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.

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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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Arjun Reddy Review

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I was recently bashed on social media by some Telugu film fanatics for being unfamiliar with this movie. They considered this ignorance of apparently “one of the most controversial films in Telugu cinema history” nothing short of blasphemy. Though not overtly spoken, I could sense that these young lads were in awe with this film and even saw it as a matter of taking pride in their regional cinema… a some kind of “gem” that demonstrates the progressiveness of Telugu cinema and it’s ability to compete with other regional cinemas.

Placing too much meaning on a single film? I think so too. I will attempt an unbiased and objective view of the film. Lots of spoilers, so you may want to avoid if you plan to see the film. First things first, the film is way too long. It could easily been made into two-and-a-half hours and nothing of importance would have been left out. I felt exhausted and drained in the last half hour and I just couldn’t wait for it to be over.

The entire film centers around the story of the male lead, Arjun Reddy, as you easily guessed from the title. Arjun Reddy is an intelligent and successful medical student. He tops his college in grades, is more knowledgeable on subjects than any of his peers, and therefore is regarded in high esteem by teachers and administrators. Arjun Reddy is also an aggressive, selfish, slightly psychotic bully who terrorizes the entire student base, and even the dean of the college. He has a small loyal group of measly weak friends whom he can easily manipulate. He constantly threatens people into doing things and everyone is so frightened of him and his anger, that they never try to oppose him in anything.

The entire premise starts when Arjun, who was prepared to leave the college and end his entire educational and professional career because he is too vain and stubborn to do anything logical, changes his mind after seeing a sweet, naive-looking chubby girl start at his college. It’s only natural for dominant aggressive men to prey on sweet looking, easily impressionable girls.

While we are given more than an ample portrayal of Arjun Reddy’s character in the film, as usual in Telugu films, we are given very little on the character of the girl who triggers the entire change in the lead, Preeti. She is little more than a puppet– without emotion or thought. As though she doesn’t have a character or a spirit at all, just a body with a pretty face walking around, prepared to take any shape or form that is demanded of her. I mean get this, Arjun completely dominates and controls every single aspect of her life from the moment she enters the college. As soon as he decides he likes her, she becomes branded as a sort of property, and everyone is informed of it so that no one else can claim a right on her. No one even thinks of asking Preeti what she thinks about all of this, whether she is okay with it, whether she even likes this guy, or is interested in being branded this way. Her consent is automatically presumed.

In Telugu films, women have always been displayed this way. As naive, simple creatures who don’t really have many thoughts or feelings of their own. They’re always pure and beautiful, and in need of guardianship, in need of being owned by someone else. In many of the earlier films, the beautiful, educated, naive girl would fall in love with an uneducated, good-for-nothing loafer or a criminal and would reshape her life to be with him. Women in Telugu films are not too different than set props, objects to be utilized for the advancement of the hero’s story. Just like friends, family, comedians. It is this obsession with the hero, a type of hero worship in Telugu film industry that I dislike. The entire film is made by the hero, for the hero, and everything else, purely inconsequential. Before you get up in arms about this, I know this happens in other film industries too, but it ALWAYS happens in Telugu cinema. The heroine is also inconsequential in this one. She’s again, naive, sweet, beautiful. The only difference in Arjun Reddy is that she is a naive, sweet, beautiful girl who likes pre-marital sex.

When this puppet of a heroine is easily convinced into an arranged marriage by her family, is it really surprising? For she had little to say when Arjun Reddy randomly decided to own her. She is completely acting in line with her “non-existing” character.

Of course the next part of the film, or what happens after the heart-break, is what made this film so “controversial” — the forlorn lover falls into depths of alcohol and drug abuse. I didn’t really understand why this has been considered so revolutionary as a film premise? Has no one seen Devdas, or its contemporary version– Dev D? Surely, Udta Punjab would come to mind? Or that Tamil film, Surya Son of Krishnan. I admit, it’s not a topic that is usually portrayed in Telugu cinema. But was it portrayed in the right way?

Arjun Reddy ought to be controversial because for the most part of the movie, it glorifies drug abuse by portraying the character as still being successful, good at his profession, attracting loads of woman, and looking like some kind of sexy, cool beast. At one point, it dawns on the filmmaker that he shouldn’t do that, and the hero selflessly gives up his medical practice permit while confessing he performed all of his surgeries inebriated. But despite the fact that this is the most despicable thing anyone can do, we’re expected to feel respect for the character for “choosing” to reveal this rather than letting his wealthy and influential family cover it up with false witnesses and testimonies. And our alcoholic, drug-addict friend miraculously and instantaneously recovers from his nine month long addiction without any struggle or assistance from anyone, except that of a barber to shave off his beard. To demonstrate substance abuse as something being so easy to get rid of is surely the greatest fault of this film. And for that, it should be held accountable.

As the story progressed, the hero became ever more confusing, contradictory, and outright cheap and disgusting. He criticizes a prospective groom of his friend’s sister for “objectifying women” as though he wasn’t just the one seeing women as simply sources of physical pleasure and begging his friends to give him phone numbers of women who will come to his apartment. At one point in the film, the filmmaker again feels guilty about this (he has a lot of guilt trips throughout to film), and there is a scene where Arjun’s friend tells us how he doesn’t actually sleep with women, they just come over and he chats with them. Yea right. Perhaps you forgot to edit the scenes where he was, and not entirely in a nature of consent, was forcing himself between the legs of women.

The contradictions, and insensible story line becomes unbearable in the conclusion, where we suddenly realize that all of this turmoil, the heart-break, the grievance, the anger, the fear and loss, were all for nothing. There was actually NOTHING preventing the characters from getting together, than their own pride and stupidity. I think this is the first time in a movie where I’ve regretted a happy ending. The ending neutralized and completely destroyed the entire story line. And again what’s interesting is that the female lead experienced some kind of character transformation, and not only ran away from her marriage, but went through her pregnancy alone. There is a sweet ending where the father-in-law sees them kissing (as he had done before) and acts exactly as Arjun predicted. I admit the ending was sweet, and the tremendous ridiculousness of the story line did not prevent me from getting emotional at the end. But I can’t oversee the numerous faults in the movie because of that.

Arjun Reddy is not progressive. It’s not unique and it is not a step-up for Telugu cinema. It is predictable, full of the same old cliches found in every other Telugu film, with just a few shocking elements like sex and drug abuse thrown in. Those elements do not necessary feel natural, nor do they have any particular point. This film does not necessarily demonstrate modern society and its woes because these elements have been placed in it. The filmmaker was not able or willing to go all the way and really make a film entirely on these subjects. He wanted to make sure that the film was still in line with the Telugu film tradition, he didn’t wish to be rejected. But as a result, he’s made one confusing, pointless movie, that is neither really about love, or heartbreak, or sex, or drugs, or friends, or family.

Read review of Udta Punjab here.

Simran Review: Marketing Misdirection

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Simran wasn’t quite what I expected. The film was marketed like a sequel to Queen, promising witty, funny, entertaining frolic of an empowered, independent women. Praful is certainly that. Independent, opinionated, fun-loving, confident. But this movie is not about that.

It pretends to be so in the beginning, luring us in with an image that is not too different than Kangana’s real-life personality. But then it suddenly turns into a drama of coincidences, a domino-effect of ill-fortune in which the character’s life quickly spirals downward into desperation and crime.

The admiration we briefly develop for Praful soon turns into pity because her single mistake has quickly turned into many, and we watch her sad, desperate attempts to crawl out of the hole she has dug, only to sink in deeper. This empowered woman is irresponsible to the core. And at the end of the movie, we realize she is not empowered at all, getting slapped around by criminals, and fearing her own father more than the police.

In hindsight, the scenes presented to us in the beginning of the film to establish this “empowered woman” character just appears like a gimmick to write into the script what they thought would sell the film. Add to it a poorly developed, poorly fitted romantic angle, and we just have one big mess of a movie.

I try not to focus on logic and technical aspects of a movie too much, but I couldn’t help but get irritated by how unrealistic law enforcement and criminal investigation is portrayed in the movie. Anyone who has any remote idea of how surveillance works would know that someone parking their own car, with a visible license plate at a bank parking lot before robbing it, would get caught in about five minutes. Not to mention that she watches youtube videos about how to rob banks.

Frankly, I would have been more entertained watching a Kangana interview.

Read the review of Queen here.

Jab Harry Met Sejal Review

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The premise of Jab Harry Met Sejal, although it appears quite ridiculous for the most part, is one of great potential. Where Imtiaz went wrong, was that he should have told the entire story from Sejal’s point of view. While Sejal’s character and life leads this story, it’s still the man who needs to be “completed” at the end and the woman who needs to prove herself as “worthy” of his love. It should have been the opposite. Because this is not a story of a man looking for himself, it’s actually a story of a woman looking for love. Is that not obvious?

A woman looking for a ring while she has it all along, and finding something else entirely, one that she didn’t even realize she had been looking for. She’s the one who is engaged, but not satisfied with that relationship. She is the one who gets off a plane at the last minute and pressures Harry to guide her back through the places she had visited. She is the one who crosses limits with him, encouraging him all through the journey, to be closer to her, to open up to her. She never hesitates with him. She never doubts him, despite the womanizer image he pushes in her face. She trusts him, and reaches out to him repeatedly to return the affection she offers.

And yet it’s Harry who has the void? One that she must fill in order to be completed herself? And it’s Harry who proves her worth to her?

Imtiaz created a vivacious, strong-willed, charming Sejal, and then “killed” her in the conclusion, right in front of our eyes. This was not meant to be a story of a lost middle-aged man finding himself, but a story of a woman finding a companion. A woman who had the void, and who was being completed. A woman who doesn’t need others to tell her her worth, but who needs to remember it, and believe in it herself.

This is not the first time that Imtiaz has subdued a female character to the inner-search of a male one. It happened too in Rockstar, and in Tamasha, where the female character– who was the inspiration and soul of the story– was sacrificed for the other to complete his journey.

This was not the case however, in the best known and most adored film of Imtiaz– Jab We Met. In that story, both the characters had a journey to complete, voids to fill. And they filled it for each other, helped each other reach their destinations, and united along the way to a mutual destination. When Imtiaz remembers to focus on his female’s characters’ hopes and desires as much as he does on his male characters’, that day, he will produce another Jab We Met. Or just forget about that, and let the woman find herself for once!

Read review of Tamasha, Rockstar Part I and Rockstar Part II.