Review: ‘The Family Star,’ starring Vijay Deverakonda and Mrunal Thakur

April 7, 2024

by Carla Hay

Vijay Deverakonda and Mrunal Thakur in “The Family Star” (Photo courtesy of Sarigama Cinemas)

“The Family Star”

Directed by Parasuram

Telugu with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Hyderabad, India, and in New York City, the comedy/drama film “The Family Star” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A workaholic architect, who is the main financial caretaker for his large family, physically beats people up in various circumstances and has a volatile relationship with a woman who becomes his tenant. 

Culture Audience: “The Family Star” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and stupid movies with egotistical main characters.

Vijay Deverakonda and Vennela Kishore in “The Family Star” (Photo courtesy of Sarigama Cinemas)

“The Family Star” is a disgusting glorification of toxic masculinity. This horrible movie excuses the arrogant protagonist’s physical abuse of his love interest. The film’s messy tone goes from melodrama in the first half to wretched comedy in the second half. “The Family Star” is a shameful and shoddy waste of time and has the putrid gall to literally describe the abusive main character as a “superhero” multiple times in the movie. It shows an appalling and warped attitude about what it means to be a decent and respectful human being.

Written and directed by Parasuram, “The Family Star” has a total runtime (about 159 minutes) that is as bloated as the protagonist’s ego. “The Family Star” has an unrelenting materialistic message that a man is a “hero” if he provides gifts and financial security to his loved ones. The problem is that the movie’s protagonist does a lot of things to show that he’s definitely not a hero: He physically beats up people in business deals. He cruelly slaps his love interest very hard in the face because she described him as financially struggling. He is obsessively controlling over who can spend money on his family. The movie’s fight scenes are over-the-top idiotic because the central character has superhuman strength with no explanation.

In “The Family Star,” the jerk who is grossly elevated to “superhero” status is Govardhan (played by Vijay Deverakonda), a 25-year-old bachelor architect who financially supports several family members who live with him in Hyderabad, India. The family members are his grandmother, his two older brothers, his brothers’ wives, his two nephews and three nieces. The children’s ages range from about 5 to 11 years old. Almost all of these relatives of Govardhan do not have names in the movie, which is the movie’s way of saying that Govardhan is the only family member who matters the most in this trashy story.

Govardhan’s grandmother (played by Rohini Hattangadi) tells Govardhan that he needs to get married so that he doesn’t have to carry the burden of taking care of his brothers’ families. One of Govardhan’s brothers (played by Ravi Prakash) is an unemployed alcoholic. The other brother (played by Raja Chembolu) has a struggling business and is heavily in debt. The brothers’ wives (played by Vasuki Anand and Abhinaya) are passive and mainly react to whatever Govardhan does.

It’s mentioned several times in the movie that whenever something needs fixing in the household, Govardhan takes care of everything. He also helps with grocery shopping and cooking. “The Family Star” keeps trying to make Govardhan look like he’s caring and responsible. And there are times he can be affectionate to his family members. But the reality is that he uses his “head of household” status as a way to manipulate and control his family and other people in his life. He also has a nasty temper and often verbally lashes out at people, including his family members.

Govardhan is obsessed with social class status and being upwardly mobile. He is middle-class, but he wants to be thought of as “upper middle-class.” Throughout “The Family Star,” it’s pretty clear that Govardhan is on an ego trip about being the family “breadwinner,” and he likes feeling superior to everyone in the household. Govardhan also likes to make his family members feel guilty that he’s their main source of financial support. He takes advantage of that guilt by acting like a dictator to his family. He also likes using his “breadwinner” position as a way to boost his public image, so that people can admire him for being such a “great” family man.

At Govardhan’s office job, an attractive female co-worker (played by Divyansha Kaushik), who’s about the same age as Govardhan, seems to be in love with Govardhan. She has proposed marriage to him several times, but he has rejected her proposals every time. (These marriage proposals are not shown in the movie, but they are mentioned in conversations.) Govardhan smugly tells her that he’s too caught up in his family’s problems and responsibilities to get married.

“The Family Star” is so stupid, there’s a scene early in the movie where Govardhan does a business pitch in a meeting for one of his ridiculous architectural designs. His design is a three-bedroom household that is only 600 square feet. Govardhan says that people who are psychologically happy with this small living space won’t complain. However, it’s obvious that the real size problem is Govardhan’s small mind.

Govardhan has a penthouse that he barely uses. This penthouse is next to the place where Govardhan lives with his family. The penthouse is being rented by a wealthy young woman named Indu (played by Mrunal Thakur), who is a graduate student at Central University. A flashback shows that before Indu rented the place, she was warned that Govardhan is very protective of his family and doesn’t want his family’s privacy to be disturbed. She decided to rent the place anyway.

Govardhan doesn’t really like a stranger living on his property. He has told his grandmother that he’s going to tell Indu to leave. However, Govardhan has been postponing this eviction conversation with Indu for two reasons: First, he doesn’t really want give up the rent money he’s getting from Indu, who makes sure that Govardhan sees that she carries large wads of cash. Second, Govardhan is infatuated with Indu, but he doesn’t want to admit it to anyone yet.

Govardhan is such a control freak, he tells Indu that she can’t buy delivery meals because the kids in the household will want the same meals when they see the meals being delivered. Govardhan orders Indu to only have meals that she can cook in her own home, or else she can go out somewhere else to eat instead. Indu tells Govardhan that if the kids request certain things to eat, there’s nothing wrong with agreeing to their requests. Govardhan strongly disagrees.

The real issue for Govardhan is that Indu has been trying to befriend the women and children in the household. She is kind to them and often gives them gifts. Govardhan is insecure and feels threatened that Indu (who has a lot more money than he does) will be more respected than he is by his family members.

One day, Indu treats the women and children to a party dinner at a shopping mall’s food court. They all have a good time. But when Govardhan finds out, he has a temper tantrum and orders his family members to stay away from Indu. Meanwhile, Indu sees and hears Govardhan go on this rant, and she feels insulted, but she eventually forgives Govardhan, and they start dating each other.

“The Family Star” is an annoying, tedious mishmash showing the ups and downs of the relationship between Govardhan and Indu. It’s a repetitive loop of Govardhan doing something wrong, Indu getting upset and distancing herself from him, and then she eventually goes back to him. It’s the movie’s terrible attempt to make a co-dependent, abusive relationship look romantic.

The scene where Govardhan slaps Indu on the face happens in front of several of her university colleagues. This slap was not done in self-defense. Govardhan slapped Indu because he was angry that Indu did an academic report where she truthfully described Govardhan as having financial problems. What makes the scene even more heinous is that no one says or does anything about this physical assault, which is a crime where the attacker should be held accountable. However, “The Family Star” makes this physical abuse look acceptable and eventually acts like the slap never even happened.

The movie’s not-funny-at all attempts at comedy, especially in the second half of the film, have no imagination and just regurgitate things that have been seen and done in so many other romantic comedies where a rich woman is being courted by a man who is not wealthy. In this part of the movie, Indu’s student lifestyle completely disappears and turns into something else that involves Indu’s business mogul father (played by Jagapathi Babu) and one of his hapless employees named Samarth (played by Vennela Kishore), who is ordered to spend time with Govardhan, for reasons that are explained in this garbage movie.

“Family Star” has a pathetic “battles of the sexes” storyline that’s phony and unappealing. All of the acting performances in “The Family Star” are mediocre or substandard. The musical numbers are unimpressive. Everything about “The Family Star” is creatively bankrupt, so it deserves to be the flop that it is.

Review: ‘Monkey Man’ (2024), starring Dev Patel

April 5, 2024

by Carla Hay

Dev Patel in “Monkey Man” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Monkey Man” (2024)

Directed by Dev Patel

Some language in Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India, the action film “Monkey Man” (inspired by the legend of monkey deity Hanuman) features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An anonymous man goes undercover at a social club catering to corrupt leaders, in order to get revenge on the people responsible for massacring his village (including his mother) when he was a child. 

Culture Audience: “Monkey Man” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker/star Dev Patel and high-octane, stylish action movies with good acting.

Dev Patel in “Monkey Man” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Monkey Man” proudly shows influences from the “John Wick” movie series and classic Asian action flicks. As a star and filmmaker, Dev Patel gives the stylish “Monkey Man” the type of soul that sets it apart from most other violent revenge movies. “Monkey Man” doesn’t do anything particularly groundbreaking with its story, but the movie has a passion and a socioeconomic consciousness that make it a film that has a lot to say about vigilante justice.

Patel (who is best known as an actor) wrote and directed “Monkey Man,” which is his feature-film directorial debut. He is also one of the producers “Monkey Man,” which takes place primarily in the fictional city of Yatana, India. (“Monkey Man” was filmed mostly in Batam, Indonesia.) The movie takes a bleak view of society as a dangerous place where police and other law enforcement can’t be trusted to give justice because too many of them are corrupt.

“Monkey Man” is a simple story of an unnamed man (played by Patel), listed as Kid in the film’s end credits, who is out to get revenge on the people responsible for the massacre of his village when Kid was about 8 or 9 years old. (Jatin Malik has the role of Kid as a child.) Kid’s compassionate single mother Neela (played by Adithi Kalkunte) was one of the people murdered. As shown in flashback, Neela was raped and killed by a ruthless police chief named Rana Singh (played by Sikandar Kher) while Kid was hiding in their home and witnessed this brutal murder.

Throughout “Monkey Man,” there are flashbacks to the anonymous vigilante’s past that show snippets of information until this full picture emerges. One of his treasured childhood memories is his mother telling him the story of Hanuman, a heroic and powerful monkey deity. Viewers find out that he has the alias Bobby when he goes undercover as adult, because he uses a product called Bobby’s Powdered Bleach as a way to get revenge in a particular scene in the movie.

Kid makes money as an underpaid underground mixed-martial arts fighter who wears a monkey mask. However, he also gets a job as a dishwasher and then as a waiter at a secretive and elite social club called Kings Club, where powerful and corrupt leaders gather to indulge in a lot of decadence involving sex and drugs. Kings Club is essentially a brothel, where many of the sex workers are models or former beauty contestants.

Kid knows Rana is a regular customer at Kings Club, because of a Kings Club matchbook that Kid saw in Rana possession when Rana murdered his mother. Kid cons his way into getting a job at Kings Club by arranging for a pickpocket to steal the purse of Kings Club manager Queenie Kapoor (played by Ashwini Kalsekar), so that Kid can pretend to be do-gooder returning the purse to her. Instead of accepting Queenie’s gift of a cash reward, Kid tells her that he wants a “job that no one wants to do” at the club instead.

Queenie is a foul-mouthed, nasty-tempered boss who verbally abuses people, including her lackey gofer Alphonso (played by Pitobash), who is weasely, talkative and most of the movie’s comic relief. Alphonso has a black auto rickshaw (also known as a tuk-tuk) that he has nicknamed Nicki (after hop-hop star Nicki Minaj), because, as Alphonso describes the tuk-tuk: “Big bumper. Nice headlights.” Alphonso ends up being the closest person to get Kid’s trust at Kings Club.

Kid and a Kings Club sex worker named Sita (played by Sobhita Dhulipala) have a mutual attraction to each other, but Kid is too consumed by his vendetta to have time for any romance. Still, Kid and Sita exchange “what if” glances at each other to indicate that they are both thinking what would happen if they had met under different circumstances. Sita’s background information remains a mystery in the movie.

Other characters who are prominently featured in “Monkey Man” represent different aspects of the socioeconomic and class systems and how they are exploited to gain power. Baba Shakti (played Makarand Deshpande) is a world-famous spiritual guru who grew up in poverty but whose close association with many wealthy and powerful celebrities have made him wealthy and powerful too. Although he pretends to be about enlightenment and tolerance, Baba Shakti has endorsed the fictional Sovereign Party, which supports discrimination and persecution of minorities such as transgender people.

Someone who is a close ally of Baba Shakti is a Sovereign Party politician named Adesh Joshi (played by Vijay Kumar), who is currently running for an election. On a lesser level, Kid has conflicts with a sleazebag named Tiger (played by Sharlto Copley), the emcee at the underground fight club where Kid often takes a beating. Tiger takes pleasure in seeing Kid lose matches. Tiger also doesn’t pay Kid enough money if Tiger thinks Kid didn’t bleed enough in a match.

During the course of the story, Kid encounters a mystical guru named Alpha (played by Vipin Sharma), the leader of an androgynous “third-gender” tribe knows as the hijra. (A few of the scenes in “Monkey Man” are quite psychedelic.) The hijra people live in a cave, with the implication being that they feel safer in a cave than they do living amongst regular society because of the persecution they would experience as transgender or gender-fluid people.

“Monkey Man” fully acknowledges how much it’s inspired by the “John Wick” movies in a scene where Kid goes to an illegal gun dealer to buy a gun. The gun dealer offers to sell a TTI gun “just like in the first ‘John Wick’ movie,” he tells Kid. Kid declines this offer and says he wants a gun that is “small but effective,” so he ends up buying a small pistol. There’s also a cute dog that the hero takes care of briefly, just like there’s a cute dog briefly taken care of by the hero in the first “John Wick” movie. (The dog in “Monkey Man” is a stray and fortunately is not killed in the movie.)

The cinematography in “Monkey Man” is often frenetic and lit in various shades of neon. The movie also has montages that are edited almost like music videos. This style will be enjoyed by most viewers but disliked by others. “Monkey Man” has a lot of high-octane action and well-choreographed fight scenes that get very bloody and often require suspension of disbelief. But it’s in the hero’s quieter moments that viewers get more authenticity and a deeper understanding of him that will linger with viewers after the movie ends.

Universal Pictures released “Monkey Man” in U.S. cinemas on April 5, 2024. The movie will be released on VOD on April 23, 2024; on digital on June 11, 2024; and on Blu-ray, DVD and 4K Ultra HD on June 25, 2024.

Review: ‘Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life),’ starring Prithviraj Sukumaran

April 1, 2024

by Carla Hay

Prithviraj Sukumaran in “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” (Photo courtesy of Prithviraj Productions)

“Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)”

Directed by Blessy

Malayalam, Hindi and Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India and in Saudi Arabia, from 1993 to 1995, the dramatic film “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with one black person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A working-class man travels from India to Saudia Arabia, with the promise of finding temporary work, but he is instead kidnapped and forced to be an enslaved goat herder.

Culture Audience: “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Prithviraj Sukumaran and well-acted survival dramas and don’t mind watching three-hour movies that could have told the same story in two hours or less.

A scene from “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” (Photo courtesy of Prithviraj Productions)

“Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)”—an intense drama about an enslaved goat herder trapped in the Saudi Arabian desert—shows a lot of cruelty, desperation and hope. However, at nearly three hours, the movie is too long in telling this survival story. Some crucial details are missing, but the cinematography is stunning, and Prithviraj Sukumaran’s acting is above-average. Watching this movie is an endurance test that mostly succeeds in its intentions to be an inspirational story of human resilience.

Written and directed by Blessy, “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” is based on Benyamin’s 2008 novel “Aadujeevitham,” which is inspired by the real-life story of Najeeb Muhammad, an Indian man who was enslaved in Saudia Arabia for three years as a goat herder. It’s the same story presented in the movie, but with some exaggerations for dramatic purposes. For example, there’s a massive sandstorm scene that requires a suspension of disbelief when it’s shown that the survivors who were caught in the thick of the sandstorm ended up having no serious injuries.

“Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” is told in non-chronological order, from 1993 to 1995. There are several flashbacks showing Najeeb (played by Sukumaran) remembering how happy his life was before he was kidnapped and enslaved. These memories help preserve his sanity and give him the motivation to escape any way that he can so that he can get back to his home in Kerala, India. Because the outcome of this story is so well-known, there’s not much suspense over whether or not Najeeb will survive. People familiar or unfamiliar with the story might still be curious to see how Najeeb makes it through his brutal ordeal in the movie.

A series of flashbacks and present-day scenes in “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” show that before he was kidnapped and enslaved, Najeeb (who is in his late 30s) was living a lower-income but mostly contented personal life. He and his pregnant wife Sainu (played by Amala Paul) were living in the same household as Najeeb’s mother Ummah (played by Shobha Mohan), in peaceful and loving harmony. Sainu was far-enough along in her pregnancy for Sainu and her family to know that the unborn child is a boy.

A flashback shows that Najeeb’s personal life is going well, but he is struggling to find work. An acquaintance tells Najeeb that Najeeb that a laborer job in Saudi Arabia is recruiting Indians, who have to pay their own way to relocate to Saudi Arabia. (In real life, Muhammad was enticed to go to Saudia Arabia with the promise of being a salesperson at a grocery store.) Najeeb is initially skeptical because he doesn’t speak Arabic and he has only a fifth-grade education, which could affect his eligibility to get a work visa.

However, Najeeb is trusting and desperate for the salary that is supposedly being offered, so he takes out a mortgage on house to get the money to travel to Saudia Arabia. He plans to stay in Saudi Arabia only long enough to earn the money he needs and then return to India. His wife and mother are concerned about this risk, but they ultimately don’t ask a lot of questions, and they support Najeeb’s decision. A young man named Hakim (played by K. R. Gokul), who lives in the same area as Najeeb, travels with Najeeb for this same job opportunity.

What begins as an optimistic trip turns into a nightmarish trap. At the airport in Saudi Arabia, Najeeb and Hakim are approached by a man named Kafeel (played by Talib Al Balushi, also known as Talib), who says that he is their new employer. Najeeb and Hakim are ordered into the back of truck driven by Kafeel, who refuses to tell them where they are going and won’t let Najeeb and Hakim call their families. Najeeb and Hakim are assaulted and then separated from each other.

Najeeb soon finds out that Kafeel has kidnapped him and is forcing Najeeb to work as an unpaid goat herder in horrible conditions in the Saudi Arabian desert. Najeeb is frequently physically assaulted and starved during his enslavement. Najeeb is always being watched by Kafeel or one of Kafeel’s underlings, including Kafeel Jr. (played by Rik Aby), but Najeeb tries to escape a few times anyway. Najeeb is severely beaten when he is caught.

Most of “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” shows Najeeb’s suffering. And many times, it becomes very repetitive. There is no voiceover narration that tells viewers what Najeeb’s inner thoughts are throughout the movie. It’s the correct creative decision for this film. By not hearing his inner thoughts, the movie puts an emphasis on the loneliness and isolation that Najeeb feels. This absence of inner-thought narration also leaves it open for viewers to speculate what Najeeb might be thinking.

However, because there isn’t much talking in the film, it leads to monotonous stretches where there are too many scenes of Najeeb trudging pathetically through the desert with not much happening to further the story along. Thanks to the impressive cinematography of Sunil K.S. and the emotion-stirring musical score of A.R. Rahman (the Oscar-winning composer of 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire”), these filler scenes can maintain enough viewer interest, depending on how alert a viewer is when watching the movie. Some of the scenes are quite boring and can induce drowsiness.

Najeeb is compassionate to the goats he has to herd. And he gets somewhat emotionally attached to them as their caretaker. But he also knows that his freedom and going back home are his biggest concerns. Najeeb often feels helpless and trapped, because there is no one nearby who can help him. Najeeb’s family also doesn’t know where he is, since Kafeel has made sure that Najeeb does not have access to any outside communication.

A well-known part of this story (which isn’t spoiler information) is that after about two years in captivity, Najeeb gets a chance to escape when Kafeel leaves Najeeb alone and unsupervised because Kafeel will be out of the area for a few days to attend the wedding of Kafeel’s daughter. Najeeb is not only left alone, but he’s also left alone without being locked up anywhere. Considering how much Najeeb was under strict supervision and how Najeeb tried to escape before, it’s a lucky turn of events that would be hard to believe if it didn’t happen in real life.

However, “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” bungles this suspenseful part of the movie by showing Najeeb leaving in a way that doesn’t look very believable. He takes time to say goodbye to the nearby goats, but he doesn’t think about taking any of the goats with him in case he needs food or liquids. In fact, all he does before he leaves is bathe himself with some water, change his clothes, and say goodbye to the goats. He’s not shown taking any food or water with him.

Considering that Najeeb has had plenty of time to think about what he would do if he had a chance to escape, the way it’s depicted in the movie looks fabricated for drama, just so Najeeb’s escape will be harder than it needed to be. During this part of the movie, Najeeb gets help from an African immigrant named Ibrahim Khadiri (played by Jimmy Jean-Louis), who experiences starvation and dehydration with Najeeb. The movie makes it look like Najeeb and Ibrahim did not have any liquids for at least four days and not only survived but were also able to still walk through the desert in blistering heat.

There’s a huge gap in logic, because anyone with basic knowledge of human biology knows that people can survive for several days without food but not without liquids. “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” is not the movie to watch to get realistic information about how to survive in a desert for weeks with little to no food and water. At least the movie’s makeup and hairstyling are much more convincing in showing Najeeb’s physical transformation the longer he spends time trapped in the desert.

The ending of the film is somewhat abrupt and doesn’t quite have the payoff that many viewers might expect. And there’s almost nothing meaningful shown about the lives of people whom Najeeb meets in Saudi Arabia. Despite these very noticeable flaws in the movie, Sukumaran gives an emotionally credible performance that will keep viewers riveted for most of the story.

Most of the movie’s visual effects serve the story capably, but some of the visual effects are obviously fake. Although there’s a disclaimer saying that no humans or animals were harmed during the making of the movie, sensitive viewers should be warned that the movie has scenes of abuse and pain that might be too intense for some people to watch. At the very least, “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” could result in more viewers reading the book on which the movie is based to get more of the story that might not be in the film.

Prithviraj Productions released “Aadujeevitham (The Goat Life)” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on March 28, 2024.

Review: ‘Crew’ (2024), starring Tabu, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Kriti Sanon, Diljit Dosanjh and Kapil Sharma

March 31, 2024

by Carla Hay

Kriti Sanon, Tabu and Kareena Kapoor Khan in “Crew” (Photo courtesy of FunAsia Films)

“Crew” (2024)

Directed by Rajesh Krishnan

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India and in the Cayman Islands, the comedy film “Crew” features an all-South Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Three flight attendants, who are tired of being underpaid and overworked, become involved in gold smuggling, which leads to various shenanigans and mishaps.

Culture Audience: “Crew” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and high-energy slapstick comedies revolving around misadventures and female friendships.

Rajesh Sharma in “Crew” (Photo courtesy of FunAsia Films)

Entertaining and breezy, “Crew” is a unique crime caper about three flight attendants caught up in gold smuggling and getting ahead in a system that wants to hold them back. The cast members’ chemistry and comedic timing are fantastic in this lively story. This is a slapstick comedy that isn’t meant to be entirely realistic, but the movie has realistic themes about worker exploitation and corporate greed.

Directed by Rajesh Krishnan, “Crew” was written by Nidhi Mehra and Mehul Suri. The movie’s three central characters are flight attendants who work for a fictional Mumbai-based company called Kohinoor Airlines, which is the largest airline company in India. All three of the flight attendants also happen to be best friends of different age groups. And all three of them have become frustrated with their flight attendant jobs because they think they are being underpaid and overworked. Kohinoor Airlines has been steadily reducing the salaries of flight attendants and other lower-level workers while expecting them to work the same number of hours.

The three central “Crew” characters are:

  • Geeta “Geetu” Sethi (played by Tabu), a married woman in her 50s, is a former beauty queen, who has been a flight attendant for the past 20 years. Geeta is happily married to a supportive husband named Arun Sethi (played by Kapil Sharma), but she’s gotten a little bit bored with her life. She worries that she is “past her prime.” Geeta’s dream is to open a restaurant in Goa with Arun. Geeta has anxiety issues and frequently pops pills to calm her nerves. Despite being neurotic, Geeta often likes to act like a wise, older sister to her two best friends.
  • Jasmine Kohli (played by Kareena Kapoor Khan), a bachelorette in her 40s, has a complicated history with money and is the most materialistic of the three friends. After her parents divorced when she was a child, Jasmine went to live with her mother’s father Nanu (played by Kulbhushan Kharbanda) and developed a close bond with him, but Jasmine has lingering insecurities because of feeling abandoned by her parents. Jasmine’s parents sent her to an elite private school, but she felt that her parents’ financial support could not substitute for the emotional support that she wanted from them. She’s had a rebellious streak since her teenage years. Jasmine’s dream is to be the CEO of her own marketing company.
  • Divya Rana (played by Kriti Sanon), a bachelorette in her 30s, is the “golden child” of her family. She has always excelled in everything that she’s done, except for one thing: fulfilling her dream of becoming an airline pilot. Divya graduated from a well-known airline pilot program, but she couldn’t get a job as an airline pilot, mostly because of sexism. Divya’s father is an airline pilot, but somehow Divya has been able to fool her family into thinking that she has a become pilot for Kohinoor Airlines. Divya can be hot-tempered and is the one most likely of the three friends to get into physical fights in self-defense. (For example, she strong-arms a rude passenger who slaps her on her rear end.) Divya is very close to her gay brother Chintu (played by Mohit Gupta), who used to be a computer hacker.

The beginning of the movie shows that a Kohinoor flight has returned to a terminal because of “technical difficulties.” The real reason for this emergency turnaround is that Geeta, Jasmine and Divya are suspects in a conspiracy to illegally smuggle gold bars out of India. The three pals have been detained and escorted to a room for questioning. The interrogation is led by a sub-inspector named Mala (played by Trupti Khamkar), who is eager to have these three women arrested.

Much of “Crew” consists of flashback scenes showing how Geeta, Jasmine and Divya ended up at this point. The trailers for “Crew” already reveal that it all started two years ago, during a flight where an elederly male passenger named Rajvanshi (played by Ramakant Daayama) dropped dead of an apparent heart attack near the flight attendant station. Geeta, Jasmine and Divya discovered that he had gold bars strapped underneath his clothes.

At the time they found these gold bars, all three of the women were having financial issues where they wanted extra money that they didn’t have. Geeta wanted money to open a restaurant. Jasmine was several months past due on her rent. Divya had a student loan debt that she had to pay back in two days. And so, the three friends decided to steal the gold bars without telling anyone else. Of course, this small fortune in gold that gets stolen eventually has people who go looking for it.

The three flight attendants are also feeling financially insecure because there have been news media reports that Kohinoor Airlines is on the verge of bankruptcy. Kohinoor Airlines chairman Vijay Walia (played by Saswata Chatterjee) is vehemently denying the reports and is still living a lavish lifestyle, as if everything is going well with the company. Kohinoor Airlines has a pension program for staffers called the Provident Fund that has been getting a significant portion of employee salaries who want to invest in the fund.

Geeta’s husband Arun has a sister named Sudha Mittal (played by Charu Shankar), a former flight attendant, who is married to Kohinoor Airlines’ human resources chief Pruthviraj “Minoj” Mittal (played by Rajesh Sharma), who is a talkative and corrupt buffoon. Pruthviraj reveals some information to Geeta that changes the trajectory of the story. It leads to some very amusing twists and turns—some more unpredictable than others. Diljit Dosanjh has a standout supporting role as a customs officer named Jaiveer Singh, who had a fling with Divya when she was in college, and he wants to start dating her again after not seeing her for years.

The madcap misadventures and snappy dialogue in “Crew” are consistently funny. Although many of the scenarios are intentionally exaggerated, the friendship of Geeta, Jasmine and Diya is believable—which is essential in order for this movie to be entertaining. Tabu, Khan and Sanon are in top comedic form in “Crew,” which also has hilarious performances by many of the supporting cast members. (There are some emotionally serious moments too.) Even though it’s very easy to predict how “Crew” will end, the unexpected turns in certain parts of the story create enough suspense that will keep viewers interested in seeing what will happen next.

FunAsia Films released “Crew” in select U.S. cinemas on March 29, 2024, the same date that the movie was released in India.

Review: ‘Shaitaan’ (2024), starring Ajay Devgn, R. Madhavan, Janki Bodiwala, Jyothika and Anngad Raaj

March 22, 2024

by Carla Hay

R. Madhavan in “Shaitaan” (Photo courtesy of FunAsia Films)

“Shaitaan” (2024)

Directed by Vikas Bahl

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Dehradun, India, the horror film “Shaitaan” (a remake of the 2023 horror film “Vash”) features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A family of four people are the targets of a demonic stranger, who casts a spell on the family’s teenage girl to do whatever he tells her to do. 

Culture Audience: “Shaitaan” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and horror movies that have overly long and repetitive scenes that can’t hide plot holes.

Janki Bodiwala, Jyothika and Ajay Devgn in “Shaitaan” (Photo courtesy of FunAsia Films)

“Shaitaan” is a bloated and bombastic horror movie that becomes increasingly ridiculous as the plot careens into a pathetic pit of stupidity. The movie’s villain wants to take over the world, but there’s no logic in how he goes about it in this lousy story. Horror movies generally aren’t known for being logical, but as soon as viewers find out what the villain wants to do, it becomes clear that at least 85% of what’s in the movie did not need to exist.

Directed by Vikas Bahl and written by Aamil Keeyan Khan, “Shaitaan” is a Hindi-language remake of director Krishnadev Yagnik’s 2023 horror movie “Vash,” a Gujarati-language film. Both movies are about a family of four people who go on vacation and become targets of a mysterious villain, who places the teenage girl in the family under his spell to do whatever he tells her to do. “Shaitaan” (which means “devil” in Hindi) shows that the stranger has demonic powers, but the movie never bothers to show or tell the stranger’s origin story.

In “Shaitaan,” Kabir Rishi (played by Vikas Bahl) is an accountant who lives with his wife Jyoti Rishi (played by Jyothika) and their two children in Dehradun, India. The couple’s daughter Janvi (played by Janki Bodiwala), who is about 17 or 18 years old, is outspoken and wants more independence from her parents. The couple’s son Dhruv (played by Anngad Raaj), who is about 12 or 13 years old, is a friendly and obedient child.

An early scene in the movie shows Kabir and Dhruv in a car parked outside of Janvi’s high school. Kabir is there to give Janvi a car ride home from school. Kabir is curious and concerned when he sees Janvi canoodling with a male student whom Kabir does not know. It bothers Kabir that Janvi has not told him anything about this apparent boyfriend. Kabir asks Dhruv if he knows who Janvi’s male companion is, but Dhruv doesn’t know either.

Janvi wants to go on an unchaperoned vacation trip with 10 friends. She thinks she’s old enough for this trip without any parental supervision, but she gets some resistance from her protective parents. After some arguing and negotiation, Janvi’s parents agree to let her go on the trip, as long as they can keep track of her location via a phone app.

These early scenes of Janvi trying to assert her independence, in order to prove that she has a mind of her own, are supposed to contrast with how Janvi is for most of the movie, when she has lost her mind to a demonic sorcerer who casts a “black magic” spell on her. These “possession” scenes become extremely long-winded and repetitive. After a while, they don’t advance the story but just make the story drag, like a car spinning its wheels while stuck in a ditch.

With the family conflict resolved over Janvi’s trip, the Rishi family decides to go on a short weekend vacation trip to what they call their “farmhouse,” but it’s really a mansion in a (horror movie cliché alert) remote wooded area. On the road trip to their vacation home, the family stops to have lunch at a cafe. A stranger approaches the Rishis and gives them some chai tea that he has bought for them.

The stranger introduces himself as Vanraj (played by R. Madhavan) and says that they look like they are visiting travelers, so he offers to help if they need directions. To put them at ease, Vanraj shows a photo of someone he says is his teenage daughter. Kabir thanks Vanraj for the tea and says they don’t need directions because they are going to their vacation house. Kabir invites Vanraj to join them at the table for the family meal.

Janvi says she doesn’t drink this type of tea, but Jyoti scolds Janvi and tells her not to be rude. As soon as Janvi drinks the tea, the movie’s soundtrack starts playing very ominous music, as Janvi stares strangely at Vanraj. Meanwhile, Vanraj smirks at Janvi, as if he knows exactly what’s going to happen. After the meal ends and the family is about drive off, Vanraj gives Janvi a packet of biscuits and tells her to eat the biscuits when she gets to the house.

At the house, Janvi eats the biscuits. And it isn’t long before Jyoti notices that Vanraj is lurking outside the house’s front gates. An alarmed Jyoti immediately tells Kabir, who goes outside and asks what Vanraj is doing there. Jyoti is frightened and angry because no one in the family told Vanraj the address of the house, so she thinks that Vanraj is stalking the family. Kabir is willing to give Vanraj the benefit of the doubt.

Vanraj doesn’t explain how he found the house, but he says he needs to come inside to charge his phone battery. Kabir lets him inside. And that’s when the terror starts. It doesn’t take long for Vanraj to reveal that he has put Janvi under his spell and she will do anything he tells her to do.

At first, her parents don’t believe it. But then, Vanraj makes Janvi do several violent and disturbing things under his orders, such as slap herself in the face repeatedly and bash Dhruv’s head onto a staircase newel. Dhruv gets more than one serious head injury during the movie, which shows if he lives or dies.

Kabir and Jyoti try to get rid of Vanraj, of course. However, Vanraj’s spell has made Janvi his ruthless enforcer/bodyguard. One of the first things that he has Janvi do is destroy all the cell phones, phone lines and Internet connections that can be found in the house. Something happened soon after the family arrived at the house that’s a big clue that not all communication in the house is going to be cut off from the outside world.

“Shaitaan” becomes an elongated series of torture scenes during this home invasion. And it’s not just the Rishi family being tortured. Viewers watching this dreck will feel some kind of torture in how the movie drags on without an explanation for why all of this is happening to the Rishi family. Of course, patriarchal Kabir wants to rescue his family. But how?

In one of the movie’s many plot holes and gaps in logic, Vanraj foolishly forgot to make sure that the Rishi parents couldn’t use the car they drove to the house. Observant viewers will notice this plot hole immediately, but it takes more than half of the movie before this plot hole is glaringly obvious. “Shaitaan” has even more mindless things that won’t be revealed in this review.

A trailer for “Shaitaan” already reveals that in this wooded area, Vanraj has hidden numerous teenage girls and young women, who are all under his spell. About two-thirds of the way into the movie, Vanraj yells that he wants to take over the world. But he has an odd and idiotic way of doing it. If he has mind control over Janvi, why not just tell her to secretly go to the hideaway place, instead of wasting time torturing her family members, who are potential witnesses?

It also doesn’t make sense that Vanraj only puts powerless teenage girls and young women under his spell. Why doesn’t he put powerful leaders under his spell, if he wants to take over the world? And why weren’t all of the Rishi family members put under Vanraj’s spell if Vanraj thought the family would get in the way? Do the filmmakers of “Shaitaan” honestly expect viewers to believe all the garbage being shoveled in this cinematic trash heap? Apparently so.

All of the performances in “Shaitaan” are mediocre, except for Madhavan’s awfully hammy villain performance, which because increasingly tacky and laughable. A plot twist at the very end of the movie just raises more questions that “Shaitaan” never bothers to answer. One of those questions is: “When will filmmakers learn that inferior and unnecessary movie remakes are a turnoff?”

FunAsia Films released “Shaitaan” in select U.S. cinemas on March 8, 2024, the same date the movie was released in India.

Review: ‘Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya,’ starring Shahid Kapoor and Kriti Sanon

March 11, 2024

by Carla Hay

Shahid Kapoor and Kriti Sanon in “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” (Photo courtesy of FunAsia Films and Nirvana Cinemas)

“Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya”

Directed by Amit Joshi and Aradhana Sahy

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India and in the United States, the sci-fi comedy film “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” features a predominantly Indian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A robotics engineer, who works for his aunt’s company, finds out that the woman he has fallen in love with is a robot that was programmed by his aunt to seduce him. 

Culture Audience: “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and silly romantic comedies.

Dimple Kapadia in “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” (Photo courtesy of FunAsia Films and Nirvana Cinemas)

“Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” is an overly long, repetitive movie that not only does not justify being 143 minutes, but the film also does not justify its entire existence. This unimaginative comedy relies too much on clichés about a guy falling in love with a “perfect female,” who happens to be a robot. This vapid movie becomes increasingly foolish until it becomes a very bad joke on viewers expecting it to get better.

Written and directed by Amit Joshi and Aradhana Sahy, “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” (which means “got s tangled n your words” in Hindi) runs its weak slapstick jokes into the ground very early and then repeats them to irritating levels. Viewers who watch this onslaught of terrible filmmaking will be subjected to watching people in the movie act even worse than their bad dialogue. About the only thing that this time-wasting movie can brag about is that it has pretty scenery and physically attractive leading cast members.

In “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” (which takes place mostly in Mumbai, India), playboy bachelor Aryan Agnihotri (played by Shahid Kapoor) is a robotics engineer who works for Robotex, a company owned by his aunt Urmila Shukla (played by Dimple Kapadia), who is demanding and impatient. Two of Aryan’s co-workers are flirtatious Myra (played by Amisha Thakur) and married man Monty (played by Ashish Verma), who gives Aryan simplistic relationship advice, such as “Everything is a compromise.”

“Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” is so inept and repetitive in its storytelling, it opens with a scene that’s a too-early foreshadowing of the rest of the story. In this first scene, Aryan’s family has arranged a marriage for him that he does not want. When he meets his bride-to-be for the first time, she is wearing a long veil over her face. And he finds out that she’s a robot that malfunctions. But surprise! It’s just a nightmare that Aryan had.

In reality, Aryan’s parents are very worried that he isn’t married yet. When Urmila reminds him that Aryan’s parents are eager to see him settle down and get married, Aryan reminds Urmila that she didn’t get married until she was 40 years old, and she got divorced six months later. Aryan will soon find out that Urmila is more of a meddler in his love life than she appears to be.

One day, Urmila tells Aryan to go to the United States on business. He stays at a luxury villa that the company uses for high-ranking visiting employees. Aryan is greeted at the villa by a woman named Sifra (played by Kriti Sanon), who tells him that she works for Urmila and has been tasked with taking care of all of Aryan’s needs during his stay. Aryan is immediately attracted to Sifra, who seems to seems to “have it all,” in terms of looks, intelligence and personality. Aryan and Sifra become lovers after some flirtations and romantic dates.

The trailer for “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” already reveals about 80% of the movie’s very thin plot: Aryan finds out that Sifra is a robot made by Robotex. Her name is actually spelled SIFRA, an acronym for Super Intelligent Female Robot Automation. And she was programmed by Urmila to seduce Aryan as an experiment to see if a human being could fall in love with a robot. When Aryan asks SIFRA how she can so respond so well to his needs, SIFRA says that she can expertly read people’s facial expressions and body language and react accordingly.

What’s a playboy bachelor to do when his family is pressuring him to get married and he’s found his “ideal woman,” but she’s a robot? In a moronic movie like “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya,” he takes her home to meet his family, introduces her as a girlfriend he’s in a serious relationship with, and then he proposes to her, as they plan a wedding that the family wants to happen as soon as possible. The majority of “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” is about Aryan trying to keep it a secret from his family that SIFRA is a robot.

“Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” fills up some of its time with stereotypical musical numbers that have forgettable music and generic lyrics. Aryan’s family is a predictable clan that is usually found in romantic comedies: large, loud and intrusive. These squawking family members include Aryan’s father Jai Singh Agnihotri (played by Dharmendra); Aryan’s mother Sharmila Agnihotri (played by Anubha Fatehpuria); Aryna’s teenage sister Tim Tim (played by Maahi Raj Jain); and assorted grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins of Aryan.

As the wedding of Aryan and SIFRA approaches, “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” becomes a pile-on of ludicrous “close-call” scenarios that usually involve whether or not SIFRA’s battery is charged enough for her to function, or how much memory she has. The worst part of the movie is in the last half-hour when it really goes off the rails with violence. And there’s a misogynistic tone to the plot, because it revolves around objectifying the main female character. An over-used gag in “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” is showing what happens when SIFRA malfunctions, but this dreadfully unfunny movie is nothing but a giant malfunction.

FunAsia Films and Nirvana Cinemas released “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” in U.S. cinemas on February 9, 2024, the same day that the movie was released in India.

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, Harini Sundararajan 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.

Arun hangs up the phone and gets 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 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 affection 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. Kala 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 a 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 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” in select U.S. cinemas and in India 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 exhibits 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 the 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.

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