyan if you doubt that statement) and I was hopeful that Aamir Khan’s steadying hand and fine directorial instincts would smooth out the rough edges in the Hindi version. Unfortunately, the Hindi Ghajini appears to be a frame-by-frame remake of the original. This leads to some temporal problems such as the use of a Polaroid camera which I believe is no longer in use. It seems strange that the owner of a cutting- edge cell phone company would not go digital. Ghajini is also technically a bit crude and leaves something to be desired stylistically, problems that are carried over intact from the Tamil version.

Aamir bulks up for the movie and while the boffo physique is impressive in the scenes where the revenge-crazed amnesiac takes on the bad guys, the man-boobs are a distraction in the romantic song sequences. Seriously man, cover up. He looks as uncomfortable as ever romancing the heroine Asin( carried over from the Tamil movie) but lets loose impressively as the memory-disabled Sanjay Singhania.

Asin, who looks sweet and chulbuli, plays her role exactly the same as in the Tamil movie. This means that her performance is slightly over the top as Hindi movies ( amazingly enough) are just a little more restrained than Tamil ones. As hubby astutely pointed out, Sridevi would have been great in that role.

Jiah Khan is the catalyst for the events of the plot to unfold and she is just plain bad. Rahman’s songs are pleasant and hummable.

I can see the fascination with Ghajini for viewers who have never seen Memento or the earlier version. It is an unusual plot, very different from the standard Bollywood fare and Aamir’s terrific instincts about what will work at the box office pay off once again. Still, there is no way the movie meets the film-making standards set by A Wednesday or Rock On, where the excellent scripts were embellished by subtle and sensitive direction and superb acting by the leads. I stand by my original recommendations.

As for those of you who thought Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi should have been a contender, what does that say about your taste ?

Movie review – Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi

Hai Kajol! When the dusky actress appears in a cameo in one of the songs in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi( RNBDJ) you feel the sharp ache of longing that she were the lead in Yash Raj Films’ latest romantic fairy tale.

Like other Yash Raj films, RNBDJ also seems to exist outside normal space/time and the reality of life in India( the sets intensify this feeling). Shahrukh Khan plays Surinder Sahni, a Walter Mitty-like meek everyman who works for Punjab Light and Power in Amritsar. When circumstances( that only happen in the movies) force him to get married to the pretty Taani( newcomer Anushka Sharma), who he has secretly fallen in love with, he creates a dashing alter ego to woo his reluctant wife. Complications ensue when Taani falls in love with the “other” guy.

There is more than a hint of self-mockery in Aditya Chopra’s latest. The dashing Shahrukh is named Raj, in an obvious nod to the many Raj Malhotras inhabiting Bollywood productions; “Dhoom machale” plays in the background during a scooter chase. But RNBDJ still falls prey to the cliches of mainstream masala movies. God( or Rab, in this case) is invoked at crucial times and many soppy dialogues extol the virtues of matches made in heaven. Despite the hackneyed treatment, the film is a hit and sole credit must go to its lead actor.

The casting for RNBDJ both makes and unmakes the film. Without SRK, the movie would have been a dud- just try and imagine Raghubir Yadav or Manoj Bajpai( both of whom are surely better fits as the self-effacing Suri) in the movie and its many flaws become glaring apparent. SRK’s charisma overshadows his attempts to play the self-effacing Suri, but he gives it the best he possibly can. Seeing him in coke-bottle glasses and a mustache makes you realize how unprepossessing his looks are and how much of his success is due to the force of his personality and those burning eyes!

Anushka Sharma, on the other hand, almost drags the movie down. Unemotive, unremarkable and just averagely pretty, she acts as a passive foil to the ebullient Khan. When her fiance( a love match) dies on her wedding day and she is forced to marry Surinder, there’s hardly a trace of shock or grief on her face – she just endures. When she realizes that she is falling for Raj, there is no sign of the internal conflict she must be going through as she debates whether to leave her husband for him. Another tragedy of casting is the talented Vinay Pathak as Bobby, the crudely dressed hairstylist who effects Suri’s transformation into Raj. He looks ill-suited, uncomfortable and too old for the role though he turns in a competent performance as usual.

Salim-Suleiman’s music is derivative and predictable, following the template of Yash Raj movies though I did learn some Bollywood dance moves with the peppy “Dance pe chance mar le” .

RNBDJ is harmless, mildly entertaining movie that is family friendly. I enjoyed it because a) I happen to be an SRK fan and b) I watched it in a theater with friends and we had a great time commenting on the inadvertantly funny moments. See it under those caveats.

Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi

*ring – Shahrukh Khan, Anushka Sharma

Directed by Aditya Chopra

My rating -3 out of 5 stars.

Top 5 Bollywood movies of 2008

Picture by Meanest Indian

Picture by Meanest Indian

2008 was a year of exploration for Bollywood. Very few movies hewed to the cliched formula of rich boy/poor girl/disapproving parents that the industry has been mercilessly lampooned for over the years. The introduction of corporate entities in funding and the economics of the multiplex made it possible for young filmmakers to make smaller, more experimental movies and be assured of a reasonable amount of success. Stars like Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan sat on the bench this year, allowing younger talent to emerge.

It feels like the era of the superstar may be over, which is probably not a bad thing for the future of the Hindi movie industry. it also feels like the hegemony of big studios has been disrupted , with big showy films with known leads tanking at the box office. Bollywood went back to the drawing board this year, looking for good scripts and low-key, non-intrusive direction. Directors un-apologetically made urban movies, (which may explain the unexpected success of the lone rural movie – Welcome to Sajjanpur.)

Not all the experiments were successes. Many low-budget movies, made with the best of intentions, tanked at the box-office. There was Dasvidaniya, the Vinay Pathak starrer and The Last Lear, a self-indulgent movie that did not succeed despite the presence of Amitabh, who also starred in another low-key dud, Bhootnath. Still, the industry deserves an E for effort. If the trend is towards strong scripts filmed on lesser-known actors, I am all for it. It is about time we created our Pacinos, Hoffmans and De Niros.

Here are the top 5 movies of 2008 in ascending order –

5. Jodha Akbar – Ashutosh Gowarikar’s paean to the best loved Mughal emperor, Jodha Akbar stands out as a lavish historical that worked, mostly due to the gorgeous Hrithik Roshan, who transformed people’s idea of Akbar from a podgy, stodgy medieval ruler to a character straight from the cover of a romantic fantasy. The battle scenes were beautifully shot and the chemistry between Hrithik and Aishwarya as Jodha kept the long movie from getting tedious. Even though the existence of Jodha is historically suspect, audiences took their kids along to give them a history lesson come to life.

4. Jaane Tu…ya jaane na – Talented scriptwriter Abbas Tyrewalla made his directing debut with this movie, a sweet college+ romance that introduced us to another talented member of Aamir Khan’s family, the innocent looking Imran Khan. With a perfect musical score by Rahman and a wholesome script, the movie got great word-of-mouth and did very well at the box office. Imran later attempted to play against his chocolatey looks in Kidnap, but that movie sank without a trace.

3. Rock On – Bollywood’s first movie about a rock band which did not devolve into a Mithun Chakraborty parody, Rock On was a surprisingly intelligent movie made by Abhishek Kapoor, with director Farhan Akhtar( Dil Chahta Hai, Don) in front of the camera as the lead. The excellent script and subdued direction made me go back and check out the director’s previous movie, Aryan, which turned out to be tolerable and could have made waves if cast better. Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy’s authentic rock music gave the movie a lot of credibility, though I could have done without the actors singing their own songs. Remember how you always felt you could do a good job singing Hindi songs in a Karaoke bar? In this case, you really can do better than the actual singers!

2. A Wednesday – A bona-fide thriller in the mould of The Negotiator, a Samuel Jackson/Kevin Spacey movie, A Wednesday was remarkable because it cast Anupam Kher and Naseeruddin Shah as the leads, a risky proposition at the box office. A gripping plot and terrific ensemble acting elevated this low-budget production to one of the best movies to emerge out of Bollywood this year . With a terrorism infused plot that is enormously relevant in the current environment, it would be great if A Wednesday made the shortlist for Oscar entries from India.

1. Slumdog Milionaire – Though this movie was directed by an Englishman, Slumdog Millionaire is pure Bollywood. Danny Boyle perfectly captures the masala-infused atmosphere of Mumbai, where slums and high-rises coexist uneasily, where a chaiwalla can dream of being a millionaire. A.R. Rahman once again demonstrates his brilliance with a score that is jangly and discordant at times, electric at others, making it an integral part of the fast-paced action adventure. The high-octane drama also captured the imagination of the venerable folks over at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood and it is generating Oscar buzz.

UPDATE: I see from the comments that lots of viewers want to nominate Ghajini for the best movie of 2008. To my mind, a frame-by-frame remake of a Tamil movie does not qualify for contention in best movie..if anything, it should have been up for judging in 2005, when the Tamil movie was released. Also read my review of Ghajini where I attempt to explain my problems with the movie and why it did not make it to the top spot.

Movie Review – Slumdog Millionaire

One is used to watching execrable movies made out of beloved books. Rarely is the converse true. Slumdog Millionaire, adapted from the mediocre Q & A, is a jolt to the senses.

I remember picking up Q & A a few years ago at an airport bookstore. Written by Vikas Swarup, it has an intriguing concept; a young man from the slums improbably answers all the questions on a game show modeled after “Who wants to be a millionaire”. He is hauled up by the police to investigate if he had any outside help. His explanations about his knowledge of each question form the chapters of the book.

Unfortunately, as it happens with many English books written in India, the style is pedestrian. Like Chetan Bhagat’s recent books, Q & A reads more like a script than a novel, which might have been its attraction.

Danny Boyle, who directs Slumdog Millionaire, ruthlessly pares the book of all its fluff. Instead of an improbably and ambiguously named Ram Mohammad Thomas, we now have Jamal Malik, Muslim resident of Dharavi. When the movie begins, we see Jamal being tortured at a police station. The disbelieving cops prod him (literally and metaphorically) to explain how he, a humble chaiwalla in a call center, could know the answers to questions in categories that have left many learned contestants in the dust.

As the film progresses, we are taken on an exhilarating tour of the grimy underbelly of Bombay, as Jamal explains how the journey of his life has made him peculiarly suited to that particular set of questions. From a childhood memory of religious riots to a stint in a scary orphanage to an encounter with the Mumbai mafia as an adult, Slumdog Millionaire is a pulsating look at a city whose predominant scent is not that of feces (though that plays a memorable role in the movie) but that of survival.

A few quibbles – Dev Patel as Jamal Malik has a cultured accent completely out of place for a man out of a slum; The language keeps switching between Hindi and English, not always appropriately – I think the movie would have been great in the Hinglish patois that is spoken in Mumbai. Still, the acting is great overall. The child actors are remarkable, often better than their adult counterparts. Irfan Khan as the callous inspector who slowly comes to believe Jamal’s bizarre explanation is good as usual. Anil Kapoor as the pompous, patronizing game show host is perfectly cast- he delivers the performance of a lifetime.

There are some unpleasant bits – anybody who is familiar with Trainspotting, Danny Boyle’s claim to fame, knows that the director does not shy away from gore. Despite some horrifying scenes( one prolonged one dealing with blinding children to make them beggars was so awful I squeezed my eyes shut and jammed my hands over my ears and was thankful that I had helped out ADAA this year) Slumdog is not a depressing movie. Aided by Rahman’s pounding and sometimes discordant background score, it is a throbbing, electrifying look at Mumbai that entertains every second. It is a pity that the best masala film out of Bollywood this year had to be directed by a man from Manchester, England.

Slumdog Millionaire
Directed by Danny Boyle
*ring Dev Patel, Frieda Pinto, Irfan Khan
My rating 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie review – Dostana

Heavily inspired by I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, Dostana is a product of Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions, directed by debutant director Tarun Mansukhani. I suppose the best way to describe it is a gay-medy.

Handsome horny hunks Kunal and Sam(eer) find themselves pretending to be a gay couple so they can get through immigration quickly(?) and also become acceptable roommates to gorgeous Neha in swinging Miami. When Neha gets interested in another guy, the duo try to sabotage the relationship so each can woo her for himself.

Since Kunal( John Abraham) and Sam( Abhishek) play gay through most of their screen time, the movie opens with a strong bid to establish their hetero credentials, in case any of the audience gets convinced otherwise by their acting talents(!) There is an abundance of female flesh but the most lascivious camera work is devoted to John’s rippling muscles as he does a Daniel Craig doing a Halle Berry and emerges from the waves. I thought Dhoom 2 was pretty risque, but Dostana flings around skimpily clad bodies with gay( no pun intended) abandon. Even Priyanka’s haute couture looks like draped towels most of the time – mercifully she has the figure to carry off the tiny pieces of cloth that pass for dresses.

As for the plot and the treatment, one reviewer at rediff called the movie “injuriously entertaining”, lamenting the setback the movie may be doing to the gay rights movement in India. I would shorten that assessment by one more word – Dostana is infuriating and disrespectful and not entertaining at all, unless your idea of entertainment is to poke fun at people by using the worst stereotypes associated with them. It is like the “Madrasi” Mehmood in Padosan – it was funny when I first saw it but it left me with a feeling of discomfort at the end because it was so campy and outrageous. The movie is also very derivative, borrowing funny bits from successful Hollywood comedies. There is a body wax scene that is ripped (again, no pun intended) straight from The Forty-year Old Virgin.

Dostana tries to do the right thing but it ends up portraying the ambivalent feelings Indians have towards homosexuality. When Sam asks Neha if she’s ok with him being gay, she replies, “Oh sure, whatever, it’s your choice.” Uh, no, it isn’t. When Sam’s mother learns that he is gay, we have a song sequence that is positively cartoonish in its lament, with an exorcism thrown in for good measure. I suppose the point was to make these reactions look ridiculous and regressive but when the mother changes her mind and accepts her son’s partner, she makes him overturn a bowl of rice at the door and gives her “bahu” kangans. So what is it exactly? A movie about accepting gays for who they are or a comedy with buffoonish characters who overreact at every twist and turn?

The only redeeming factor could be that Dostana is an equal opportunity insulter, taking on Sindhis, women, and the nursing profession with rude gusto. Sushmita Bannerjee as the Sindhi landlady hams away under the burden of terrible lines and Kirron Kher plays the Punjabi mom character she can probably pull off in her sleep.

It takes a talented director to make a movie that deals with a sensitive subject funny without being offensive and Tarun Mansukhani, while indulging in the trademark Karan Johar gloss, does not have KJ’s masterful touch behind the camera. John and Abhishek act well, and Abhishek in particular shows his playful side. This is what gives the movie its two stars of watchability. I found the script dreadful, the song sequences over-the-top and the comedy jarring. I would be surprised if the movie has legs beyond its initial boost from the Karan Johar name and the star cast – this is one movie I think even permissive Indian parents will not take their kids along to. Avoid it and rent one of Karan Johar’s well-made melodramas instead.


*ring John Abraham, Abhishek Bachchan, Priyanka Chopra

My rating – 2 stars out of 5.