Review: ‘Lover’ (2024), starring K. Manikandan, Sri Gouri Priya, Kanna Ravi, Harish Kumar, Nikhila Shankar and Harini Sundararajan

February 24, 2024

by Carla Hay

K. Manikandan and Sri Gouri Priya in “Lover” (Photo courtesy of Million Dollar Studios and MRP Entertainment)

“Lover” (2024)

Directed by Prabhuram Vyas

Tamil with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chennai, India, the dramatic film “Lover” features an all-Indian cast characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A man and a woman, who are both in their 20s and have been dating each for six years, come to a crossroads in their dysfunctional relationship that has been troubled because he is controlling and abusive. 

Culture Audience: “Lover” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching uncomfortably realistic dramas about toxic relationships.

Nikhila Shankar, K. Manikandan, Harish Kumar, Sri Gouri Priya and Kanna Ravi in “Lover” (Photo courtesy of Million Dollar Studios and MRP Entertainment)

“Lover” is an emotional drama that can get repetitive, and this 145-minute movie is too long, but it’s a realistic portrayal of how difficult it can be to end a toxic and abusive relationship. This well-acted movie also explores generational trauma. “Lover” not only takes a candid look at the two people in the relationship but also how people who are close to the couple react to this relationship.

Written and directed by Prabhuram Vyas, “Lover” is Vyas’ impressive feature-film directorial debut. Most of the movie takes place in Chennai, India. “Lover” begins with an upbeat scene of a small group of people in their 20s who are having a going-away luncheon for their co-worker Vignesh, who is nicknamed Vicky. The movie doesn’t say what type of business employs them, but Vicky is a project manager who is leaving the company on good terms.

Two of the co-workers at this luncheon are roommates Divya (played by Sri Gouri Priya) and Ramya (played by Nikhila Sankar), who are also best friends and confidantes. The mood at this get-together is light-hearted until Divya gets a phone call from her boyfriend Arun (played by K. Manikandan), who has been dating Divya for the past six years. Arun immediately interrogates Divya on who she is with and what she is doing.

Divya tries to pretend that this call isn’t bothering her, but the expression on Ramya’s face indicates that Ramya knows exactly what’s going on. Divya tells Arun that she is with co-worker friends to celebrate Vicky’s last day on the job. Divya won’t say exactly where they are, so Arun gets angry.

When Arun gets off of the phone, get a ride from an unnamed friend (played by Arunachaleswaran.Pa) with a scooter, because Arun says he wants to find out where Divya is. This friend can see that Arun is very agitated, so the friend suggests they go to a bar for some drinks first, with the intention of getting Arun to calm down. Arun then gets drunk and complains to his friend that Divya is being influenced too much by people at Divya’s job.

By the time Arun and his friend leave the bar, Arun is very drunk. Arun knows that Divya will be home by now, so he shows up unannounced at her apartment and yells at her in the parking garage for being disrespectful to him. He then smashes a car window with a bare fist before he leaves. This sequence of events sets the tone for the rest of the movie that leaves no doubt that Arun is controlling, abusive and violent.

Meanwhile, Divya does what many abused people do when they are experiencing this trauma: deny or cover up that that there’s a problem. At her job and in many other situations, she pretends that her life is going very well. However, Ramya and another female co-worker named Aishu (played by Harini Sundararajan) know the truth. Ramya tells Divya that Divya deserves a better love partner than Arun, but Divya has convinced herself that she and Arun have is a love that’s worth saving. Divya believes that if she ends the relationship with Arun, the six years she has already invested in this relationship would be a waste.

Like many abusers, Arun has two sides to his personality. He can be cruel and oppressive, but he can also be charming and generous. Arun is shown frequently using a typical abuser “love bomb” technique of making profuse apologies to Divya and promising that he won’t hurt her again. He also showers her with attention or gifts to try to make up for his horrendous actions. It’s also shown that Arun gets drunk a lot and frequently smokes marijuana. He sometimes blames his outbursts on being drunk.

And who is Arun? For most of the movie, he is unemployed and living with his mother Kala (played by Geetha Kailasam), who loves him unconditionally and often turns a blind eye to Arun’s obvious problems. As far as Kala knows or cares to know, Arun and Divya have a wonderful relationship that could possibly lead to marriage. Kala approves of Divya, who is kind and sensitive, and tells Arun that she would love for Divya to be her daughter-in-law.

Arun’s family is also very dysfunctional. His father Raja (played by Saravanan) is an alcoholic who is physically and emotionally abusive to Arun and Kala. Arun has vague plans to open a cafe near the Anna Nagra neighborhood, but he has squandered the investment money, and he is nowhere close to opening a cafe. Raja physically assaults and yells at Arun because he thinks Arun is a loser. Kala defends Arun during these nasty arguments, but Raja often attacks her too. Raja eventually moves out of the household.

Almost nothing is shown or told about Divya’s family, but it can be assumed that she has been hiding Arun’s abuse from whatever family she has. It’s also very obvious that Arun hates that Divya has a stable career, is financially independent, and makes more money than he does. Arun believes that as the man in the relationship, he should be the one to be more of a financial provider. Arun also gets very jealous and acts threatened when he thinks that Divya could be getting attention from men who have a higher income than Arun.

At her job, Divya soon meets the young man who has replaced Vicky as project manager. His name is Madan Wanders (played by Kanna Ravi), who first meets Divya when she helps him use a coffee machine that he’s unfamiliar with in an office break room. Madan (who is semi-successful travel vlogger in his free time) is immediately attracted to Divya, but he soon finds out that she has an obsessively jealous boyfriend. However, Madan and Divya become friends on the job, where he is welcomed into the co-worker social circle that includes Divya, Ramya and Aishu.

“Lover” shows a lot of repetition of Arun getting drunk or stoned with friends; having angry temper tantrums at Divya because he thinks Divya is being tempted to cheat on him; and then pathetically begging for Divya’s forgiveness and promising that he will never act that way again. Arun is extremely manipulative and tells Divya that he will kill himself or hurt himself if she breaks up with him. It’s a common way that abusers control the people they abuse.

The movie doesn’t have flashbacks to show any previous years of the relationship between Arun and Divya. However, there are snippets of information that are divulged in conversations to give some idea of what their courtship was like. Apparently, Arun pursued Divya vigorously when they were both students at the same university. It should come as no surprise that Arun has low self-esteem, because he mentions that he was shocked that Divya agreed to date him because he thinks she’s out of his league.

Another glimpse into Arun’s past happens when a former university classmate named Pravin throws a party to celebrate that Pravin’s fledging technology business has received an investment of ₹5 million, which is a little more than $60,000 in U.S. dollars in the early 2020s. Divya is invited to the party. She doesn’t really want Arun to go with her, but he does. Arun knows that Pravin used to have a crush on Divya. You can easily predict what happens at this party with “loose cannon” Arun.

Divya tries to break up with Arun many times, but he won’t accept it. Arun just keeps showing up where she is and acting like they are still in a relationship. A turning point comes when Arun essentially invites himself to go with Divya and her friends to a getaway vacation at a beach resort to celebrate Divya’s birthday. In addition to Arun and Divya, the other people on this trip are Madan, Madan’s easygoing friend Suhail (played by Harish Kumar), Ramya and Aishu. Not surprisingly, Arun’s presence is awkward, and he hates feeling like he’s the outsider in this tight-knit group.

If “Lover” gets a bit tedious or exhausting in repeatedly showing the back-and-forth volatility in the relationship of Arun and Divya, it’s to make the point that this is the type of vicious cycle that happens in abusive relationships. There are lots of crying tears and shouting that might look melodramatic, but many people in real life are this way when they are in miserable relationships. Manikandan and Priya give very good (but not great) performances as this very troubled couple. The movie’s biggest strength is how it doesn’t sugarcoat the damage caused by this type of abuse, and it doesn’t present a fairy tale that people will always get the help that they need.

Million Dollar Studios and MRP Entertainment released “Lover” on February 2, 2024.

Review: ‘Hanu-Man,’ starring Teja Sajja, Amritha Aiyer, Varalaxmi Sarathkumar, Samuthirakani, Vinay Rai and Vennela Kishore

February 4, 2024

by Carla Hay

Teja Sajja in “Hanu-Man” (Photo courtesy of PrimeShow Entertainment)

“Hanu-Man”

Directed by Prasanth Varma

Telugu with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India, the sci-fi/fantasy/action film “Hanu-Man” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A petty thief becomes an unlikely superhero who battles with a supervillain over a gem that give the hero his superpowers.

Culture Audience: “Hanu-Man” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of superhero movies and don’t mind watching a movie that’s more than two-and-a-half hours long.

Vinay Rai in “Hanu-Man” (Photo courtesy of PrimeShow Entertainment)

“Hanu-Man” is an epic superhero film whose minor flaws are outshone by an engaging story and some stunning visuals. The movie has plot developments that are more unexpected than others. It’s a crowd-pleasing movie that’s obviously conceived as a franchise.

Written and directed by Prasanth Varma, “Hanu-Man” (which takes place in India) begins where most superhero movies usually don’t begin: by showing the origin story of the movie’s chief villain. The opening scene takes place in the Saurashtra region in 1998. A boy named Michael and his best fried Siri, who are both about 11 or 12 years old, are role-playing as a superhero on the roof of a building.

Michael, who is wearing a cape, jumps off of the building and injures himself. Later, when Michael is recovering from his injuries at home, his father yells at Michael for being reckless and for having an obsession with superheroes and comic books. (Michael’s bedroom wall is plastered with superhero artwork and posters.) Michael’s father punishes him with some physical abuse and forbids Michael from reading any more comic books.

Later, Michael and Siri have a private conversation where Michael mentions that all of the most famous superheroes—such as Superman, Batman and Spider-Man—have parents who died when the superheroes were children. The next scene shows Michael secretly killing his parents by setting their house on fire while the parents are trapped inside.

The movie then fast-forwards to Michael (played by Vinay Rai) in his 30s. He has become a superhero vigilante called Mega Man. Michael and Siri (who is now an accomplished scientist) are still best friends. Siri is Michael’s sidekick and does whatever Michael tells him to do. Siri knows about Michael’s secret superhero alter ego because Siri is the one who came up with the inventions that helped Michael become a superhero. Just like Batman, Michael is a human being who doesn’t have superpowers but he has a powerful superhero suit and an arsenal of high-tech gadgets and weapons that he uses for his vigilante activities.

Meanwhile, in the fictional hamlet of Anjanadri, a petty thief named Hanumanthu (played by Teja Sajja) has a best friend named Kasi (played by Getup Srinu), who is sometimes his partner in crime. Hanumanthu’s older sister Anjamma (played by Varalaxmi Sarathkumar) worries about Hanumanthu and wishes that he would turn his life around and become a respectable citizen. Anjamma is engaged to be married. Ner wedding becomes a pivotal point in the story.

Hanumanthu has a crush on an attractive and outspoken doctor named Meenakshi (played by Amritha Aiyer), who has vivid memories of a superhero being her rescuer/protector when she was a child. Meeakshi frequently clashes with Anjanadri’s leader Gajapathi (played by Raj Deepak Shetty), who rules Anjanadri like a dictator. Meeakshi wants the village to be more of a democracy.

The feud between Meeakshi and Gajapathi escalates to a point where Gajapathi sends a gang of masked thieves to rob and attack Meeakshi. Hanumanthu comes to Meeakshi’s rescue during the attack but he’s seriously wounded and falls into a sea nearby. He finds a glowing gem in the sea and is able to go back home.

During his recovery, Hanumanthu finds out that the gem has given him superpowers (such as extraordinary strength and agility), but only when he is in possession of the gem and when the gem is exposed to sunlight. It isn’t long before Hanumanthu and Gajapathi face off in a fight, where Hanumanthu’s new superpowers come in handy. Because Hanumanthu doesn’t want people to know that his superpowers come from this gem, he hides the gem in a mask that he wears in public when he’s using the superpowers.

And what about Michael? He’s been injured in a fight, so his Mega Man activities have been halted until he can fully recover. However, through a viral video that he sees on social media, Michael finds out about Hanumanthu’s exceptional strength and decides he has to find out what is the source of Hanumanthu’s strength. It doesn’t take long for Michael and Siri to arrive in Anjanadri.

“Hanu-Man” has a lot of thrilling acting scenes with mostly convincing visuals. When the visuals don’t look believable, it’s only a temporary distraction. Overall, the cinematography is very effective at immersing viewers into this world. The acting performances are adequate and not as good as the actual story.

Even though Michael is the movie’s chief villain, “Hanu-Man” has a lot to say about resisting political oppression in the conflicts with Gajapathi. Can this power-hungry tyrant be reedeemed? Michael also represents the corruption that can happen when people pursue power at any cost. It’s a tried-and-true theme for superhero stories, but “Hanu-Man” handles it with style and crowd-pleasing entertainment.

PrimeShow Entertainment released “Hanu-Man” in select U.S. cinemas on January 12, 2024, the same day the movie was released in India.

Review: ‘Ayalaan,’ starring Sivakarthikeyan, Rakul Preet Singh, Sharad Kelkar and Isha Koppikar

February 3, 2024

by Carla Hay

Tattoo and Sivakarthikeyan in “Ayalaan” (Photo courtesy of KJR Studios)

“Ayalaan”

Directed by R. Ravikumar

Tamil with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India’s Tamil Nadu state, the sci-fi film “Fighter” features a predominantly Indian cast of characters (with a few white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A villager and his two friends discover and protect an outer-space alien that a corrupt scientist wants to capture because of the alien’s access to deadly mineral that the scientist want to use to make weapons of mass destruction.

Culture Audience: “Ayalaan” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stories about aliens from outer space, no matter how stupid and long-winded the stories are.

Karunakaran, Kothandam, Tattoo, Yogi Babu and Sivakarthikeyan in “Ayalaan” (Photo courtesy of KJR Studios)

“Ayalaan” is a sloppy ripoff of the 1982 classic sci-fi film E.T., but with the outer-space alien befriending adults instead of children, as the movie’s ‘heroes’ try to prevent the alien from being captured. This misguided film is just time-wasting idiocy. “Ayalaan” has a very thin and flimsy plot that is dragged and stretched out to extremely irritating levels during the movie’s 155 minutes.

Written and directed by R. Ravikumar, “Ayalaan” (which means “alien” in Tamil) exposes itself very early in the movie to be a cinematic abomination of horrible dialogue, tacky visual effects, and bad acting. It would be slightly inaccurate to say that “Ayalaan” wears out its welcome because this type of torturous drivel isn’t welcome in the first place, if viewers are expecting anything that’s reasonably entertaining. There is almost no imagination in this extremely derivative and annoying movie.

The main protagonist in “Ayalaan” (which takes place in the India’s Tamil Nadu state) is a cheerful but dimwitted man in his late 30s named Tamizh (played by Sivakarthikeyan), who lives in a rural village, where he loves and respects the environment. Tamizh sells mineral water to people in the village. Tamizh’s social circle includes his two best friends—buffoonish Tyson (played by Yogi Babu) and neurotic Sugirtharaja (played by Karunakaran)—as well as Tamizh’s middle-aged, mute roommate (played by Kothandam), who doesn’t have a name in the movie.

A corrupt scientist/business mogul named Aryan (played by Sharad Kelkar), who is based in the city of Chennai, owns Aryan Industries, which looks like a combination of a corporation and a scientific research center. Aryan is obsessed with finding a rare mineral called Sparc (which looks like a glowing blue rock), which Aryan believes has the most powerful energy source in the world. Predictably, Aryan wants to get possession of Sparc to extract the energy source so that he can use it to make weapons of mass destruction. Aryan’s most loyal and most ruthless cohort is Eliza (played by Isha Koppikara), who’s supposed to be a scientist but who acts more like a combat criminal.

Meanwhile, a child-sized green alien, who has the voice of adult male human (voiced by Siddharth), arrives by spaceship from outer space to put a stop to Aryan’s plan. Before he left, the alien was warned by his look-alike girlfriend not to eat the the junk food on Earth. “Ayalaan” mentions that this is the alien’s 324th secret visit to Earth. The alien has the ability to make itself invisible whenever it wants.

The alien is captured by Aryan’s accomplices and is brought to a secret lab at Ayran Industries. The alien is kept in a giant glass cylinder. Why does Ayran want to keep this alien imprisoned? Somehow, Aryan finds out that this alien knows where to find Sparc, so Aryan want to force the alien to tell him where Sparc is.

But that doesn’t happen in this scene. Instead, when Aryan puts his hands on the cylinder, his hands get stuck. The alien uses it as an opportunity to emit a green gas that fills the cylinder before breaking the glass and escaping. The green gas floats out of the cylinder. Whatever is in the gas causes Aryan, Eliza and the others to lose consciousnesses.

Meanwhile, Tamizh finds himself at a science expo for middle schoolers. He has a crush on a science teacher named Tara (played by Rakul Preet Singh), so he is thrilled to see her there. One of the first exhibts that catches Tamizh’s attention is called “Alien World,” from a boy who’s dressed as a green alien. Tamizh starts a casual conversation with the boy, who says his name is Tattoo.

A certain mishap at the expo causes a big fire, where the alien shows up and catches Tara before she falls to the ground. (Don’t ask. It won’t be the last you’ll see of Tara, because she’s the obvious love interest of Tamizh.) Most of the people in the building evacuate in time, but Tamizh is stuck in the building. He sees the alien trapped underneath a fallen display case and rescues it. Tamizh and the alien manage to escape before the fire can kill them.

Tamizh thinks the alien is the boy Tattoo whom Tamizh met earlier. While he is driving the alien to a hospital, Tamizh keeps thinking that a human boy named Tattoo is in his truck with him, even though the alien is obviously not a human. This foolishness goes on for several minutes until Tamizh sees the alien become invisible. It’s only then that Tamizh understands that he has a non-human creature with him in the truck. He continues to call this creature Tattoo after he brings it home and introduces the alien to his friends.

The rest of “Ayalaan” has an increasingly ridiculous series of events. Just when the movie looks like it could have ended one way, there are insipid plot twists that prolong this appallingly jumbled and vapid movie. The alien is neither fun nor interesting, while all the human characters are either generic or very irritating, with performances from the cast members to match. Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” composer A.R. Rahman wrote the music for this junkpile movie, which just goes to show that having an Oscar does not make someone immune to working on low-quality dreck.

As an example of the shoddy filmmaking, there’s a subplot about an American named Dexter Williams (played by David Broughton-Davies), a UFO enthusiast who saw the alien during one of the alien’s previous visits to Earth. Dexter speaks Tamil in the film, but it’s obviously an overdubbed voice because the actor spoke English while filming his scenes. (People who can read lips while someone is talking can easily spot this discrepancy.)

Dexter has a hard time convincing people that his alien sightings are real. He’s determined to find the alien again and then track it down. Somehow, Aryan finds out that Dexter knows that alien has landed on Earth again. And so, Aryan summons Dexter to India, where Dexter is enlisted to help find the alien. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

And did we mention that Tattoo has the ability to heal human injuries and diseases, just by placing his hands on the affected areas? The movie takes a detour into a vapid subplot about how Tattoo becomes invisible and does these healings when he’s with Tamizh. And it isn’t long before Tamizh gets credit for these healings and people think he has superpowers.

During all of these messy subplots, there are chase scenes, emotional meltdowns, and the usual mindless shenanigans that you would expect to find in a substandard “alien on the loose on Earth” movie, where the “heroes” try to help the alien find its way back to its home planet. There are also some out-of-place musical numbers that act as filler for this already bloated movie. In “Ayalaan,” everything is so dialed up to the most asinine levels, if any outer-space aliens saw this garbage film, then they’d want to fly far away on a spaceship and go home too.

KJR Studios released “Ayalaan” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on January 12, 2024.

Review: ‘Fighter’ (2024), starring Hrithik Roshan, Deepika Padukone and Anil Kapoor

January 26, 2024

by Carla Hay

Deepika Padukone, Hrithik Roshan and Karan Singh Grover in “Fighter” (Photo courtesy of Viacom18 Studios)

“Fighter” (2024)

Directed by Siddharth Anand

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India and in Pakistan, the action film “Fighter” features an Indian and Pakistani cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Fighter pilots in the Indian Air Force battle against Pakistani terrorists led by a ruthless sadist.

Culture Audience: “Fighter” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of simple-minded and lengthy action movies that overload on jingoistic messages.

Rishabh Sawhney in “Fighter” (Photo courtesy of Viacom18 Studios)

“Fighter” has plenty of energetic action and musical numbers. There’s equal-opportunity eye candy. But it’s also awfully predictable and aggressively jingoistic. It looks like wartime propaganda and a very long recruitment ad for the Indian Air Force.

Directed by Siddharth Anand and written by Ramon Chibb, “Fighter” (which takes place in India and in Pakistan) rips off some elements of 2022’s “Top Gun: Maverick” and injects the movie with the cinematic version of steroids. “Fighter” knows that many of its action scenes are unrealistic. It knows that the way the hero zips in and out (and back again) of his military job completely misrepresents the real procedures in military protocol. That’s not the main problem with “Fighter.”

The main problem is that for a movie that is 166 minutes long, there is no real suspense. It’s just a series of high-octane fight scenes (the best part of the movie) with a predictable romance and a very sloppy subplot of the movie’s “hero” having career problems. After a while, it all becomes so formulaic and corny.

The jingoism in the movie also borders on xenophobia against Pakistan. The terrorists in “Fighter” happen to be from Pakistan, but there are parts of the film that make it look like Pakistan is to blame overall for much of the mayhem that ensues in the story. In the movie, all the Pakistani people with significant speaking roles are terrorists, which is a terrible and offensive stereotype.

The “hero” of the story is Shamsher “Patty” Pathania (played by Hrithik Roshan ), the squadron leader of his Indian Air Force team of fighter pilots. Patty (just like Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell character in the “Top Gun” movies) is a charming and handsome daredevil who often defies orders, which sometimes gets him into trouble and often frustrates and annoys his commanding officer. Patty reports to Rakesh “Rocky” Jai Sing (played by Anil Kapoor), a no-nonsense group captain who frequently reprimands Patty when Patty gets out of line and does something careless while on duty.

Patty’s obvious love interest is Minal “Minni” Rathore (played by Deepika Padukone), who is on the same fighter pilot team. Minni is strong and independent. Every time Patty tries to impress her, she acts like she doesn’t care. She doesn’t play hard to get with Patty because she actually is hard to get. Because “Fighter” is a completely predictable film, you can almost do a countdown to the parts of the movie were Patty and Minni have verbal disagreements when Minni tries to pretend that she’s not attracted to him, and then things happen that change her attitude toward him.

Minni has an emotional barrier around herself because she has a vulnerability that she doesn’t like to talk about: She is estranged from her parents Abhijeet Rathore (played by Ashutosh Rana) and Usha Rathore (played by Geeta Agrawal), because her airline executive father vehemently disapproves of her being in the Air Force as a pilot. Abhijeet thinks that women shouldn’t be in military combat, and he expects Minni to be a traditional wife and mother.

And it wouldn’t be typical action hero movie if the hero didn’t have some emotional pain too, usually because of a death of a loved one. In Patty’s case, he had a fiancée named Naina, nicknamed NJ (played by Seerat Mast, shown in flashbacks), who was a flight lieutenant in the Air Force. She died in a helicopter crash because of a decision that Patty made. Patty has been living with the guilt ever since. NJ’s relationship with one of Patty’s colleagues is revealed later in the movie. This revelation isn’t a complete surprise.

The other people on this Air Force team are squadron leader Sartaj “Taj” Gill (played by Karan Singh Grover), squadron leader Basheer “Bash” Khan (played by Akshay Oberoi), squadron leader Sukhdeep “Sukhi” Singh (played by Baveen Singh), Rajan “Unni” Unninathan (played by Mahesh Shetty), flying officer Manoj “Birdie” Bhardwaj (played by Nishan Khanduja) and wing commander Harish “Nauty” Nautiyal (played by Chandan K Anand). Along with Patty and Minni, they are all tight-knit and spend a lot of their free time with each other.

Unfortunately, everyone on the squad except Patty and Minni are utterly generic characters. It’s one of biggest failings of “Fighter,” which is trying desperately to be India’s version of “Top Gun: Maverick.” At least in the “Top Gun” movies, there are at least four fighter pilots who have personalities that viewers can tell apart from each other. That’s not the case with “Fighter.”

Meanwhile, the chief terrorist is Azhar Akhtar (played by Rishabh Sawhney), a muscular brute who does what terrorists do in movies like “Fighter.” When he’s not killing people with bombs, guns or other weapons, hate-filled Azhar snarls, stomps around, and yells at people. His personality is just a soulless void, as he says nothing that is memorable in “Fighter.”

How do you know that “Fighter” wants to be like the “Top Gun” movies, besides the airplane stunt scenes? Patty spends some of his time courting Minni by giving her rides on his motorcycle, just like Tom Cruise’s Maverick character does with his love interest in the “Top Gun” movies. Something happens to Patty as “punishment” for being reckless, and this plot development is straight out of “Top Gun: Maverick.”

To its credit, “Fighter” delivers some variety for people who don’t want to see fight scenes all of the time in an action movie. There’s some emotional drama, some romance, and the obligatory scenes of scantily clad Patty and Minni as they frolic on a beach or cavort in large groups during the movie’s song-and-dance numbers. The acting isn’t horrible, but neither is it great.

“Fighter” is sure to be a crowd-pleaser for many people in the movie’s intended audience. The movie obviously had a large budget for visual effects, some of which look dazzling and realistic, while some of the other visual effects look ridiculously fake. However well-intentioned the movie is in portraying Indian patriotism, it shouldn’t have to be at the expense of making another country look like the enemy when the two countries are not at war with each other in this story. “Fighter” just took the lazy way in telling this story, which comes across as a big-budget, derivative video game.

Viacom18 Studios released “Fighter” in U.S. cinemas and in India on January 25, 2024.

Review: ‘Naa Saami Ranga,’ starring Nagarjuna, Allari Naresh, Raj Tarun, Ashika Ranganath and Shabeer Kallarakkal

January 18, 2023

by Carla Hay

Nagarjuna Akkineni in “Naa Saami Ranga” (Photo courtesy of RKD Studios)

“Naa Saami Ranga”

Directed by Vijay Binni

Telugu with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in India, in the late 1980s (and briefly in 1963), the action film “Naa Saami Ranga” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An orphan gets adopted by a powerful government family, and when he’s an adult, he becomes involved in the family’s power struggles.

Culture Audience: “Naa Saami Ranga” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching formulaic action movies with many unrealistic fight scenes.

Shabeer Kallarakkal and Rao Ramesh in “Naa Saami Ranga” (Photo courtesy of RKD Studios)

“Naa Saami Ranga” has more of the same predictable action-movie story about a hero character who’s caught up in violent feuding, revenge schemes, and a difficult romance. The generic and uninspiring plot becomes incoherent and annoying after a while. The awkwardly placed musical numbers are forgettable and formulaic.

Written and directed by Vijay Binni, “Naa Saami Ranga” is so derivative of many other similar movies, if you’ve seen enough of them, then you’ll know exactly how the movie is gong to end about 15 to 20 minutes after the movie starts. “Naa Saami Ranga” (which means “my goodness gracious” in Hindi) recycles the same old story of an underdog “hero,” who battles against enemies (usually those with more money and more power), while his love life consist mostly of chasing after a woman who seems to be unattainable.

The movie (which place in an unnamed village in India) begins in 1963, when an orphan named Kishtaiah, who’s about 12 to 13 years old, is invited to live with his best friend Anji (who’s about 10 or 11 years old) and Anji’s single mother. Kishtaiah and Anji are raised as brothers. The movie never bothers to explain what happened to Kishtaiah’s parents or anything about his family background.

One day, tragedy strikes when Anji’s mother suddenly dies. No cause of death is given n the movie. At the time of her death, she was heavily in mortgage debt to a wealthy businessman named Varadaraju (played by Rao Ramesh), who demands that Kishtaiah and Anji give the deceased mother’s house to him, in order to pay off the debt.

Instead of leaving these boys poor and orphaned, a powerful local government official named Peddayya (played by Nassar) volunteers to pay off the debt and raise Kishtaiah and Anji alongside his three other pre-teen sons. One of Peddayya’s sons is named Dasu, who shows the most resentment over having two new boys in the household. And you know what that means later in the story.

Kishtaiah meets Varamahalakshmi, nicknamed Varalu, the daughter of Varadaraju. It’s love at first sight, but Kishtaiah is too shy to approach her when he first sees her. He eventually starts talking to Varalu but is afraid to tell her how he really feels about her. Anji gives encourgagement to Kishtaiah, who gets enough confidence to tell Varalu his true feelings.

But on the day that Kishtaiah plans to do that, he sees his adoptive father Peddayya frantically driving a car that is being chased by a gang of about 20 thugs in a remote area. Peddayya is wounded. It just so happens that Kishtaiah has a gun with him, which he takes out an aims at the thugs.

“Naa Saami Ranga” then fast-fowards to 1988. The movie never shows what happened after Kishtaiah took out that gun, but it’s explained later that Kishtaiah shot the thugs and saved Peddayya’s life. In gratitude, Peddayya began to treat Kishtaiah (played by Nagarjuna) as equal to his biological sons. And you just know that this is going to cause major problems between Kishtaiah and Dasu (played by Shabeer Kallarakkal), who wants to be Peddayya’s favorite son.

During this time, Kishtaiah and Anji (played by Allari Naresh) are still best friends. Anji has fallen in love with a woman named Manga (played by Mirnaa Menon), and they get married. Kishtaiah and Anji are so close, Kishtaiah continues to live with Anji even after Anji gets married.

Kishtaiah now acts like a village protector against bullies, with a machete as a weapon of choice. No longer a shy teenager, Kishtaiah (who is a chainsmoker) walks around with a lot of swagger and arrogance. It’s more than enough to attract Varalu (played by Ashika Ranganath), who becomes charmed by Kishtaiah, and they fall in love with each other after she plays “hard to get.”

The relationshp between Kishtaiah and Varalu doesn’t go smoothly. Her father Varadaraju hasn’t forgotten about Kishtaiah’s poverty-striken childhood before Kishtaiah was adopted by Peddayya. Varadaraju doesn’t approve of Varalu dating Kishtaiah for caste reasons and because he thinks Kishtaiah deserves to be with someone who is more refined.

That’s not the only storyline about a father disapproving of a couple. There’s also a subplot about Kishtaiah and Anji befriending a guy named Bhaskar (played by Raj Tarun), who is dating a woman named Kumari (played by Rukshar Dhillon) whom Bhaskar wants to marry. However, Kumari’s father Veerabhadrudu (played by Madhusudan Rao), who is the president of a nearby village named Jagganna Thota, vehemently opposes the idea of Bhaskar marrying Kumari, because Veerabhadrudu doesn’t think Bhaskar is good enough to marry Kumari.

The rest of “Naa Saami Ranga” is about conflicts over these romance problems, which lead to family feuds and a lot of silly-looking fight scenes in a messy story. There is absolutely nothing creatively imaginative about “Naa Saami Ranga.” The acting is mediocre, and the dialogue is simplistic. It will be difficult for many viewers to emotionally connect with the adult Kishtaiah, because he comes across as very shallow and has a nasty temper, even though he is very loyal to his loved ones.

Because there’s a missing 25-year gap in the story, there’s no real explanation for the drastic personality change from the shy teenage Kishtaiah to the combative adult Kishtaiah. It’s implied that when he shot the thugs who were attacking Peddayya, this violent incident changed Kishtaiah. But there’s no real indication in the movie that this theory is true, because this entire movie is poorly written.

The action scenes are sloppy and very unrealistic. For example, in one of the major showdown scenes, a certain person is brutally stabbed, and then gets up and moves around as if that person has no injuries at all. The movie expects viewers to take this idiotic scene seriously. Ultimately, “Naa Saami Ranga” fails to bring suspense or an interesting story, which makes the movie’s 150-minute runtime feel much longer.

RKD Studios released “Naa Saami Ranga” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on January 14, 2024.

Review: ‘Merry Christmas’ (2024), starring Katrina Kaif and Vijay Sethupathi

January 18, 2024

by Carla Hay

Katrina Kaif and Vijay Sethupathi in “Merry Christmas” (Photo courtesy of Pen Marudhar Entertainment)

“Merry Christmas” (2024)

Directed by Sriram Raghavan

Hindi, Tamil and Telugu with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1980s in Bombay, India, the dramatic film “Merry Christmas” (based on Frédéric Dard’s novel “Le Monte-charge (Bird in a Cage)” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class, and middle-class.

Culture Clash: When a man meets lonely married woman on Christmas Eve, he accepts her invitation to come back to her place, but complications ensue when the dead body of her husband is found in the home.

Culture Audience: “Merry Christmas” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching an intriguing mystery with twists and turns.

Pari Maheshwari Sharma (in second row), Katrina Kaif (in second row) and Vijay Sethupathi (in first row) in “Merry Christmas” (Photo courtesy of Pen Marudhar Entertainment)

“Merry Christmas” is the type of absorbing crime drama where things are not what they always first appear to be. It’s a well-acted whodunit mystery that has layers of psychological intrigue presented in stylish filmmaking. The movie is a worthy adaptation of Frédéric Dard’s 1961 novel “Le Monte-charge (Bird in a Cage).”

Sriram Raghavan directed “Merry Christmas” and co-wrote the screenplay with Arijit Biswas, Anukriti Pandey and Pooja Ladha Surti. The movie’s runtime is 144 minutes, but none of that screen time is wasted with boring scenes. Some of the story’s twists and turns are less predictable than other twists and turns in the story. “Merry Christmas” has a Hindi-language version and a Tamil-language version. The principal cast members are the same in both versions, but many of the supporting cast members are different in each version.

“Merry Christmas” takes place Bombay, India, sometime in the 1980s. Bombay is the childhood hometown of architect named Albert (played by Vijay Sethupathi), a never-married bachelor in his 40s, with no children. In the beginning of the movie, Albert has returned to his childhood home, where his widowed mother used to live. It’s the Christmas holiday season, and she has recently died. Albert hasn’t been back to this house in about seven years.

The landlord, who was a friend of the family, tells Albert that Albert’s mother suddenly died in her sleep. As a condolence gift, the landlord gives Albert a bottle of homemade wine that he has called Yadhoom. Tinnu Anand portrays the landlord/family friend in the Hindi-language version of “Merry Christmas,” and Rajesh Williams (also known as Rajesh) portrays the landlord/family friend in the Tamil-language version.

Feeling lonely, Albert goes to a restaurant by himself for dinner on Christmas Eve. At the restaurant, a stranger (played by Sahil Vaid), who’s about the same age as Albert, approaches him and tells him that he was there to meet a woman for a date at at the restaurant, but he has to suddenly leave. He points out the woman to Albert and asks Albert to tell his date that he won’t be able to join her dinner because of a work-related reason.

What the stranger doesn’t tell Albert is that he’s cancelled this date because the woman he was supposed to meet has a child (a girl about 3 or 4 years old) with her. He was expecting it to be a romantic date with no kids. Albert tells the jilted date about this cancellation. She seems disappointed but not too surprised. Albert finds out much later that the woman’s name is Maria (played by Katrina Kaif), who is in her 30s.

After leaving the restaurant, Albert goes to a movie theater by himself to see “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” And what a coincidence: The woman and the child are there too, in the row right behind him. The girl has a teddy bear with her.

Albert strikes up a polite conversation with the woman, who asks Albert to watch the teddy bear while she takes her daughter to the restroom. When they come back, Albert buys popcporn for the woman and the child, who both seem grateful for his generosity. Albert notices that the girl is mute.

After the movie ends, Albert joins the woman and her child outside and continues to talk to them. The woman doesn’t tell Albert until much later that her name is Maria, but she introduces the girl as her daughter Annie (played by Pari Maheshwari Sharma, also known as Pari Sharma), who is polite but getting very sleepy.

Maria invites Albert back to her home, which is an apartment above Jupiter Bakery, a business that Maria says is owned by her family. Maria and Albert seem attracted to each the more that they talk. Maria tells Albert up front that she is married, but she says it’s an unhappy marriage because her husband Jerome (played by Luke Kenny) is frequently away from home and is unfaithful to her. Maria says that Jerome is currently away in Vikram Colony and is probably cheating on her with a woman there.

Maria tells Albert she feels like a single mother and that her night out at the restaurant was supposed to be a “revenge date” to get back at Jerome for being an unfaithful husband. Maria later tells Albert that Jerome is a drug addict who’s been acting like a “psycho.” Maria believes that Jerome is the reason why Annie went from being an outgoing and talkative child to be being withdrawn and mute.

Albert opens up about his personal life to Maria. He tells her that he’s had his heart broken by a doomed loved affair with a woman named Rosie, who was his boss’ wife. Albert had planned to marry Rosie and bought an engagement ring for the proposal. The affair ended when Rosie decided to stay with her husband. Rosie died about seven years ago. Albert left the area around that same time.

Maria and Albert drink some wine and dance together. Annie is fast asleep in her room, so Maria locks up the home and walks around the city with Albert, where they talk some more about their lives. They eventually stop by his place. The attraction between them has become too strong to ignore, and they almost kiss each other.

However, Maria looks like she feels guilty and she walks away. She tells Albert that she should be getting home because she doesn’t want Annie to be by herself for too long. Albert says he’ll escort her back to her place.

But when they go back to the apartment, they see a shocking sight: The dead body of Jerome is sitting in a chair, with a gunshot wound on the left side his chest. He is also holding a gun in his right hand. Was it suicide or murder?

Albert doesn’t want to stick around to find out. Maria quickly checks to see where Annie is and finds that Annie is still sound asleep in her room. As Maria starts to call the police, Albert panics and tells her that he’s going leave before the police arrive, because his presence will make things look suspicious. Albert also uses a handkerchief to wipe his fingerprints off of anything he might have touched in the apartment.

The rest of “Merry Christmas” unpeels the layers of this story in very suspenseful ways. A married stranger named Ronnie Fernandes gets involved in this tangled web when he meets a distraught Maria. Sanjay Kapoor portrays Ronnie in the Hindi-language version of the film. Kavin Jay Babu portrays Ronnie in the Tamil-language version of the film.

“Merry Christmas” blurs the lines in what can be considered a “villain” in this story. There are situations that arise that are intended for viewers to wonder: “Is this a good person doing a bad thing, or is this a bad person doing a good thing?” Sethupathi and Kaith give very effective and believable performances that will keep viewers guessing. Along with the movie’s well-paced screenplay and skillful direction, “Merry Christmas” should satisfy fans of movie mysteries that deliver plenty of intrigue.

Pen Marudhar Entertainment released “Merry Christmas” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on January 12, 2024.

Review: ‘Bubblegum’ (2023), starring Roshan Kanakala and Manasa Chowdary

January 11, 2024

by Carla Hay

Roshan Kanakala and Manasa Chowdary in “Bubblegum” (Photo by Varnikha Visuals)

“Bubblegum” (2023)

Directed by Rajkumar Hirani

Telugu with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Hyderabad, India, the dramatic film “Bubblegum” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An aspiring nightclub/party DJ from a working-class family has a romance with a wealthy aspiring fashion designer, but their relationship is plagued by insecurities over their class differences and jealousy over real or imagined love rivals.

Culture Audience: “Bubblegum” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a sprawling love story that has emotionally realistic portrayals of the ups and downs of a youthful romance.

Manasa Chowdary and Roshan Kanakala in “Bubblegum” (Photo by Varnikha Visuals)

In a world where movies about romance usually have an easy and obvious conclusion, Bubblegum is a drama that’s commendable for being an engaging story with an unpredictable ending. The screenplay, cinematography and music are the movie’s best qualities. Even though “Bubblegum” has some melodrama (including some over-the-top fight scenes and epic musical numbers), it’s an emotionally authentic depiction of young love at a time when most people are starting to figure out what they want to do with their lives.

Directed by Ravikanth Perepu, “Bubblegum” takes place in Hyderabad, India, during one year in the lives of two young people who fall passionately in love with each other. Perepu co-wrote the “Bubblegum” screenplay with Vishnu Kondur and Seri-Ganni. The movie has some comedic and light-hearted moments, but most of the story is about the intense highs and lows of these two lovers.

Aditya, nicknamed Adi (played by Roshan Kanakala), is a 22-year-old aspiring DJ who lives with his parents. Adi does some part-time work as a DJ at nightclubs and parties, but his goal is to become a full-time professional DJ and a recording artist who makes original music. In the meantime, Adi works at a butcher meat shop (which sells mostly chicken), a small business that’s owned and operated by his father (played by Chaitu Jonnalagadda), who frequently scolds Adi about Adi’s dream to become a successful DJ.

Adi likes to sleep later than most people (especially when he’s had a late night working as a DJ), but Adi’s father sees it as Adi being lazy. Adi’s father only employs Adi at the meat shop to let Adi earn some extra money, but he can see that Adi isn’t very good at this job because Adi isn’t passionate about it. In an early scene in the movie, Adi’s father tells him to do something “useful” with his life, and then later says, “I’m giving you six months to find a proper job.” Adi’s homemaker mother (played by Bindu Chandramouli) is much more supportive of Adi pursuing his dream, and she urges her husband not to be so judgmental of Adi.

Adi has two sidekick friends who are some of the movie’s comic relief: Asif (played by Kiran Macha) and Bujji (played by Anannyaa Akulaa), who sometimes join Adi in getting into mischief fights with other guys. The movie opens with one of these fight scenes, where Adi gets into a brawl with a local bully named Wasim, who ends up breaking Adi’s boombox during this melee. Another guy named Sankranth (played by Harsha Chemudu), who is on the fringes of Adi’s clique, is often treated like a weird nerd when he tries to get closer to this tight-knit trio.

One night, Adi is DJ’ing at a local nightspot when he sees the woman who will become his girlfriend. Her name is Jhanvi (played by Manasa Chowdary), who is also 22 years old. Jhanvi and Adi make eye contact with each other. The attraction is immediate, but Adi gets into an embarrassing situation when his DJ set suddenly ends because an electrical short circuit makes his turntable malfunction.

Jhanvi comes from a wealthy family. Her parents, who are progressive liberals, have been an unmarried couple for 25 years. Jhanvi’s father (played by Harsh Vardhan) is some type of business mogul. Jhanvi’s mother (played by Anu Hasan) is very educated and operates a yoga retreat in Goa. They both support Jhanvi’s dream to become a fashion designer. In the beginning of the movie, Jhanvi finds out that she’s been accepted into two fashion design schools: one in the Italian city of Milan, and the other in Turkey. She chooses to accept the enrollment at the school in Turkey, because it’s closer to India.

Adi and Jhanvi see each other again when she’s at a party where he’s the DJ. This time, she strikes up a conversation with him by complimenting him on his DJ skills. After the party, Adi and Jhanvi see each other outdoors at a nearby park and talk some more. They tell each other a little bit about their families and backgrounds. He correctly guesses that she’s a fashion student because of her fashion sense. Before they say good night, Jhanvi kisses Adi. It’s the beginning of their topsy-turvy romance.

The rest of “Bubblegum” shows what happens as Jhanvi and Adi try to maintain their romance during several obstacles and struggles. The differences in their family backgrounds become a strain on their relationship, especially when Adi is made to feel ashamed by certain people because Jhanvi has a lot more money than he does and has been buying him high-priced gifts. Jhanvi and Adi have other differences in their lifestyles: She’s a strict vegan, while he’s an enthusiastic meat eater. There’s also the matter about how Adi and Jhanvi are going to handle Jhanvi moving to Turkey for fashion school.

Jealousy also factors into their relationship problems. Jhanvi has an ex-boyfriend named Joel (played by “Bubblegum” co-writer Kondur), a rich ne’er-do-well, who makes Adi feel very insecure about himself because Joel is wealthy. Jhanvi broke up with Joel because he cheated on her, but Adi still worries that Jhanvi might get back together with Joel for caste reasons. Meanwhile, Jhanvi finds out in the worst way possible that her best friend Tharan (played by Anu Hasan) is attracted to Adi.

There are some moments in the movie that look like a soap opera, but not in the worst ways. A few scenes are overacted (especially the scenes where someone flies into a jealous rage), but the cast members handle their performances well, for the most part. In portraying “opposite attract” lovers, Kanakala and Chowdary have believable chemistry together, which is crucial for viewers to be interested in caring about what happens to Adi and Jhanvi. The movie also explores some of the gender double standards in relationships, when it comes sexist expectations that men should be the “dominant” partner in a male-female romance and should be the one who makes more money.

The scenes taking place at nightclubs and parties are electrifying and can easily convince viewers why this atmosphere is intoxicating for Jhanvi and Adi during their romance. Suresh Ragutu’s cinematography excels during these scenes. Sricharan Pakala’s musical score (a lot of electronic dance music and hip-hop) is a memorable and catchy backdrop that’s the perfect complement to this energetic movie. The movie’s soundtrack is also well-suited for the story. The anthemic “Izzat” (written by Pakala and performed by MC Hari featuring “Bubblegum” star Kanakala) is the obvious standout song, since it’s in pivotal scenes.

At one point in the movie, viewers find out why the film’s title is “Bubblegum.” Asif tells Adi and Bujji: “Love is like bubblegum. It’s sweet, and then it sticks.” Just like its namesake, this “Bubblegum” movie could easily be perceived as being lightweight and disposable, but it’s also enjoyable and it can stick in a viewer’s memory in a good way.

Varnikha Visuals released “Bubblegum” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on December 29, 2023.

Review: ‘Dunki,’ starring Shah Rukh Khan, Taapsee Pannu, Vicky Kaushal and Boman Irani

January 7, 2024

by Carla Hay

Anil Grover, Taapsee Pannu, Shah Rukh Khan, Vicky Kaushal and Vikram Kochhar in “Dunki” (Photo courtesy of Yash Raj Films)

“Dunki”

Directed by Rajkumar Hirani

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1995 to 2020, in Asia and in Europe, the comedy/drama film “Dunki” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A group of friends from India have various experiences in their efforts to illegally immigrate to the United Kingdom.

Culture Audience: “Dunki” will appeal primarily to people who are fans the movie’s headliners and comedy/drama films that cover social issues in ways that are often awkward.

Boman Irani in “Dunki” (Photo courtesy of Yash Raj Films)

“Dunki” clumsily mixes absurdist comedy with preachy drama in making statements about the dangers of undocumented immigration. Every time a serious life-threatening situation is depicted, the movie then throws in silly jokes for some cheap laughs. These awkward tonal shifts dilute the movie’s intentions more often than not, although the cast members try hard to keep a balance in this erratic film.

Directed by Rajkumar Hirani, “Dunki” has a title that refers to India’s Punjab term “donkey flight,” which is a way to illegally immigrate to other countries—usually Western countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. Hirani co-wrote the “Dunki” screenplay with Abhijat Joshi and Kanika Dhillon. “Dunki,” whose story spans about 25 years, is about the shenanigans of a group of friends who go through various trials and tribulations as “dunki” immigrants who are desperate to move to London. None of the “Dunki” cast members gives a particularly impressive performance.

“Dunki” begins in 2020. Manu Randhawa (played by Taapsee Pannu), a woman in her 50s, is in a wheelchair at a London hospital. She bribes a hospital orderly to wheel her out of the hospital because she’s not supposed to be discharged from the hospital yet. As soon as Manu leaves the hospital, she gets out of the wheelchair and goes to the office of immigration attorney Puru Patel (played by Deven Bhojani), who knows her from interactions with her 25 years earlier in 1995.

Manu begs Puru to find a way to get a visa for her to go back to India (she’s a native of Punjab), but Puru says Manu is not allowed to go back to India. Puru tells Manu that Dubai is the nation closest to India where she can get a visa. Manu isn’t happy about these circumstances, but she accepts the visa to Dubai. It’s explained later in the movie why Manu was in a hospital and why she can’t go back to India.

When Manu is Puru’s office, she makes a phone call to Hardayal “Hardy” Singh Dhillon (played by Shah Rukh Khan), a man she fell in love with when she met him in 1995. Hardy is in Punjab, where he is in the middle of a foot race at a racing track when he gets the call from Manu. She jokingly refers to herself as Hardy’s wife and says she needs to tell him something important in person, but he has to meet her in Dubai, becase she can’t get a visa to go to India.

Hardy is curious and delighted to hear from Manu, so he agrees to Manu’s invitation to go to Dubai. Manu makes arrangements with Puru for her two longtime friends Balli Kakkad (played by Anil Grover) and Balindar “Buggu” Lakhanpal (played by Vikram Kochhar), who also live in London, to also get visas to Dubai, so that these two pals can accompany her on the trip. Balli and Buggu work together in a clothing shop called Punjab Tailors.

Before “Dunki” shows this trip toward the end of the movie, most of the film switches to a flashback to 1995. At the time, Manu, Balli and Buggu were all in their mid-20s, financially struggling, and yearning for a better life, which they believe they have a better chance of achieving in London. The problem is that their chances of being legally approved for a visa are very low because they are poor and uneducated.

Manu is an underappreciated cook and server at a local casual eatery, where her specialty is making parathas. She’s miserable in her job, mainly because her boss Bobby Dhaba (played by Piyush Raina) is an egotistical jerk. Balli is a barber who lacks confidence in a lot of areas in his life. Buggu is a sales clerk at a clothing shop, who is a “mama’s boy” at home. In the minds of all three friends, London is like a “promised land” where their dreams can be fulfilled.

Through a series of circumstances, the three friends end up in the office of Puru, who was based in India at the time. Puru is an attorney who uses shady business practices to exploit desperate people who want quick visas. He thinks up deceptive schemes for his clients to tell lies in order to get visas.

Puru says Balli can get a spouse visa by marrying a British citizen who’s a drug addict and willing to marry an immigrant stranger for money. Puru says Buggu can get a business visa, based on Buggu’s very limited business knowledge of working in retail. Puru says Manu can get a sports visa, even though she has no real athletic skills. Puru comes up with the idea to pretend that Manu is a track runner.

It just so happens that Manu meets Hardy around the same time she’s planning to get a visa under false pretenses. Hardy visits the home of Manu’s family, where she lives with her parents (played by Manoj Kant and Amardeep Jha) and other family members. Hardy has arrived in town because he was in combat with Manu’s older brother Mahinder (played by Suhail Zargar, shown in a flashback) and wants to return some items that belong to Mahinder.

However, Hardy is shocked and dismayed to find out that Mahinder died in a car accident and has left behind a widow and a son. Manu’s family has fallen on hard times in other ways. The family went into debt to a loan shark, who has now seized ownership of the family’s home.

The main reason why Manu wants to move to London is to make enough money to send back to her family so that they can buy back the family house. Manu tells Hardy all about this sob story, as well as the visa scheme to pretend that she’s a track runner. Hardy agrees to be her coach and then gets involved in the plans to immigrate to London with Manu, Balli and Buggu.

One of the more frustrating things about “Dunki” is that it’s a 161-minute movie that wastes a lot of screen time by cramming in a lot of subplots, some of which are abandoned for another distracting subplot. The subplot about Manu’s charade as an athlete is ditched for a fairly long stretch of the movie where Hardy, Manu, Balli and Buggu enroll in an English-language class, which is required for them to get their visas to the United Kingdom.

In this English-language class, they befriend a neurotic man named Sukhi (played by Vicky Kaushal), who wants to move to London to save his ex-girlfriend Jassi, who is married to an abusive man. The teacher of this English-language class is a pompous buffoon named Geetendar “Geetu” Gulati (played by Boman Irani), who treats his students in a very condescending manner. He also has contempt for his students, because he thinks that most of them are planning to do something illegal or dishonest to get visas.

The movie’s running joke for these classroom scenes is that Geetu is fixated on teaching the students how to say in English: “I want to use the lavatory.” This joke runs out of steam quickly, but it’s repeated to the point of annoyance in “Dunki.” However, a highlight of these classroom scenes is when Sukhi gives a very funny monologue to prove he’s learned a lot more English than Geetu thinks he has.

The sprawling and frequently disjointed story in “Dunki” shows the undocumented immigrant pals going to various countries in Asia and Europe in their quest to get to London. Along the way, a lot of dark and depressing things happen, such as suicide, murder, and the constant threat of being in violent danger during this journey. The movie also shows grim statistics and real news photos about deaths that can happen to people who immigrate to countries through illegal means.

“Dunki” is a very off-putting mess that goes back-and-forth between showing all of this harsh gloom and then switching to idiotic slapstick comedy in ridiculous scenarios. It diminishes the real-life immigrant suffering that the movie is trying to convey. At one point, the plight of refugees seeking asylum becomes a part of the story. And that’s when the movie really goes downhill and never recovers.

“Dunki” has lot of subtle and not-so-subtle preaching that visas are a form of class discrimination. However, this argument is very warped in the movie in how it tries to equate the living conditions that Hardy, Manu, Balli and Buggu want to leave in India to the living conditions of refugees who are fleeing their homelands because their lives are in danger. The fact of the matter is that Hardy, Manu, Balli and Buggu are not even close to being refugees who are fleeing from life-threatening danger in their homeland. The main motivation that Hardy, Manu, Balli and Buggu have to leave India and move to London is to make more money.

“Dunki” also wants to condemn the people who exploit desperate undocumented immigrants, but this condemnation is also mishandled by presenting all of these exploiters (such as a corrupt attorneys or human trafficking smugglers) as cartoonish characters. In “Dunki,” immigration officials are also caricatures, who are usually depicted as hateful bigots or completely incompetent. And ultimately, “Dunki” is insulting to the protagonists that the movie claims to be rooting for, by making these protagonists look very dimwitted.

The movie spends so much time not being able to make up its mind on whether to be a wacky misadventure or a cautionary tale, it treats the love story of Hardy and Manu almost like an afterthought. There isn’t much in “Dunki” to convince viewers that Hardy and Manu should be together, especially when they see each other in middle age and play immature and deceptive games with each other about their marital status. If you think that “Dunki” will be a clever satire of immigration problems, then look elsewhere, because “Dunki” is not that movie.

Yash Raj Films released “Dunki” in select U.S. cinemas on December 21, 2023, the same date that the movie was released in India.

Review: ‘Salaar: Part 1 – Ceasefire,’ starring Prabhas and Prithviraj Sukumaran

January 5, 2024

by Carla Hay

Prabhas and Prithviraj Sukumaran in “Salaar: Part 1 – Ceasefire” (Photo courtesy of Hombale Films)

“Salaar: Part 1 – Ceasefire”

Directed by Prashanth Neel

Telugu with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from the 1127 to 2010, in India, in the United States, and in the fictional kingdom of Khansaar, the action film “Salaar: Part 1 – Ceasefire” features an Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two best friends, who were separated in childhood because of the social-class conflicts instigated by the father of one of the friends, reunite as adults in an international battle over Khansaar that has been raging for centuries.

Culture Audience: “Salaar: Part 1 – Ceasefire” will appeal primarily to people who are fans the movie’s headliners and action movies about power struggles and tribal feuds.

Shruti Haasan in “Salaar: Part 1 – Ceasefire” (Photo courtesy of Hombale Films)

Two best friends since childhood have their friendship tested, are estranged for a period of time, and eventually join forces in an international conflict over the control of a South Asian nation. It sounds a lot like 2022’s blockbuster hit “RRR,” but it’s not. “Salaar: Part 1 – Ceasefire” is not as fun to watch as “RRR,” but it’s got plenty of action and intrigue in this saga about two best friends caught up in personal and political power struggles. The plot gets convoluted, but the movie is packed with thrills.

Written and directed by Prashanth Neel, the story in “Salaar: Part 1 – Ceasefire” takes place over several centuries, beginning in the year 1127. Most of the action happens in the 20th century and 21st century in India, in the adjacent fictional kingdom Khansaar, and briefly in the United States. There’s a lot of jumping around in the timeline because of flashbacks.

The movie’s opening scene takes place in the year 1985, when best friends Devaratha “Deva” Shouryanga Raisaar (played by Videsh Anand) and Vardharaja “Vardha” Raja Mannar (played by Karthikeya Dev), who are both 10 years old, are living in Khansaar. Vardha’s cruel father Raja Mannar (played by Jagapathi Babu) is the leader of Khansaar and came to power by killing the previous king massacring an entire tribe of people.

Vardha has an older stepbrother named Rudra Raja Mannar (played by Harsh Roshan), from Raja’s previous marriage, who is in possession on a nose ring that can only be worn by rightful heirs to the Khansaar. Rudra tells Deva that in order for Vardha to get the nose ring, Deva must fight an adult man in a boxing ring. It’s set up to be an unfair fight, but Deva wins through some clever strategic moves, although he is badly wounded in the fight.

Rudra reluctantly gives Vardha the nose ring, but Deva and his parents are punished by being banished from Khansaar by Raja. The two friends are separated for years, but Deva vows to stay loyal to Vardha. They don’t see each other again until 2010, when they are both about 35 years old. Their reunion is not spoiler information, since it’s shown in the trailers for “Salaar: Part 1 – Ceasefire.”

The adult Deva, who is nicknamed Salaar (played by Prabhas) has become a fearless mercenary. The adult Vardha (played by Prithviraj Sukumaran) is a power struggle with Rudra (played as an adult by Ramachandra Raju) and older step-sister Radha Rama Mannar (played by Sriya Reddy). There’s also a subplot with a wealthy heiress named Aadhya Krishnakanth (played by Shruti Haasan), who escapes an attempted kidnapping by hiding out as a teacher at the middle school where Deva’s wdowed mother (playing by Easwari Rao) is the principal. Guess who’s going to be Deva’s love interest?

“Salaar: Part 1 – Ceasefire” doesn’t do anything surprising, and the acting performances are adequate. Where the movie stands out the most are in the action sequences, which are typically bonbastic and over-the-top, but are filmed in a way that is more artistic than the typical action film. There’s a very memorable sequence with Deva and machetes that is one of the more innovative aspects of the film. Viewers who can tolerate all bloody violence and the jumbled machinations involving several tribes and armies will find “Salaar: Part 1 – Ceasefire” an entertaining action film.

Hombale Films released “Salaar: Part 1 – Ceasefire” in U.S. cinemas and in India on December 22, 2023.

Review: ‘Hi Nanna,’ starring Nani, Mrunal Thakur and Kiara Khanna

December 31, 2023

by Carla Hay

Kiara Khanna and Nani in “Hi Nanna” (Photo courtesy of Vyra Entertainments)

“Hi Nanna”

Directed by Shouryuv

Telugu with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Indian cities of Mumbai and Coonoor, the dramatic film “Hi Nanan” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A single father tells his 6-year-old daughter the story of what happened to her mother, after the daughter’s life is saved by a woman who insists that he tell the story.

Culture Audience: “Hi Nanna” will appeal primarily to people who are fans the movie’s headliners and are interested in watching intriguing movies about how family members cope with separations.

Mrunal Thakur and Shilpa Tulaskar in “Hi Nanna” (Photo courtesy of Vyra Entertainments)

“Hi Nanna” requires some suspension of disbelief in this frequently melodramatic story about the mystery of a mother separated from her family. However, at the center of the film is what makes it shine: a sweet and compelling tale of long-lasting love. It’s by no means a groundbreaking film but it’s an enjoyable movie for viewers who like movies about people who could be reunited with family members.

“Hi Nanna” (which means “Hi Dad” in Telugu) is the feature-film debut of director Shouryuv, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Bhanu Dheeraj Rayudu, Vasanth Sameer and Pinnamaraju. In the city of Mumbai, India, a successful fashion photographer named Viraj (played by Nani) is a single father who has a very close bond with his intelligent and adorable 6-year-old daughter Mahi (played by Kiara Khanna), who says that Viraj is her best friend. Viraj is a kind and patient parent, but there’s one thing that gets him upset: when Mahi asks him to tell her the story about what happened to her mother.

For as a long as possible, Viraj has been postponed telling Mahi (who has cystic fibrosis) the story of what happened to her mother. But now that Mahi is 6, she is old enough to keep asking questions and wanting answers. At school, she is the subject of gossip because of her absentee mother. Viraj promised Mahi that he would tell her the entire story if her grades at school are good enough for Mahi to be at the top of her class in academics.

Mahi achieves that goal, but when she tells Viraj and shows him her academic grades, he once again delays telling her the whole story, by saying that he’s too tired and will tell her later. Mahi and Viraj have an argument. The next morning, Viraj sees that Mahi is missing with their Golden Retriever dog Pluto. Viraj correctly assumes that Mahi has run away from home, so he frantically goes looking for her.

That morning, Mahi is walking with Pluto on a street. The dog breaks free of its leash and runs into traffic. Mahi runs after the dog and is nearly hit by a truck. But just at that moment, a woman in her late 20s or early 30s saves Mahi’s life. The dog has avoided getting hit and also safe.

The woman introduces herself as Varsha (played by Mrunal Thakur), who asks Mai where her parents are. Mahi tells Varsha why she ran away from home. Varsha is sympathetic but says that Mahi’s father has to be contacted to take Mahi home. Mahi gives Varsha the name and phone number of Viraj. Varsha takes Mahi to a nearby restaurant while they wait for him.

When Viraj shows up, he is relieved to see Mahi but seems a little caught off-guard and annoyed when he sees Varsha and finds out that Mahi has told Varsha about their family issues. Varsha insists that Mahi cannot leave with Viraj until Viraj tells Mahi the entire story of Mahi’s mother. Mahi thinks this woman is being very annoying and intrusive, but he complies with her demand because he doesn’t want to upset Mahi any more.

The rest of “Hi Nanna” alternates between showing flashbacks of Viraj’s volatile romance with Mahi’s mother and the present day. Varsha and Mahi have an instant connection, so tey start to become friends. The more time that Varsha spends with Mahi and Viraj, the more she starts to love them and they begin to feel like a family.

Viraj finds himself falling in love with Varsha, but there’s a big problem: She’s already engaged to marry a physician named Dr. Aravind (played by Angad Bedi), with the wedding happening in the near future. Varsha’s overbearing parents (played by Shilpa Tulaskar and Jayaram) approve of this arranged marriage. They think Dr. Avarind would make a more suitable husband for Varsha than Viraj.

The mystery of who and where Mahi’s mother is becomes very easy to solve when this mother is seen in flashbacks. However, the answers to why she is not in Mahi’s life happen much later in the film. It’s enough to say that there’s a very soap-opera-like explanation that is very far-fetched but not beyond the realm of possibility to happen in real life.

The cast members in “Hi Nanna” give very good (but not outstanding) performances. Khanna is a talented actress who can convey convincing emotions without the forced phoniness that makes many child performances very irritating. “Hi Nanna” also has admirable portrayals of a single father taking care of an underage daughter that aren’t often seen in most family-oriented movies. “Hi Nanna” has some heartbreak, but it’s overshadowed by the movie’s heartwarming qualities.

Vyra Entertainments released “Hi Nanna” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on December 7, 2023. Netflix will premiere the movie on January 4, 2023.

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