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Shikara – The Untold Story of Kashmiri Pundits

A movie about Kashmir is a natural magnet for me, since my mother was born and brought up in Srinagar. I’ve grown up listening to her stories of this Shangri-La, where every garden bloomed with apple and cherry trees, and where nature was like a gorgeous and generous mother, her bounty of fruit and flowers overflowing on the bosom of a land crisscrossed by crystalline streams and clear blue lakes.

The exodus of my mother’s side of the family from Kashmir during the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 wasn’t considered a permanent separation. Like most Kashmiri refugees at the time, they considered themselves Kashmiris first, and Punjabis, second. They were sure things would settle down, treaties would be signed, a peace accord reached, and they would be able to return to their homes, and their beloved Kashmir.

Shikara is a movie about the flight of Kashmiri Pandits to India in the early 1990’s. The same journey my mother’s family had undertaken in 1947 was repeating itself with a different population in 1990, but with a similar, sadly predictable ending – no one gets to go back once a land is dipped in the bloodletting hatred of communalism.

Sadia Khateeb and Aadil Khan in Shikara

The movie begins in the late 1980’s when unrest is beginning to heat up. The two newcomers who play the lead, Aadil Khan and Sadia Khateeb, are a delightful, romantic pair, and the movie diffuses the brutal, bloody violence of strife between Hindus and Muslims through the soft prism of their young, idealistic love.  Aadil Khan plays Shiv Kumar Dhar, who falls in love with Shanti (Khateeb) after accidentally being paired with her as an extra during a movie shoot in Srinagar. 

This thread of an eternal love story which survives the cruelties and trauma of communal violence by clinging fiercely to each other is one frame of the movie. The other frame is the thousands of letters, one every day, that Shiv writes to the President of America to plead for help when they become stateless refugees. 

In the first half we see the innocence and beauty of an era where Shiv’s best friend, Lateef Lone (Zain Khan Durrani) is the messenger who carries Shiv’s declaration of infatuation to Shanti. Their wedding is simple, involving immediate friends and family and Shiv insists on including Lateef and his father (whom he calls Abbajaan) in his family wedding photo. We see the young couple endearingly in love, finding the perfect place to build their own house, and Lateef’s father bringing stones for the foundation of their future home from his own land. Hindu or Muslim, they are Kashmiri’s first. 

Shiv is a dreamy poet who’s working on his PHD in Literature and plans to teach, while Shanti is content being a housewife and doting on him. Their little piece of paradise is shattered by the death of Lateef’s father, Abbajaan, in one of those ‘unfortunate incidents’ which are all too common in Kashmir – a trigger happy government force fires on a peaceful protest. This trauma turns Lateef into a terrorist, determined to exact revenge for his father’s death, and aligned with the cause of the Mujahedeen who want to make Kashmir an all Islamic state.

The movie tries to depict both sides of this thorny issue, but the weight of suffering is clearly on the Kashmiri Pandit end. Director Vidhu Vinod Chopra tries to bring balance by depicting both the ‘good’ Muslim neighbors (who help the Dhars escape when violence escalates) and the ‘bad’ ones (their doodhwaala who openly eyes their house, informing Shanti that he plans to move in when they leave, and then enters and squats illegally once they’re gone). But we are clearly primed to sympathize with the minority Pandits and their burning homes. 

The movie has some very poignant, cinematic moments which capture the pain of forced displacement – the exodus in crowded, overladen buses and cars which jams the highway to Jammu; an old man at the Jammu refugee camp crying incessantly that he wants to go back to his home in Srinagar; and incident when a truck, laden with tomatoes to distribute to the refugees, makes the state of beggary they have been reduced to painfully clear to Shiv and Shanti.

However, Shiv and Shanti’s idyllic love story, which is the prism through which we view the movie, has the reverse effect of diluting its primary message – the loss of dignity and trauma, the displaced feel, and the government’s apathy to the plight of permanent refugees; their helplessness in the face of the political forces twisting an individual’s destiny. It romanticizes and simplifies the experience of becoming a refugee refuge by creating a dream like quality to the narrative, especially in the second half.

The narrative also leaves gaping holes in the story, which beg for answers: 

Why have these refugee camps become permanent? How and where did most of those who decide to leave the camp resettle? How culpable were the Indian forces in stoking anti-India hatred by their excesses. What about Pakistan’s involvement in creating terrorism? Chopra doesn’t address any of these issues throbbing in the foreground of Shiv and Shanti’s invincible love story.

Shikara is an enjoyable, melancholy love story, which doesn’t ask any gritty questions or deliver thoughtful answers—it deals with emotions, but in a sanitized, over romanticized way. Aadil Khan and Sadia carry it on the backs of their excellent performances, and obvious chemistry. It’s watchable, but not memorable.

I would give it two and half stars. Four stars for the actors! Now on Amazon Prime.


Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Best Hindi Films of 2019 on Netflix and Prime

Article 15 (Netflix)

You can’t go wrong with Anubhav Sinha’s crime drama Article 15, with box office magnet Ayushmann Khurrana. City-bred and conscientious, Khurrana plays Ayan Ranjan, an Additional Superintendent of Police in Laalgaon, a small village, which operates eerily in an oppressive, caste-dominated political setup. Ayan faces resistance from Day 1 as he gets embroiled in the rape and disappearance of two Dalit girls and takes on the caste system trying to trace clues and solve the mystery. With a fantastic supporting cast and performances, Khurrana shines. Although grim and gritty, it’s also heartening and reaffirming. Keep a warm chai or a stiff drink within reach. Rating: 5 out of 5

Gully Boy (Prime)

Hell yes, Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, which released February 14, soared sky high this year. A perfect Friday night or weekend watch for a kick of fun and energy. The movie pays an ode to real-life Indian street rappers Divine and Naezy and is filled with textured, crackling characters to the brim. Ranveer Singh‘s Murad, an aspiring street rapper from Dharavi, the slums of Mumbai, finds his professional voice after meeting a local rapper Shrikant aka MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi). Street hustler Moeen (Vijay Varma), failing father Aftab (Vijay Raaz) hang on the sideline. Witness some wonderful and varied women create magic, Albina Dadarkar (Srishti Shrivastava), Razia Ahmed (Amruta Subhash) and Alia Bhatt‘s Safeena Firdausi. The writing, direction, and music shines bright. The angst and aspiration speak loud with a deft rhythm and foot-tapping emotions. Dive in and be dazzled. Rating: 5 out of 5

Section 375 (Prime)

Like it or loathe it, Section 375, a September 12 release, is one for the watch list. A filmmaker Rohan Khurrana (Rahul Bhatt) is arrested when a costume assistant Anjali Dangle (Meera Chopra) accuses him of rape. The movie plays out in a courtroom, setting the stage for Tarun Saluja (Akshaye Khanna) to step in and defend the accused while Hiral Gandhi (Richa Chaddha) fights for the survivor. There are compelling arguments and pertinent legal information. Both points of view are represented well until the final tilt and twist, which divides the audience. Talks about law vs justice appear futile when one thinks about the responsibility of the makers towards a society that is unfair to a majority of women. Does presenting the oppressed gender as oppressor work for or against the rape problem? You decide. Rating: 4 out of 5

Badla (Netflix)

A perfect movie to watch on a day when you don’t know what to do. Amitabh Bachchan and Taapsee Pannu face off yet again in Badla, which released on March 8. They play Naina Sethi and Badal Gupta. She is a sharp businesswoman and he is an effective defense attorney. She faces a murder charge and narrates her side of the story, he tries to find loopholes so that he can defend her in court. The victims are her secret lover, Arjun (Tony Luke), and a stranger Sunny (Antonio Aakeel) whose mother is Rani Kaur (Amrita Singh). The treatment is like a chess game, but predictable. The ending is too convenient, but the performances and drama keep the narrative on point, making it a compelling view. Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Manikarnika (Prime)

Take a ride into herstory with Manikarnika which caused much controversy when it was released January 25, it’s fiercely outspoken leading actor Kangana Ranaut had a lot to say off camera about her decision to co-direct the movie. Nevertheless, Ranaut’s on-camera performance is glorious as she pays homage to Rani Lakshmibai from the first frame to the blazing end comparable to Nargis in Mother India. The movie methodically unravels the mardaani perception by focusing on the woman within and steers clear of ostentatious drama and emotion, striking a fine balance between fiction and facts and retaining Rani Laxmibai’s identity as well as the fervor of the freedom movement. The narrative is simple and stays with her journey. It’s a winner. Rating: 5 out of 5

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women, and social equity.


This article was originally published on November 23, 2019 and was edited by Culture and Media Editor, Geetika Pathania Jain.

 

Isolation Therapy: Top Five New Shows on Streaming

As the isolation period extends, feast on these delightful new shows on streaming which range from small-town slicks to big city woes.

Panchayat, Amazon Prime Video

In Prime drama Panchayat, director Deepak Kumar Mishra and writer Chandan Kumar create the perfect isolation watch, transporting us to the rural Indian world of Phulera in Uttar Pradesh. Produced by TVF, the comedy-drama follows an average engineering graduate Abhishek (Jitendra Kumar) through his reluctant journey as secretary of a Panchayat office after he misses the popular CAT exam bus. On arrival, he encounters Vikas (Chandan Roy), an office boy, Upapradhan Prahlad Pandey (Faisal Malik) and long-serving Pradhan Brij Bhushan Dubey (Raghuvir Yadav). Although he is currently fronting the office for wife Manju Devi (Neena Gupta), elected on paper (under nari quota), so he could still perform his duties. The quirky innocence of small-town characters wrapped up in simple dilemmas shine through all eight episodes even as the seemingly slick city boy tries to make his presence felt. With some fine performances, heartwarming situations and slow-cooked old charm, you cannot go wrong choosing to binge on this one.

Jamtara – Sabka Number Ayega, Netflix

Jamtara – Sabka Number Ayega sucks you right in with poor young-bloods determined to find their power spot in the world. Writers Trishant Srivastava, Nishank Verma, and director Soumendra Padhi keep it raw, real and intense throughout with some thrilling and chilling moments to keep you hooked. School dropouts, reckless and cut-throat, the unemployed youth of Jamtara (Jharkhand) want to make quick cash which will lead them to a successful future. Leading the pack is Sunny Mondal (Sparsh Shrivastav) who runs a money-spinning phishing scam with older cousin Rocky (Anshuman Pushkar) aided by school friends. Sunny’s partner in crime is Gudiya (Monika Panwar), ambitious with her own agenda. They are the wannabe power couple and run coaching classes together. Standing in the way of their dream and the whole racket, for different reasons, are local corrupt politician Brajesh Bhan (Amit Sial) and Dolly Sahu (Aksha Pardasany), Superintendent of Police. If you can swallow the liberally sprinkled but necessary cuss words, the show is a winner. It depicts a world very much rooted in power and its layered dynamics, depending on which side you are on.

Afsos, Amazon Prime Video

“My life story is so poorly written that I feel like I’ve written it myself.” Failed writer, lover, sibling and son Nakul (Gulshan Devaiah) has only one goal in life – he wants to end it in Afsos. After failing to go through with the act 11 times, he hires a committed assassin Upadhyay (Heeba Shah) to finish the job. After assigning the task, his luck changes dramatically, and Nakul changes his mind. The only hurdle is Upadhyay, who doesn’t like unfinished business. A dark comedy that is wicked and funny. The show’s characters are superbly enacted, irrespective of their length, even though they find themselves in some irreverent and unbelievable situations finely crafted by writers Anirban Dasgupta and Dibya Chatterjee. The only discomforting scene was when his therapist, Shloka (Anjali Patil) hands Nakul a razor knife and provokes him to kill himself. Nevertheless, director Anubhuti Kashyap balances the bustling plot with slick direction and solid attention to detail, keeping it sane, grounded and palatable. 

Mentalhood, ZEE5

If you are a Karishma Kapoor fan, you will be delighted by her foray into the digital TV world with Mentalhood, a TV show which explores the vagaries of motherhood, female solidarity and modern issues such as bullying, domestic violence, infidelity, homosexuality, and a mother’s guilt. ALTBalaji attempts to woo the family audience with a cleverly adapted Indian version of HBO show Big Little Lies which connects five mothers, Meira (Karisma), Anuja (Sandhya Mridul), Namrata (Shilpa Shukla), Diksha (Shruti Seth) and Priti (Tillotama Shome), who share lives as their children attend the same school. Director Karishma Kohli keeps the tone light, sensitive, and feminine. As a show, it doesn’t reach the high level one would expect despite the taboo topics it explores but nevertheless entertains and conveys some important messages in the process. With its troop of crackling actors and Kapoor’s fine presence, it’s definitely worth a watch.

She Netflix

She suffers from an age old problem: He. A bunch of men write and direct a female story about sexual awakening and do a huge disservice to an important topic. Producer Imtiaz Ali leads this venture, co-writing with screenwriter Divya Johri, jointly directed by Arif Ali and Avinash Das of Anarkali of Arrah fame. Bhumi Pardesi (Aaditi Pohankar), a junior police officer is chosen by Narcotics Bureau officer Jason Fernandez (Vishwas Kini) to play a prostitute in a bid to bring down a drug cartel, fronted by Sasya (Vijay Varma). The protagonist is viewed throughout from an external perspective, which is not the worst part, she rarely takes a solo decision and the little voice she has is mostly muffled by the male energy. Perhaps it is her surroundings or the fact that she is not aware of her own sexuality. She is initially embarrassed by her body, then recognizes its influence and eventually finds her power through it. This is where it becomes problematic because she starts seeing her body as a tool and the only way to get her share of power. Despite the obvious flaws, Aaditi Pohankar lends dignity to Bhumi with a layered, masterful performance. She maps the journey from timid female to an aggressive temptress effectively and smoothly. Vijay Varma is always a surprise package, with many twists to offer. It’s definitely worth a watch for the actors, some of its sparkling moments and the bold territories it travels to.

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women and social equity.

The Forgotten Army

Based on the true story of Indian soldiers who toiled for independence, The Forgotten Army touches on the incredible sacrifices made by our army for the motherland. The first elements of the INA were born from a grassroots army led by the celebrated Subhash Chandra Bose. Despite a disadvantage in both resources and strength, they marched towards the capital in the name of freedom from the repressive East India Company. While these soldiers gave up their families, careers, and lives for an uphill battle, their contribution never received the appreciation that it deserved. The Forgotten Army, an Amazon Prime series starring film veterans Sunny Kaushal and Sharvari Wagh, uncovers a story in desperate need of recognition. Beyond the grim backdrop of a war-torn country struggling to stand on its own two feet, the series follows the love story of soldiers Sodhi and Maya. 

Along with a touching plot and unforgettable characters, the series presents a rousing title track. Composed by Pritam, “Azaadi Ke Liye” combines the soulful voices of Arijit Singh and Tushar Joshi with heartfelt lyrics by Shloke Lal and Kausar Munir. As said by Pritam himself, “It is an absolute honour to be composing music for The Forgotten Army – Azaadi Ke Liye…What makes this project even more special is knowing that this has been an idea that Kabir has nurtured for nearly two decades!” The song is a fitting tribute to the Indian army, and a source of inspiration to every patriot. All episodes of The Forgotten Army are on Amazon Prime Video worldwide. For more updates, stay connected with Amazon Prime Video India on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Love: Refreshed

A husband for home, a wife for away. Intrigued by the title, I clicked on the link sent by a friend who is also my travel companion. The premise of the essay; a special kind of relationship between friends who choose to travel together, leaving behind their families; reflected the kind of trips we had taken. For several years, we had been to exotic locations within and outside India, responding to the call that dragged us away from our families, filled us with awe and wonder, and refreshed and rejuvenated us. Like the essay in the New York Times, ours was a story of friendship, but also modern love.

I read this essay in the Modern Love column on my smartphone as I commuted to work in the air-conditioned comfort of a train in Singapore. On the way back, I clicked to related links at the bottom of the first essay and scrolled through several well-told tales of contemporary love, hooked. By the time I reached home, I was transported to the Mumbai of my teens, a phase in my life where I had preferred reading romance over other genres..

I devoured innumerable tacky Mills and Boon and Harlequin paperbacks piled up in hole-in-the-wall second-hand bookstores that doubled as libraries. I didn’t expect anything depicted in these slim books, featuring people whose lives looked nothing like mine, to happen to me. I do not remember putting myself in the shoes of their blue-eyed protagonists. The books were more fantasy than romance. I read them for entertainment and, perhaps, escape.

Over the years, as my logical nature took over my impressionable self, I lost interest in reading romance. With limited time and a refinement of reading tastes, I veered towards fiction and non-fiction titles with more literary merit.

Modern Love essays came to me in midlife; a phase where my children were teenagers, I was remarried, and trying to find my way in our blended family in a new country. Certainly not the best time to idle away precious minutes in light reading when I could have been doing many more meaningful things.

But no matter how old, skeptical or cynical we may be about love, there is something about this ancient, universal emotion that tugs at us insistently, exhorting us to read and respond. No matter how crazy my schedule, I managed to read a handful of essays every so often.

Just like in teenage, reading romance in midlife once again provided an escape. This time the words held deeper meaning, because these were true stories. And they covered a wide canvas. Many featured same-sex relationships and the associated challenges. Some focused on loss; of a child, of a parent, of a way of life, and its consequent lessons. 

Except for a few, there were hardly any Indian protagonists. But it didn’t matter. I found more in common with the bibliophiles who flirted than the woman who tried to understand her Indian boyfriend. Although the protagonists didn’t share my skin color or cultural background, I suffered their heartaches and rejoiced in their success, because these were familiar emotions. From my own experience, I knew that love can hide when you go looking for it but show up uninvited, in the most unexpected places, between the most unlikely people.

Not all Modern Love stories were about romantic love. And I found them more interesting. The appeal of the story lay in the evolution of the protagonist and not so much in the specific nature of the relationship. 

I used to scoff at my friendly neighbor who, unlike me, was a happy housewife with no personal ambitions outside of her home turf. During a particularly trying time, she sent me food, lent me a gas cylinder, and offered to watch my daughter until I returned from work, thereby enabling my single mom lifestyle. Humbled by her generous gesture and loving offer, I learnt that love can grow between two very different people who respect each other. 

Not so long ago, books became movies. Today, essays become Netflix and Amazon shows. When Modern Love episodes showed up on screen, I was not surprised. But when I noticed an essay on Medium.com titled “Is Modern Love Only For White Women?” I was shocked. The writer called out the producers of show for not showing women of color as primary love interests in the eight or so episodes that have been released.

Failure of romantic relationships can be disappointing. But my life experience has taught me that even as we mourn failed connections, or deal with disappointment of interactions that do not live up to our expectations, if we pay attention, we can feel an undercurrent of deep-seated knowledge that we are richer for the experience.

Romantic love, after all, is only one shade among the myriad colors of love that we get to experience in a lifetime.

Resilience in the face of disappointment is an admirable quality. Walking into a romantic relationship after the failure of the first, is foolishness of the first order. But it is also a symbol of hope. A signal that we are deserving of respect, of acceptance, of love. I know this first hand.

Much of our ability to bounce back from failed relationships depends on how we have processed other kinds of love that preceded romantic love in our lives. From the care experienced in a nurturing home, from the mentoring of kind teachers, from the unconditional support of friends, from the solidarity of colleagues and teammates. These are all shades of love. I am sure there are more than fifty.

There is much to learn from Modern Love — not just the column and show, but from our own experiences in these confusing times. In love, as in art, taking the time to understand its subtle shades and nuances is what makes it (and us) special.

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, former resident of USA and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog

This piece was initially published on November 7, 2019 under the title Fifty Shades of Modern Love.