96 Review

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If you are a lover of the romance genre, this understated Tamil movie starring Vijay and Trisha will really move you. The storyline is so simple, and yet its delivery so profound and impactful. 96 is a notch better than the usual school-age romance we are used to. Vijay does a tremendous job of delivering his character – his little nuances and personality traits. One connects with him quite instantaneously.

In a few moments of the film, I was reminded of Vinnaithandi Varuvaya — old lovers meeting after many years, and when Janu re-tells their story having changed it into a happy ending rather than the sad reality. Despite its occasional drift into a fantasy world where the characters relive their emotions for one another in the same ways they had as teenagers, 96 remains real and authentic throughout. One of the most unique and impactful decisions taken with the movie was the lack of physical contact. The chemistry and interaction between the characters were so intense in some moments when they just stood looking at each other, I nearly felt frustration at the lack of an embrace between them. But when I think again, I think that was a good call on part of the director. The fact that they never embrace or hold each other was a literal symbolism of the reality that they cannot be together. I loved one of the last scenes in the movie, where Janu, unable to hold his hand otherwise, ensures that he does by stubbornly placing her hand on the gear while he is driving.

What made the movie so enchanting and beautiful for me was also the cinematography and the music. The background scores were beautiful, the songs were deep and touching. The use of the camera was on point, and does indeed remind one of photography, especially in the earlier scenes of the movie where we are introduced to Ram the photographer.

If you haven’t yet seen this heartfelt Tamil film, make sure you do.

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Raazi Review

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I will not try to say very much about this movie, for I am sure you have already heard all that is to be said about it. I have only two important points that I want to bring up.

First is Alia Bhatt. Alia has had my heart since I saw her in Highway. I don’t quite know how to put this– perhaps the best way that I can explain the impact of Alia Bhatt’s acting is this: I forget how little others can act, until I watch Alia on screen. Her acting is so effortless, that I am reminded of what it’s meant to be like, how it is supposed to feel watching actors on screen– just effortless. It’s only when I watch Alia that I realize how unnatural, how challenging it often feels to watch other actors and actresses. Often times with others, I get a sense of a struggle – an uncomfortable tension between who they are and who they are trying to be on screen. This tension does not exist in Alia’s performances. It almost feels as though she is not acting, but being that character. I don’t need to go through an internal process to convince myself of who she is supposed to be in a movie, she already is that on screen. It’s quite amazing – this ability and skill – is surely not endowed to many people.

As for the story, what was most striking to me was how objectively and realistically it was presented. Often cinema tends to idealize and romanticize the work of intelligence agents with intense patriotic sentiments that borders on emotional manipulation. But the truth of the matter is that intelligence agencies, regardless of the country, have never had any qualms about using and discarding people for their purposes. It has always been that way. Their agents – the people who sacrifice their lives and yes, also their conscience – with the noble intention of serving their country, will be used and then discarded without even a blink of an eye. I respect Raazi for having the courage to demonstrate the reality of this. This sad truth does not minimize the sacrifices of those who take it upon themselves with good intentions. But it is something to consider: what we think we are fighting for, and what we are actually doing– may not be the same. And there is always some price, being paid by someone. It is never black and white. Right and wrong is not so obvious and clear when it comes to politics, defense, and intelligence, no matter how patriotic one feels about their country.

The only criticism I have about the movie is that the level of expertise and knowledge that Sehmat demonstrated was really not equivalent to a month’s worth of training in my opinion. Even though the movie made effort to show that she had natural skills and abilities that aided her in spy work – such as great memorization skills with numbers, etc., I don’t think that such a young girl with one month of training could have pulled off so much so strategically. I think in reality, her actions would have been more haphazard than it was presented. This is not a major issue however, for overall, the movie is quite excellent. I especially loved the rate in which the incidents developed, it allowed for the excitement and anticipation to remain high throughout the film.

Mili Review

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Mili is a 2015 Malayalam film starring Amala Paul and Nivin Pauly. The movie is about Mili, an introverted, under-confident girl who gains confidence and motivation with the support of loving people in her life.

When you watch this movie, there really isn’t all that much happening within the story itself. But at the same time, what is happening is really the most powerful and significant thing that can happen to someone in their lifetime- a change in perspective.

It passes quickly, but the most beautiful and moving scene is actually in the end titles. They have these shots of an adult Mili observing younger versions of herself. She is observing herself and supporting herself retroactively, in moments when she felt very vulnerable, weak, afraid and lost. This is itself an extremely healing practice, an offer of compassion and support to the wounded children that live within us, and who continue to suffer. This is such a powerful message of healing and awakening for anyone who is ready to take on such a transformational journey.

Perhaps the only thing I wasn’t entirely comfortable with in the movie was that Mili’s survival and transformation greatly depended on someone noticing her suffering and helping her to change her life. I think the intention is great. It is clearly a message for people to be more aware of the emotional states of those around us, and help them if possible for our help can make the difference between life and death. On the other hand, I hope that no one walks away with the message that in order to be saved, they need an external savior. That idea can be dangerous because often, it is not the case. It is great if there are supportive people in your life who have the consciousness and awareness to be there for you through your internal battles. But really, the only “saving” can be done by ourselves. And that to me, is what the very last shots signify.

I think we are in an era of a slowly arising consciousness, perhaps in the very first stages, where there is a new-found possibility to recognize our internal suffering, which we work so hard to numb and ignore every day of our lives. The suffering is at an unconscious level, and only great amount of effort and introspection can allow it to become conscious. But without recognizing our suffering, we cannot begin to heal and reduce it, and therefore it is perhaps the most difficult and significant stage of humanity’s transformation.

I think movies like this, which force us to leave our comfort zones and consider issues we normally brush under the rug, are not only proof of this new era, but will also encourage more people to confront the suffering that they endure. When Mili makes that speech on stage, about how the demands, intolerance and resistance of her father and teachers created immense fear and anxiety that wounded her for life– she was recognizing and accepting her own suffering, and thereby ending suffering. Because without recognizing the ways in which our parents and close ones harmed and wounded us, we run the risk of repeating the same errors with our own children, perpetuating a generational transfer of pain.

For parents as well, Mili is a reminder of the extent of parents influence over their children– and how their nonacceptance of their children can harm them, and even take their life. It’s unfortunate that our cultures, and movies grandize parents and elders to such an extent that they are considered to be always right, and unable to make mistakes. This is far from the truth and unless everyone begins to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, including parents, this suffering will never end. Parents are not always right and parents can, and often do, harm their children.

I think this was also an issue I had with the movie Dear Zindagi. Kaira forgave her family quite instantaneously after confronting her own childhood trauma. Healing trauma and forgiving its perpetrators should not be thought of as synonymous. We must all try to heal, and eventually we may forgive, but it doesn’t mean we have to stay with those people. Forgiveness is not a submission to future abuse and suffering, it is merely the ability to observe people and situations detached from one’s ego. While movies on this topic are getting better, we still need more compassionate, more accurate representations of the psychological turmoils and transformations that occur within. I think overall, movies like Mili and Dear Zindagi are a good start.

A Decent Arrangement Review

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A Decent Arrangement (available on Netflix) is a lovely low-key movie about an American raised Indian traveling to India and staying with relatives in order to have an arranged marriage. The movie stars Adam Laupus in the lead and Shabana Azmi plays his cousin who is doing all of the arrangements for him.

The film portrays in a very real and simple way the challenges an American raised Indian experiences in assimilating to the traditions of his family. In the beginning, one starts off by judging him. It just doesn’t make sense why someone raised in such a different environment would be willing to go through traditional arrangements for marriage. But the movie demonstrates his personal experience and his reasons for what he does in wonderful ways.

There are some bitter realities spoken to us in this movie. It doesn’t masquerade life lessons or give us any definite life transformation, but it touches on so many of the issues that we all have to deal with and face up to in our lives. It touches on loneliness, society and family expectations, personal journeys of discovering one’s life purpose and the confusion and uncertainty that many of these experiences come with.

I truly loved how all of this was demonstrated in this movie, I think it stayed true to what life truly is like. And by showing us that we are not the only ones dealing with these topics, trying to find our way, trying to navigate this thing called life, there is something comforting and supporting in that message. Give this subtle movie a chance.

Haraamkhor Review

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I think I avoided watching Haraamkhor for a long time because I knew how uncomfortable it was going to be. But what was so surprising was that Haraamkhor presented a truly realistic picture of what sexual abuse and exploitation looks like when it involves abuse of power — that it’s in fact not so easy to identify and name it. In fact, in many ways, the sexual relationship between a student and an older, married teacher in this movie, appears more like a love affair. In fact, that’s what everyone else believes too. Haraamkhor is praiseworthy for precisely this point– that it makes us consider and understand the meaning of sexual abuse, what defines it, and what it may look like.

Just take a look at the way that two separate film sites describe this movie:

 “An unlikely love triangle unfolds when married professor, Shyam, has an illicit affair with his student, Sandhya.”

“A selfish, manipulative schoolteacher takes advantage of a schoolgirl’s vulnerability to gratify his dark, narcissistic desires.”

So which is it? Is this the story of a love triangle, an illicit love affair where one just happens to be the teacher of the other? Or is it a case of an adult with a certain responsibility and level of power taking advantage of the one whom he has power over?

Haraamkhor is brilliant in that it delivers this message– this explanation of what sexual abuse and abuse of power looks like– without any overt or preachy attitude. If Sandhya had not been his student, and had not been below the age of 18, this could have been a story of an illicit love affair. But the fact that she is a minor, and under the influence of a teacher — who both has power over her as an authority guiding her education, but also a responsibility for her welfare and safety during the time in which she is under his supervision, is abusing this power and taking advantage of her vulnerability.

The strange part is that these things happen around us all the time, but just like the characters in this movie– we remain unaware or unwilling to acknowledge them. We interpret them as love affairs, as unfaithfulness, as immorality. But if you watched carefully and saw that when Mintu killed teacher Shyam– Sandhya hugged him. You will understand that this wasn’t a story of a girl who voluntarily had sex with her teacher. Even though it appears that way in all regards– even though she flirted with him, met alone with him, succumbed to his wishes and desires– it does not naturally follow that she did these voluntarily, uninfluenced, of her free will or with an awareness of their consequences. That’s where manipulation comes in.

The kind of abuse demonstrated in this movie is abuse perpetrated by some in positions of power. They may use the influence they hold over another to manipulate them into doing things that they want. In this case, Sandhya, a child, experiences additional vulnerability due to her solitude, the lack of affection in her life due to her family situation — the absence of her mother and the neglect of her father. And you see that when her new step-mother joins the household and starts paying attention to Sandyha and giving her affection, when her household situation attains a greater level of normalcy is Sandhya able to recognize that she has been manipulated and taken advantage of by her teacher.

Haraamkhor puts forward the important and essential principle in protecting members of our society and community, and especially the most vulnerable ones. The principle is that the individual who is experiencing these risks and vulnerabilities, and the abuse — they themselves may not be aware of them. Sandhya may not be (and is not for the most part) aware of the way she is being manipulated and taken advantage of. The role of society is not to blame her or to cover an incident of abuse as an “affair.” The role of society is to recognize when someone is being abused, and take some sort of action for their protection.

What’s more is that we also witness what women empowerment looks like in this movie– through the role of Sandhya’s step mother. She is in a position where she could take several different types of action about Sandhya’s situation. She could inform her father, scold her, reprimand the teacher and do many more things. But what she does is that she helps Sandhya deal with the situation in a way that will cause the least amount of humiliation and shame for her. She understands what’s happening and what the ideal outcome should be, but she chooses to empower Sandhya to deal with the situation in her own way while also guiding her and supporting her through the process. She not only protects Sandhya’s identity and self-respect, but she also supports her in a way that strengthens her character, makes her more capable of dealing with difficult and dangerous situations in the future. It is possibly one of the most ideal examples of how those with loved ones who survived abuse ought to approach the situation.

For delivering such strong and important messages, in such underplayed and simple ways, I think that Haraamkhor deserves accolades.

Love Per Square Foot Review

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Love Per Square Foot (Netflix original) (2018) is a romantic comedy starring Vicky Kaushal and Angira Dhar in lead roles, and supported by a splendid mature cast like Ratna Pathak, Supriya Pathak and a very special appearance ( I won’t say who). The story is about Sanjay and Karina who work for the same firm and have the same dream. They were both raised middle class, spent their lives in small, crowded rental homes and dream of owning their own home one day. Their dream brings them together when they spot a government home owning scheme. But only married couples can apply, and thus begins a romance with a mission.

The movie was a delightful watch. The story-line is intriguing and different, but there is no doubt that what makes it work so well is the excellent acting by Vicky and Angira. Even though technically, it can be predictable at times, one doesn’t really notice that because the acting is truly engrossing. Particularly Vicky hits it out of the ballpark with this one. His facial expressions and the way he reacts to his co-actor in every single scene is literally perfectly done. He isn’t role playing, he is truly acting and it enriches the entire experience. I also loved Angira’s performance and felt that the two had great chemistry that is very vital for romantic movies.

I think what I loved the best however was Ratna Pathak. She brought some splendid well-timed and perfectly played out comedy to the movie. Oh she cracked me up seriously! “What’s a Chaturvedi?” “Mario’s blessings” and “They are from UP but they are not doodhwala okay?” were just splendid!

I recommend this movie, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

Read the review for Vicky Kaushal’s film Raman Raghav 2.0 here.

Newton Review

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Quite silly to review such an acclaimed and already loved film, I know. People are sulking that it didn’t make the cut to the Oscars after all. I just couldn’t resist.

Newton has no qualms about presenting its subject. It dives directly into topic– the premise of elections and Naxals, and where the main character is in relation to them. The community is holding elections, and the Naxals are terrorizing the system. Or we’re made to believe. Newton, a government clerk, is a reserve volunteer for the election committee, and may be overseeing the voting booths with other volunteers on election day.

It’s quite difficult to know where to start praising Rajkummar Rao for his acting abilities. He, truly knows how to get into the skin of the character. The very first thing I realized as I watched Rajkummar Rao as Newton was how often he blinked. Perhaps, you’d consider this irrelevant or a minute detail. But it isn’t. The frequency in which he blinked, his glances and demeanor created the Newton character for me: a naive, good-willed, yet driven, simpleton. Isn’t it amazing that an actor can take on a character, using such small, minuscule details. There must be some underlying scientific truth behind this, in the way our brain interprets persons, as a total sum of their gestures, behaviors, words. Our Newton, who has named himself so gloriously, suffers from common man’s ailments, of familial pressures. He doesn’t value money or status like others. In his own words, he wants to make a difference.

I think I enjoyed Sanjay Mishra’s character the most. His role as an advisor, his honest and direct responses to Newton. I loved how he told Newton of his arrogance about being honest. I found it interesting how we even find ways to feel in-admirably about our admirable qualities. How the honest boasts of his honesty, the good of his goodness. And as Sanjay Mishra says, we are not doing the world a favor by being this way, it’s expected of us. The coincidental rarity of these qualities in our immediate world, do not make them praiseworthy.

When a volunteer backs off from a booth in a community close to Naxal area, Newton takes his place. A community that was under the control of Maoists / Naxals just six months ago, and rigged with man mines. They wake up at 4 a.m. to set up the voting booth. When the police officer warns about the security situation and the pointlessness of their efforts, Newton refuses to accept and insists on carrying out his duty. And off they go for votes, like an army going into war! With bullet-proof vests and helmets. Proceeding through the jungle, on-guard, pausing and checking for danger along the way. With frequent bathroom breaks, taking dumps on mine-scanned spots!

A very interesting perspective shown through this movie is also the different perspectives of civilian and military/police. Every government has a unit on civil-military (CivMil) relations, and that’s because the perspective of each is so different, that they have a hard time agreeing on much. The dynamic between Atma Singh and Newton exemplified that well I think.

Newton tells them not to force anyone to come, but the police rile up old villagers like criminals, for voting. Taking their food, frightening and traumatizing them meanwhile. But these people have never voted before, they don’t even know what voting is. Newton has to explain to them its importance, and why they should vote. How can they vote when they don’t know any of the candidates and what they have to offer? The candidates have never come to these lands, to understand them, to ask for their votes, to make promises to them. The people feel torn between the government authorities and the Maoists who both claim rights over them. Furthermore, these villages, communities have never assimilated into the national governance structure. They continue to be governed through their traditional tribal structures. When Atma Singh and Newton get into a heated argument, the elderly village head steps forward to fulfill his duty and resolve the dispute between them. I thought this scene is possibly the best and most insightful scene of the entire movie, highlighting the polarization and isolation of communities that national governments are unable to reach, unable to serve, and who often get caught amidst violent extremist movements, who seek to take advantage of this polarization for their personal gain.

To the world outside, the West, who is always keen on the implementation of democracy, and its foremost indicator, elections, without really understanding the local dynamics and implications of its case studies, THIS election is a triumph. An example they will show the world, of how democracy is applicable EVERYWHERE and all you need to do in the path of progress, freedom and representation, is hold elections. Who cares if it makes any difference in the lives of the voters? In conflict situations, as soon as the violence reduces to a bearable minimum, the freedom fighters of the world, with their Western ideas of liberation, will fly in, and hold elections, to tell the world that, look, all is well again. ALL problems are solved. There was EVEN an election. That’s what they did in the Balkans after the war, the genocide, the destruction. And now, people speak of how the conflict dynamics, the underlying problems and frictions that caused hatred and death in that region in the first place, remain unresolved as ever. But wasn’t elections and a democratically elected government, the solution to everything?

Ah the funding. Now you get to the real point! The funding is NEVER enough. There is always a need for MORE. All that stands between people and freedom is MONEY. If there was more money, they could progress further and faster, into being liberated, into becoming the obedient patriotic servants of the national government/foreign government, that every democratic citizen ought to be.

And yet, despite all this, a man who believes in the idea of social justice, representation and voting so much, and who refuses to give up on his principles and sense of duty to the extent that he LITERALLY runs to keep a voting booth open… is just… brilliant!

I can see, how certain critics and viewers may be unimpressed with the cinematography– the very linear, direct storytelling, the conventional camera shots, the minimum use of sounds and music. But that to me, is a plus, something that allows me to focus on the subject, and the little delightful nuances of the great actors before me. This is one of the best films I have seen in 2017.

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