New York City-based actor who was born in San Jose and grew up in Bengaluru, Rohan Gurbaxani, has been making remarkable but quiet moves in Hollywood over the past few years. Within a year of graduating from New York University, he bagged over seven feature films in 2019, including four acting roles in the following movies: action-comedy Chick Fight, action-thriller Knuckledust, and action thriller Red 4.
Rohan has also worked with New York City-based indie film production company, Yale Productions, as an assistant on their films: I Used to Go Here starring Gillian Jacobs and Becky starring Kevin James which later went to feature in the SXSW Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival, respectively. With no lineage in the entertainment business, he charted his professional journey on his own merit.
In this exclusive interview, he talks among other things about his experience of being an Indian actor in Hollywood, his all-time favorite films, and his plans for Bollywood.
How did you decide to become an actor?
I definitely did not have an epiphany moment. For me, acting is a cultivated passion, a gradual realization. From the very beginning, I used to perform as a dancer—from Shiamak Davar classes to participating in almost every dance competition in school. Looking back, I unknowingly always had a knack for performance but no inclination towards acting at all.
Fast forward to when I was a teenager and my mother randomly enrolled me at the Jagriti Theatre in Whitefield. I wouldn’t say that was the turning point, but it was perhaps when the seed was planted. It’s funny I had close to zero acting experience in school. Yet if you asked anyone from my adolescent years about what I’d end up doing in life, they’d say, “Rohan? He wants to be an actor.” The irony is that none of them, my parents included, had ever seen me act! Somehow, my complete lack of experience never stopped me from defiantly saying, “I want to be an actor”, even though deep down I had no clue where to even begin…
Luckily, my first sign of validation came in big. I got accepted into arguably the best drama school in the world—Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. It was only then that I remember telling myself, “Alright maybe, just maybe… something can be done here.”
Did you have to face any challenges due to being an Indian actor in Hollywood?
Fortunately, no significant challenges. I still have a long journey ahead of me but in my opinion, how you carry yourself is important because it eventually reflects in your work and the opportunities you attract. Having said that, the West is gradually realizing that we as a minority embrace an invigorating cinematic presence. However, I do not think the inclusiveness is snowballing at a fast enough pace.
Tell our readers a little about your role in the recently released comedy film Chick Fight.
All I can say is that I play the character Kye, a college kid on spring break who ends up at Alec Baldwin’s bar. Anna (Malin Åkerman) happens to be there at the same time for other reasons, and a conflict ensues between the three of us.
Tell us more about your role in the latest films Knuckledust, Red 48, and Confession.
Knuckledust is an action-thriller starring Camille Rowe, Moe Dunford (TV show Vikings), Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones), where I play a naive playboy whose wits get the better of him. I have two more films coming out in 2021, a mystery-thriller called Confession starring Golden Globe nominee Sarah Hay where I play a lawyer, and a cameo in another action-thriller called Red 48 starring Oscar nominee John Malkovich and Tyrese Gibson.
Which has been your most memorable/rewarding project/role so far?
Although working with Alec Baldwin on Chick Fight was an unbelievable learning experience, I’d say playing Requin in Knuckledust was most rewarding, since there was more to play with and also because it was my very first role out of school.
Sarojji, you were a legend and one of a kind. A heartfelt salute for countless moments of cinematic joy and moves; for making a mark as a female choreographer in Hindi cinema – despite the odds stacked against you.
Saroj Khan’s life and 60 plus years of career were defined by her natural talent and love for dance – she transformed into an ethereal being when she put her dancing shoes on. A classic rags to riches story, her professional and personal journey was filled with pure love, dedication, hard work, passion, and candor.
While her aptitude for dance gave her everything, it also took a lot away. Sexism, exploitation, struggles, barriers… she didn’t let any of that stop her. Over the years, she worked with a variety and generations of stars from Sridevi and Dharmendra to Shahid Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai.
Saroj was born in 1948. Her parents, affected by partition, had fled from a wealthy existence in Pakistan to poverty in India, hoping to build a new life. At three years of age, she entered the film industry as a child actor, fending for her family, when her mother discovered her love for dancing by accident. To avoid the stigma of working in films, her name was changed from Nirmala Nagpal to Saroj.
At 8-9 years, Saroj had outlived her career as a young actor and turned to background dancing for a living. She had no formal training but picked up dance movements easily and quickly. In those years, as a group dancer, she identified herself as Anglo-Indian, had short hair, and mainly did Western styles of dancing – jive, rock and roll, and acrobatics.
Her transition to Indian dancing was difficult. Western dancers were looked down upon by the classical-bent dance veterans. Nevertheless, she turned a chance to work with B Sohanlal into an opportunity, when she was called to perform acrobatics (Spot Saroj in video below at 1:42-1:44, 1:52-1:58 and 2:04-2:16) as a group dancer in Vyjayantimala’s version of Eeena Meena Dika from Aasha.
Saroj changed her appearance from an Anglo-Indian to Indian to learn from Sohanlal, it marked her big break, and she became a part of his troupe, first as a group dancer and later as an assistant. At 13 years of age, she married her 38-year-old mentor, who had shaped her as a dancer. He was married with children but she was unaware and much in love. At 14, she gave birth to their first child. Her association with him lasted 5 odd years in which she learnt the finer aspects of dance and also discovered her knack for choreography. When he was away for a song shooting, PL Santoshi (Rajkumar Santoshi’s father) inspired her to choreograph Nigahen Milane Ko Jee Chahta Hai for Dil Hi To Hai.
When Sohanlal refused to give their child his name, she walked out. It was the start of a long struggle but also finding her own feet as a solo professional. “I wanted to live my life as I wanted to live, without him,” she had said at a Ted Talk event. Those were big words from a young teenage mother, who also had to break professional ties with her ex-husband. Despite what happened, she continued to respect him and remained grateful for the learnings and livelihood. Not a justification but it gives context to her controversial casting couch comments in 2018. After the break-up, she went back to working as a group dancer and assistant choreographer for other lead choreographers. She was a good talent to hire, she could be the proxy lead whenever needed, without the money or credit.
Accolades and fame were still elusive despite support from actress Sadhana who gave her a break as a choreographer in her directorial venture Geeta Mera Naam(1974). Her talent wasn’t enough, she was still stuck. “I worked very hard – day and night – but I was not popular. Nobody accepted me as a choreographer, as I was female. That time, the rule was that only men can be choreographers or dance masters, as they were called then,” she recalled.
The road to A-grade success began with the Hema Malini-Dharmendra starrer Pratigya (1975) but the journey to popularity was still slow. Around that time, she also remarried second husband Sardar Roshan Khan and took some years off to focus on her family. She returned with Raj Babbar’s debut movie Jazbaat(1980) and this time the path was smoother. She was accepted whole-heartedly as a choreographer in the industry. Top directors like Subhash Ghai, Yash Chopra, Sanjay Leela Bhansali,Mani Ratnam lined up.
Saroj was also known for her penchant for perfection and had a temper to unleash on anyone who didn’t meet her high levels. Though she loved actors who knew their dance, she also enjoyed guiding non-dancers like Jackie Shroff, Anil Kapoor, and Sunny Deol. Actors had to rehearse before they arrived on set. Madhuri rehearsed Ek Do Teen for over two weeks. Saroj demanded that Sanjay must rehearse Tamma Tamma (Thanedaar) as a signing condition. He did. She added a touch of femininity to Hrithik’s steps in Bumbro (Mission Kashmir).
Kareena fondly remembers Saroj telling her, “Perrr nahin chala saktiii to kam se kam face to chalaa!” (if you can’t work your feet, at least work your face!).
Saroj was hired to train Madhuri, who had done a few movies but hadn’t succeeded as a lead heroine yet. It won’t be an exaggeration to say Madhuri owes her success to Saroj Khan. Ek Do Teen handed her stardom and a career on the platter.Ek Do Teen was out there and fun compared to the classic and subtle beauty of Oh Ramji. Madhuri aced both.
There was a marked difference in Madhuri’s persona on screen post the Saroj influence. The oomph, confidence, and attitude that Madhuri imbibed in both her acting and dance performances were unmistakable learnings from Sarojji.
Saroj had a long association with Sridevi as well, whom she considered her daughter. There is no doubt that her partnership with Madhuri was more fruitful commercially but some of her most refined and creative pieces were with Sridevi.
They created wonders in the cult classic Mr. Indiawith Hawa Hawai. I remember watching it in a seedy Mumbai theatre and being blown away. It was one of those surreal cinematic experiences where your senses are shot and the only way to get over it was to watch the movie many times over.
Ek Do Teen brought other achievements for Saroj. She bumped up her price, benefiting her assistants, and made sure choreography was valued for its true worth. She was proud of the students she gave the industry. Her unavailability propelled two of her assistants into success. She requested prodigy Ahmed Khan to choreograph Ramgopal Verma’s Rangeela (1995) which won him a Filmfare award for Rangeela Re. Farah Khan stepped in to do Pehla Nasha when she couldn’t adjust her dates for Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992).
Sarojji‘s style was a stamp, she dominated the 90s and left her impact well into the 2000s.
Not that Saroj Khan needed awards to prove her worth but hopefully they were sweet revenge for having to stay under the radar for decades despite her formidable talent. Portrayed with dignity and grace, her women could still be sensual and defiant within the traditional mold. As Kareena said aptly in her tribute to Sarojji: dance and expression will never be the same for us actors. I would add Hindi cinema to that. It’s an end of an era. Or perhaps, many eras.
Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women, and social equity.
Every Saturday night (7 to 10 p.m. CDT) from May 16th to June 27th, audiences can live stream a festival-quality South Asian film(s) that will be curated around a specific theme.
For every person who registers, we will donate a 3-layer, microfiber mask in his/her/their name to NYC or Texas hospitals in need. Watch a film, save a life!
The line-up includes globally acclaimed films like:
Hellaro –During the Emergency in India, a group of suppressed women from a village in Kutch, find someone in the desert and their lives are changed forever.
3 Days To Go – When their father passes away, four grown siblings come together with their collection of husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Together this crazy family needs to survive each other, under one roof for 3 days, before they spread their father’s ashes and part ways again.
Venus – Venus, is the witty tale of Sid, a transitioning woman, whose life takes a surprising turn when a 14-year-old boy named Ralph arrives at her door with the surprising announcement that he is her son.
For the full line-up and tickets, check the full schedule here!
The advent of winter brings with it the annual 3rd i Film Festival, a visual smorgasbord of fresh perspectives and brave new voices by independent filmmakers from South Asia and the South Asian Diaspora, including stories from India, Sri Lanka, UK, Italy, and the USA. 3rd i’s 17th Annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival: Bollywood and Beyond (SFISAFF) launches at the New People and Castro Theaters in San Francisco from November 7-10, moving to Palo Alto on November 16. Some of the movies are unafraid to explore issues that are uncomfortable, give voice to the oppressed and shed light on matters often overlooked or ignored.
A highlight for this year coming straight out of TIFF and Venice Critics’ Week is Gitanjali Rao’s animated feature Bombay Rose. In the rich, colorful and layered hand-painted animation there is an ethereal brightness to the chaotic Mumbai streetscapes where Bollywood cinema is both satirized and romanticized, and small town folks in the big city can be crushed by its mean streets, or redeemed by love. The film moves seamlessly between a documentary feeling of present-day struggles in Mumbai, to the lusciously designed dream sequences set in ancient India and inspired by Mughal folk art. Yoav Rosenthal’s original score merges swooning ballads with traditional Bollywood music and a haunting Latin love tribute.
This year’s special focus is on Young Voices, with a host of films that feature stories with strong youth characters. Dar Gai’s Namdev Bhau: In Search of Silence is a witty, off-beat take on the road movie, set against the breathtaking landscapes of Ladakh. The film features an inter-generational storyline about the relationship between a young boy and an elderly man, as they head for the peace and tranquility of the Silent Valley, leaving the hustle and bustle of the city behind. Filmmaker Gai, a philosopher by training and originally from Ukraine, has made India her filmmaking home and is touted as an exciting new voice in Indian cinema.
Also part of this youth focus is Rima Das’ Bulbul Can Sing. The film takes us back to the timeless beauty of the northeast in this bittersweet narrative that draws inspiration from her own experiences of growing up in the Assamese countryside. This is no simple rural idyll however; in Das’ deft hands, the film transforms into a deeply compelling exploration of love, loss, and adolescence.
Safdar Rahman’s heartwarming story of young Chippa features Sunny Pawar (award-winning child star of LION). Chippa sets out into night-time Calcutta looking for a father he has never seen, finding a city of migrants who speak in a curious mix of languages. Chippa is not oblivious to the grim reality and communal suspicion surrounding him, but chooses to encounter this world with a mixture of bravado, curiosity and humor.
Another film in the youth category is The MisEducation of Bindu screening in Palo Alto, which premiered at Mill Valley Film Festival, and follows a day in the life of formerly homeschooled Bindu as she endures an American high school and tries to graduate early. Her mother does her best to keep Bindu on track while maintaining her South Asian heritage, and her clueless stepfather tries to give Bindu advice on boys and high school life in America. Paying homage to Bollywood rock with one fantastical Bollywood dance number, Bindu dreams about escaping and longs for her home in India. Director Prarthana Mohan will be present for a Q&A session after.
Rounding out the youth films in Palo Alto is romantic comedy Bangla, with Phaim. An awkwardly charming 22-year-old Italian-Bengali panics when he falls in love with an impulsive and spirited Italian girl. The attraction between them is immediate, and Phaim will have to figure out how to reconcile his love with his life full of rules. This whimsical lens on the clash of cultures is based on the director’s own life, who plays the lead fictionalized version of himself.
Another stellar narrative in Palo Alto is Rohena Gera’s Sir, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival. A nuanced and sensual film, it explores the forbidden attraction between Ratna, a maid, and her employer Ashwin, a wealthy Mumbai bachelor, with each character quietly yearning to break free from the narrow bounds of their class and gender-based expectations. Gera achieves a particular delicacy in her directing, combining an appealing, understated sweetness with an edge, and thwarting all expectations and stereotypes of a typical Indian love story.
The festival features stories of addiction, which includes acclaimed black and white photographer Ronny Sen’s indie Cat Sticks. A gritty and haunting narrative, the film follows the stories of several addicts looking for the high of halogen, a synthetic brand of heroin that created havoc in India at the turn of the millennium.
The other film in this focus is Bhaskar Hazarika’s quietly shocking The Ravening (Aamis), which opened to great acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival. An unforgettable meditation on taboo and transgression, the film blends gentle romance and body horror into a unique cinematic experience. Hazarika masterfully concocts a tale of love and addiction that builds slowly – from a lilting rhythm to a pounding finale.
While this year’s program predominantly showcases narrative features, documentaries are also part of the lineup. Equal parts comedy and self-discovery, Laura Asherman’s intimate doc American Hasiis a portrait of Indian-American comedian, Tushar Singh. In an attempt to accelerate his career, Singh maps out a 35-day tour in India (with his mom in tow), taking part in India’s flourishing stand-up scene.
Comedy also features prominently in this year’s edition of Coast to Coast, 3rd i’s signature shorts program which brings California filmmakers into conversation with filmmakers from South Asia and the Diaspora. The program includes Varun Chounal’s Gabroo about a young Sikh boy’s complicated relationship with his hair, Mahesh Pailoor’s portrait of Pakistani-American comedienne, Mona Shaikh, and Andrew Sturm’s political satire on the border wall, 31 Foot Ladders, along with a variety of short docs, narratives, and music videos.
This year for the first time in the festival’s history, 3rd i will offer a free Master Class in filmmaking from the talented documentary filmmaker Nishtha Jain (City of Photos, Lakshmiand Me, At My Doorstep, Gulabi Gang). Jain returns to SFISAFF to talk about her filmmaking process, to present excerpts from past work and the present, and to talk about the different social and political movements in India and its alignment with her work. Jain’s work holds up a mirror to some of the most pressing concerns in India today, including India’s #metoo women’s movement.
Women’s issues are at the forefront of several other films in the lineup. Vasanth S. Sai’s Sivaranjani and Two Other Women pays a cinematic homage to the “everyday” woman and is a deeply moving work that focuses a critical lens on patriarchy, with outstanding performances by each of the lead actresses. The film captures the micro awakenings of identity and self-worth when family dynamics, early marriage, and pregnancy threaten to usurp the individuality of three women, unfolding across three different time periods.
The festival brings back Sri Lankan director Prasanna Vithanage with a screening of the historical epic feature Children of the Sun (Gaadi) about a Sinhalese Buddhist woman in the 1814 Kandyan Kingdom of Sri Lanka, stripped from nobility, who subverts the destiny forced upon her. His searing masterpiece is a period drama that takes on caste conflict and British colonial influences in Sri Lanka in the early 1800s. Director Vithanage will join a panel discussion following the film.
Among the voices to amplify, LGBTQ+ themes feature prominently in Poonam Brah’s Home Girl about a British lesbian woman’s coming out story while navigating her mother’s death in Coast to Coast, 3rd i’s shorts program, as well as Ronny Sen’s Cat Sticks illuminating the life and trials of a transgender sex worker, and Rima Das’ engaging youthful exploration Bulbul Can Sing.
Castro Passes ($35) are only available online until Nov 5. Tickets to individual films are $11/online and $13/at the door. More information about the festival, including expanded program, guest and ticketing information, please visit www.thirdi.org
Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter, Facebook for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news and magazines.
Cover photo credit: 3rd i Films.
This article was edited by Culture and Media editor Geetika Pathania Jain.
Lucky S.F. Bay area denizens of the high-brow variety, you have yet another event to look forward to that is sure to amplify your festive Dussera season this year. If you are scurrying off to the many poojas, family gatherings and Golus (display of dolls), be sure to add this event to your calendar!
Starting Sunday, October 6th from 12pm – 5pm, the beautiful environs of Villa Montalvo is home to the South Asian Literature & Arts Festival – SALA 2019. This event, the first of its kind in the US, runs from October 6th – 13th, showcasing a grand variety of visual arts, performing arts, poetry, book readings and panel discussions.
Visual Arts @ SALA 2019:
Visual arts enthusiasts have special treats that thrill and educate. This event presents a great opportunity to meet with award-winning luminaries like India’s leading contemporary artist Rekha Rodwittiya whose work with distinctly feminist narratives has received critical acclaim. In a discussion titled Rekha @ 60: Transient Worlds of Belonging, Dr. Prajit Dutta of Aicon Gallery, NY will be speaking with Ms. Rodwittiya.
Priyanka Mathew, Principal Partner of Sunderlande New York – an art advisory with a focus on South Asian art, presents an exemplary exhibition titled ‘Revelations: The Evolution of Modern and Contemporary Indian Art’. The show highlights works by Jamini Roy, Sanjay Bhattacharya, Krishen Khanna, Anjolie Ela Menon, Shobha Broota and G.R Iranna to name a few.
Also featured is a conversation with Dipti Mathur, a local bay area philanthropist and well known collector of modern and contemporary South Asian art. She has served on the board of trustees of several museums and is a founding member of the Asian Contemporary Art Consortium, SF.
One of the highlights of the program is well known actor, painter and poet, Deepti Naval. U.C Berkeley professor Harsha Ram, will moderate a program titled “An Elaborate Encounter with Deepti Naval”, as part of the Confluences – Cinema, Poetry and Art segment.
Cinema @ SALA 2019:
Indian cinema has a great representation at SALA 2019! The festival offers up a chance to interact with the men behind the popular Netflix original series ‘Sacred Games’, in two separate programs.
The trio of Varun Grover, Vikramaditya Motwane and Vikram Chandra will be interviewed by Tipu Purkayastha on Oct 6th as part of the opening day of the festival in a program titled ‘From the Sacred to the Profane’.
A special event on Friday, Oct 18th tilted ‘From Text to Screen’ will feature Tipu Purkayastha. In conversation with him is noted director, writer, and producer, Anurag Kashyap. This program offers us an interesting perspective into their creative minds!
Literature @ SALA 2019:
The literary world boasts of several names from the South Asian diaspora who decorate the local, national and international stage. SALA 2019 proudly presents writers and poets like Vikram Chandra, Minal Hajratwala, ShanthiSekaran, NayomiMunaweera, RaghuKarnad, AthenaKashya and TanujaWakefield to name a few, who will share their work in readings and discussions.
Also being represented at the festival is the emerging Children and Young Adult genre of writers. Curated by Kitaab World, Mitali Perkins and Naheed Senzai in a program titledThe Subcontinent’s Children.
Montalvo Arts Centerand Art Forum SF, in collaboration with UC Berkeley Institute of South Asian Studies are jointly bringing to us one of the largest collections of contemporary South Asian writers, artists, poets, and personalities from theater and cinema.
The opening day features various programs like art exhibits, panel discussions with internationally renowned writers and filmmakers, hands-on art activities, henna artists and dance performances. There are food stations offering up the many flavors of South Asia. This family-friendly event includes book readings, storytelling and hands on crafts for children. Visitors can also avail themselves of an art and literature marketplace displaying Bay Area artists and Books Inc. book sellers.
The festival, the largest of its kind in the US is brought to us by Art Forum SF, a non profit that strives to promote emerging visual, literary and performing art forms from South Asia.
Montalvo Art Center is well known for its mission in advancing cultural and cross-cultural perspectives, nurturing artists by helping them explore their artistic pursuits on their historic premises.
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.
This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.
Where we left off two years ago, a virtual century in box-office parlance–Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) had muscled out all but one or two of the biggest Hindi language movies to clinch a top spot on the Indian cinema box office food chain. In a breezy two years later, along comes Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, the would-be crown jewel to what was only the crown. Even with its opulence, flashy costumes, epic story-telling and gimmicky showiness, while Baahubali 2: The Conclusion is better filmmaking, it falls a little short of what Baahubali: The Beginning spoiled us to expect.
Continuing the adventures of Amarendar Baahubali (Prabhas) in the mythical kingdom of Mahishmati, Queen Mother Sivagami (Krishnan) is soon to declare the new regent for the crown.
Baahubali, ever the outsider, has heroics and dashing good looks going for him while Bhallaladeva (Daggubati), the wily scion of Prime Minister Bijjaladeva (Nasser), stands to lose more if he does not play palace shenanigans. Enter the gorgeous Princess Devasena (Shetty), she who is romantically betrothed to Baahubali and who may be victimized by Bhallaladeva’s mischief making. No story this dramatic can end without a good fight. And sure enough, this vast chess game can only end in a winner-take-all cosmic battle.
Director Rajamouli and team bring to play often show-stopping and cutting edge theatrics and action sequences. Like with Hollywood’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Greek-era action entry 300—movies that Baahubali 2 brings to mind more than once, for the most part there is seamless interaction between mortal fighters and the fauna they encounter—be it horses, elephants, wild boars, gaurs or even bow and arrow. The action-sequences flow and are physically plausible. The palace riches shine with royal elegance and nifty waterfalls still flow.
So why the skittishness on my part, you ask? Well, Part 1 was fluid in just about every aspect—from the natural looks of the ethereal waterfalls to neon bright colors that looked ready to peel off the large screen to lead Prabhas’ studly muscle-flexing–alright, there was swooning in Part 1 when Prabhas’s Baahubali single-handedly and effortlessly hoisted up the massive stone Shiva lingam. In Part 2, those same elements—dressed up even spiffier appear a little flat and the animals just don’t move like they should. Also M. M Keeravani’s Part 2 score is good but not great. While T. Sreenidhi and V. Srisoumya’s “Kannaa Nidurinchara” and Daler Mehndi and Mounima’s “Saahore” are catchy, Part 2 has no signature hook that stands up to the rousing orchestra of the “Dhivara” number from Part 1. We want to be wowed and we end up settling for oh-that’s-very-nice instead.
From it’s infancy, Indian cinema culturally gravitated towards popular mythological stories that the masses could relate to. Early standout proto-Indian movies Raja Harishchandra (1913), Lanka Dahan (1917)and Sairandhri (1919) all borrowed elements of Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. For Bombay-based filmmaking, the love affair with Indian cultural standard-bearers lasted well into the last century and eventually transferred almost entirely to television. For film houses in southern India, however, the mythological well never quite dried up and the incredible success of the Baahubali franchise is testament to the vitality of that genre.
And how phenomenally it has paid off! Rolling out with a 9,000 screen global debut–by far the biggest ever for an Indian movie–Baahubali 2 has outdone even Baahubali 1. At press time, this cash cow has garnered approximately US $300 million (about 2 billion Indian Rupees) in four Indian languages—it was filmed in both Telugu and Tamil during the same filming and dubbed into Hindi and Malayalam versions. This massive box office take exceeds even the combined lifetime collections of the next three box office top ranking Indian movies, including Aamir Khan’s Dangal, which is now at No. 2.
The fit-for-a-thesis perfect alignment of incredible word of mouth, industry buzz, incessant promos and free publicity surrounding the ginormous loot that traded hands for pre-selling of satellite-TV rights transformed Baahubali 2 into that perfect craze–face it, it is a craze–where otherwise frugal cinema goes skipped, strolled or raced to line up to pay up to $40 in the US and a jaw-dropping $60 per ticket in some Indian multiplexes. Baahubali 2 has singlehandedly turned the economics of movie making in India topsy-turvy. This movie has changed Indian cinema!
EQ: A Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.
After the success of Pink (2016), where Pannu rocked the screen as a woman seeking to clear her name in the wake of a waylaid sexual assault, Pannu’s arc was sure to rise. And Naam Shabana, the prequel to Neeraj Pandey’s hit Baby (2015) would be a logical next stop. A team-approach story rather than a solo player entry, Naam Shabana has pretty much the same cast as the first installment and plays pretty much the same field. A little rough at the edges and yet smooth in delivery, Naam Shabana is a worthy follow-up that continues the uptick for Pannu.
For Shabana Khan (Pannu), a young woman on the verge of landing new beau Jai (Mithaiwala), a bright future takes a dark turn when Shabana and Jai are attacked one night. While still recovering, Shabana gets a cryptic call from someone claiming to know minute details of the attack–something unknowable unless the couple was being trailed to begin with. The mystery caller offers Shabana help with avenging the attack at a price. Thus, begins her odyssey into the world of clandestine international espionage.
Neeraj Pandey, who directed the first entry Baby (2015) in the sequence, here handles only the script. Pandey’s deft hand, however, spins the spy motif from the get-go. While there is plenty of action, the story never veers too far from a determined Shabana’s struggle to forge her own identity, make a professional mark and also avenge her personal loss. Shabana eventually lands on the trail of a ruthless international terrorist responsible for killing two Indian spies in Europe.
Much as Baby did, the backdrop to this movie gets validated by larger contemporary themes. Recent highly publicized attacks on some women on public transport in India received international attention and also brought into focus the role that self-defense primers can play in women’s safety. The faceless scourge of terrorism and the illicit drug trade has resulted in shape-shifting villains resorting to reconstructive facials and jumping borders at will while being pitted against an often-overwhelmed official spy network operating where no one can be relied upon and even few can be truly trusted.
For a thriller plotline that underlines guardianship of national security secrets, since the secrets themselves won’t be revealed the plotline must then rely on the credibility of the protagonist for the premise to hold water. And Pannu’s Shabana may be just the ace the script needs. In Baby (2015), Pannu already solidly carried her weight with a short, intensely meaty role as a highly-trained spy who confronts her terrorist courier in a posh Kathmandu hotel room. The resulting bare knuckles martial arts girl-vs.-boy brawl–all flying kicks and flying furniture—was essentially the moment Pannu’s star was born.
As an invisible guardian that swoops in unexpectedly, Kumar spends very little time on the screen. And yet his presence cannot be discounted since he was the engine that powered Baby and this is still his franchise. Bajpayee as the home-front handler for the field spies, Denzongpa as the spy network overlord and Kher as the bumbling middle-aged techie nerd who knows the craft round out a wonderful cast of veterans while Sukumaran, a solid presence in movies from South India, does a terrific turn as villain.
Moving the locales from the Middle East, as with Baby, to Eastern Europe and Malaysia, Naam Shabana is a nice change of pace. There is also superb continuity in again tapping French action choreographer Cyril Raffaelli to elevate martial arts, and not guns, as the weapon of choice. Raffaelli injects realism without either glorifying violence or exhibiting protracted gore. While Naam Shabana has had only limited box-office success, given the sizable combined response to the two entries so far, an underwhelming financial draw with this round will likely not deter the franchise from adding more chapters down the road. EQ: A
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.
The ill-advised, ill-defined and ill-executed dividing of what was British India into India and Pakistan and smaller neighbors was a monumental event in the history of the Indian subcontinent, perhaps even more damaging than any war, including the two World Wars. Partition, as it became known, uprooted, shattered or downright destroyed the lives of upwards of 15 million people. By any measure, truly a giant human flood. The impact of that seismic event is a daunting task to juxtapose over the plight of a whorehouse that finds itself straddling the invisible line that will soon become a boundary.
And yet, Mukherji’s ambitious entry aims for exactly those coordinates on the geopolitical map and comes darn close to succeeding. Remaking his own Bengali original Rajkahini (2015) and moving the late 1940s Partition-era stage from what was then India-East Pakistan border over to India-West Pakistan border, the evocative script lands with a gut-punch. A group of surveyors from India and Pakistan, jointly tasked with tracing the imaginary line that far-removed mid-level British bureaucrats contrived, stumble upon a rather large whorehouse smack on their survey line with the occupants, led by the iron-willed Begum Jaan (Balan), refusing to budge. It is, after all, their home. Eminent domain be damned.
In mismatches, the burden of proof perennially falls on those with a shorter reach. By day time, the Begum and her adopted brood put up with jabs, insults —or worse—hurled by upstanding village torch-bearers feigning moral outrage. By night time, in reprising millennia old hypocrisy, more than a few of those same flame-throwers come knocking on the brothel’s doors flashing money. In this locale, the social strata occupied by both large niches are taken at face value and passed down as “tradition.”
Malik’s score is perhaps his finest ever. Malik, somewhat of a border-themed specialist (Refugee, Border, LOC: Kargil), working with Kausar Munir’s excellent lyrics, orchestrates keepsake music. As a showstopper, the great—and increasingly reclusive—Asha Bhonsle lends a lilting, aged romance to “Prem Mein Tohre.” Even old man Time makes an exception by pausing when this dame sings. Kavita Seth’s reprise of this same tune is also no slacker. Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Sonu Nigam comprise incongruent vocal ranges and their tandem “Aazadiyan,” while a good tune, feels limited on both ends.
The emotional tug of Kalpana Patowary and Altamash Faridi’s “O Re Kaharo,” however, gives powerful voice to a socially encumbered woman’s call to a passing wedding party asking them to stop at her doorstep knowing full well that will never happen while Arijit Singh elevates “Murshida” with a pathos of thwarted love. Then there is Singh and Shreya Ghosal re-touching “Woh Subah,” which re-ignites an uplifting, subdued hymn to charting one’s destiny much the same as the Khayyam-Sahir Ludhianvi 1958 original “Woh Subah Kabhie to Ayegi,” by Mukesh and Asha Bhosle which extolled socialist virtue. “O Re Kaharo” and “Woh Subah” are twin peaks on Malik’s sumptuous score.
The roles are mostly carved up fairly nicely. Kapoor and Vidyarthi are opposing map-drawers wielding the shots–one Hindu and one Muslim–who are also scheming, jingoistic prototypes of entrenched prejudices. Mushran is a mousy well-wisher making frequent stops at the Begum’s abode while Pandey is a thug whose violent tactics may force Begum Jaan and her fold to take up arms. As housemother to the women in the brothel, Ila Arun’s Amma is also Begum Jaan’s closest confidant and does so well.
Balan can emote, beguile, charm and seduce with ease. The boon of earthiness in her mere presence, something few A-listers can match; she can disarm just about any patron refusing to pay or any strong-arming two-bit uniformed sap that lands on her doorstep. Balan’s presence, however, comes on too strong. There is more of I-am-Vidya-Balan-hear-me-roar than there is of I-am-Begum-Jaan-hear-me-roar. Balan’s takeover is unabated by the absence of a single strong male lead as counter-weight. There is Shah. In a limited role, however, he is the suave, over-the-hill lecherous local prince personifying old guard nobility suddenly put on notice by shifting political headwinds. Hardly a match for Balan’s hookah-puffing virtual dominatrix.
When the movie The Martian first came out, my interest in seeing it was piqued when I realized that the writer Andy Weir, was a software engineer. He ended up self-publishing the book, because no publisher wanted to touch it. After it became popular on Kindle, Crown Publishing decided to publish it under their banner. When the book was finally made into a movie directed by Ridley Scott, it became a “must see.”
My interest in For Here or To Go was similarly piqued when I read that both the writer and director are Silicon Valley engineers. The movie itself came to fruition following the trajectory of a typical start-up. Instead of Powerpoint presentations, the writer Rishi Bhilawadikar and director Rucha Humnabadkar pitched to investors with the script and costing spreadsheets. When I asked Jayan Ramankutty why he decided to invest in this movie, he felt that the storyline had universal appeal. For the viewers in India who may think that America is purely a land flowing with milk and honey, this movie will serve a dose of reality. They get to see the struggles that South Asians go through as they try to earn a living and assimilate. For viewers in America (especially for those living in Silicon Valley), they can truly identify with the issues that the protagonist faces.
The movie is set in the backdrop of the 2008 recession. The movie centers on the work struggles of Vivek Pandit, played by Ali Fazal. He is poised to become a key hire at a promising healthcare startup. However, when they realize that his work visa has validity for less than a year, the offer disappears.Vivek draws upon his own ingenuity, struggles with flaws in the “its just paperwork” mentality and battles with forces beyond his control to get his visa extended. You find yourself rooting for Vivek to succeed not for some contrived reason (of being deemed a success in the eyes of his doting, forlorn mother in India), but because you want his courage, hope and doggedness to succeed.
The most appealing aspect of the movie to me was that it told multiple, believable stories of the diaspora as they face their own individual tussles- a daughter dealing with a father that is not available to her; an uncle trying to protect his hoodwinked nephew; an investor trying to convince his partner to give up on his idea of going back to India. The plot line draws on various characters to paint a mosaic of the immigrant experience. Omi Vaidya, who played Chatur Ramalingam in Three Idiots and Amitosh Nagpal provide the humorous interludes in the movie. The humor is not “forced” and is woven well into the script. In fact, the title of the movie comes from when Amit is asked the question “For here or to go?” by the clerk at a 7-11 store.
Just when Vivek is getting ready to give up and head back to India, he meets Shveta (played by Melanie Kannokada, former Miss India America). This motivates Vivek to fight the inane immigration system even harder. Rajit Kapur, known for his National Award-winning portrayal of The Making of the Mahatma plays the role of Vishwanath Prabhu, Shveta’s father. Vishwanath has just published a book that urges Indians in America to go back to India and help India succeed. He is passionate in delivering his message and steadfast in his strong views even when presented with an opposite point of view.
The movie has several breathtaking aerial views of Silicon Valley, including a beautiful aerial shot of the Golden Gate bridge. It also shows several familiar locations which residents of Silicon Valley will recognize.
For Here or To Go succeeds with wit and humanity. It is incredibly enjoyable and totally worth watching!
Since its founding in 1997, Bay Area’s Netflix has come a long way. From pioneering the DVD-by-mail model, the fast-growing company expanded into streaming on demand. With a global presence, the firm now has 94 million global subscribers, which include 49 million subscriptions in the U.S. The only places Netflix is not available is mainland China, North Korea, Syria and Crimea. While the pie-in-the sky goal of finger-tip entertainment on demand—virtually being able to watch any movie at any time— is still on the horizon, Netflix, along with competitors Amazon, Hulu and other streaming services, are rushing towards that future. Even though Netflix’s online content at times appears alarmingly heavy with Netflix-produced entries, the company is a force to reckon with. In Netflix’s expanding offerings from India, here are some noteworthy movies worth catching up to. Full disclosure: During Netflix’s infancy, I freelanced to write online movie reviews.
Umrika(2015, 96 mins., Hindi with English sub-titles)
A rare Indian entry to premier at the Sundance Film Festival, Prashant Nair’s critically acclaimed dark comedy Umrika is an astute and surprisingly insightful virtual mirror of how some non-Americans, in this case impressionable villagers in a remote Indian hamlet, view America. Nair’s movie takes cues from a series of letters—veritable postcards—written by a villager who has gone to America to his family back home. It’s when the letters stop mysteriously that things get a little haywire. Featuring Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi), as the youth who sets out in search of his America-bound older brother (Prateek Babbar), there is also a great best-friend role, played by Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel). Set in the 1980s, the concise story-telling taps everything from Indira Gandhi’s funeral and the Challenger explosion to the Indian villagers’ hilariously spot-on takes on American cultural touchstones such as Halloween and Thanksgiving.
Parched(2015, 118 mins., Hindi with English sub-titles) Directed by Leena Yadav and produced by Ajay Devgan, Parched is a jolting, non-squeamish and beautifully bittersweet calibration of the lives of four women in a rustic, ethnically vibrant and often harsh Rajasthan setting. Oppressed, victimized and mostly written off as no-good bystanders against the stone wall of male hegemony in their neo-feudal universe, the women struggle—often by a mere thread—to keep their humanity intact. The brilliant and bawdy script—an amalgam of western Hindi and Gujarati—empowers budding, even behind-closed-doors, exploration of both their sexuality and contemplation of the possible demise of their victimhood. Lead by Tannishtha Chatterjee, who spearheads as Lajjo, a young struggling widow, Radhika Apte as Lajjo’s friend with an abusive husband, Surveen Chawla as their friend who wears her firebrand village whore rep like a lapel pin and Lehar Khan as the teen-age bride of Lajjo’s teen-age son, Parched quenches on so many levels.
Sairat(2016, 174 mins., Marathi with English sub-titles) Noted Marathi filmmaker Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat (loosely meaning “wild”) became a runaway hit and the all-time highest grossing Marathi language movie. Nearly three hours long yet never boring, it starts out harmlessly by serving up a college romance between Prashant/Parshya (Akash Thosar), he from the fish-monger family, and Archana/Archi (Rinku Rajguru), she from the upper-crust landed gentry. Unable to bridge the gaping socio-economic divide between their backgrounds, Parshya and Archi elope, incurring the wrath of Archi’s politically-connected father (Suresh Vishwakarma). Told mostly as a romance and action adventure of their lives on the run, this could easily be a run of the mill re-dressing of the Raj Kapoor hit Bobby (1973). By going just one step further, however, Tinku Rajguru), she from the upper-crust landed gentry. Unable to bridge the gaping socio-economic divide between their backgrounds, Parshya and Archi elope, incurring the wrath of Archi’s politically-connected father (Suresh Vishwakarma). Told mostly as a romance and action adventure of their lives on the run, this could easily be a run of the mill re-dressing of the Raj Kapoor hit Bobby (1973). By going just one step further, however, Sairat becomes a solemn reflection of sweeping themes from contemporary rural Indian sociology that includes the clash between Old India and New India. Karan Johar has already acquired rights for the Hindi remake.
1,000 Rupee Note: Ek Hazarchi Note (2014, 89 mins., Marathi with English sub-titles)
In Shrihari Sathe’s1,000 Rupee Note nothing much appears to be happening and yet there is so much going on. An elderly single woman, whose name is Parvati (Usha Naik) who goes by Budhi (“old”) in her Maharastra village, lives by herself, is impoverished and makes ends meet by scrubbing floors. Budhi’s daily joy is making a steaming cup of chai, which she invites her benevolent neighbor Sudama (Sandeep Pathak) to share. At a political rally, Budhi unwittingly ends up in a line where the politician is handing out money to the attendees—an outright bribe just outside the reach of rolling cameras—and walks away with several 1,000 rupee notes. Perplexed and also excited by the unexpected windfall, and with her kindly neighbor Sudama in tow, Budhi goes on a shopping spree. Sathe’s staging of village street scenes often bring to mind Shyam Benegal’s agrarian dramas from the 1970s. For Budhi, the life lesson that follows is a poignant morality tale outlined simply and with lasting impression.
Amal(2007, 103 mins., Hindi and English with English sub-titles) Indian-Canadian filmmaker Richie Mehta’s well-received film debut was a superb reflection on the heart and soul of Amal (Rupinder Nagra), a Delhi rickshaw driver, who unknowingly becomes the focus of a city wide figurative man-hunt. Both the good guys—Naseedurin Shah’s cranky reclusive billionaire with a fortune to bequeath —and bad guys—thieves and murderers—are after Amal when fate leads to his being named the beneficiary of the reclusive billionaire’s vast fortune. Similar in feel to Peter Sellers in Being There, Amal triumphs as a monument to those humans whose humanity screams silently simply because they always speak the truth. With Seema Biswas in support, Mehta’s movie has retained its ability to draw the viewer into the one-track life of the rickshaw driver. The poorest of men can indeed live the richest of lives.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.
Heartfelt and made with much gusto, Lipstick Under My Burkha amuses, shocks and even makes you cry. Director Alankrita Shrivastava surprises us in this tale of four women, separated by individual contexts but joined by a common will to be free. These women, trapped in their circumstances, go beyond convention, in rebellious but secret stealth measures. The characters are complex and multi-dimensional, flawed and funny, with shades spread over the whole spectrum-just as real people are. The voice of buaji (Ratna Pathak Shah), relayed as her reading of an erotic novel, connects the film beautifully. It gives multiple layers to the visuals, and meanings beyond what one can see.
Lying on a waxing table, a mother of three looks distraught. Her beautician and she have been discussing her husband. “He doesn’t touch you with love down there, does he?” The woman, looks away, trying to hold tears. “Why do you ask, when you know?” You feel a lump rising in your throat. In another scene, the beautician records her sex act with her boyfriend, just after getting engaged to another man. But she is also a woman in love. A 55-year old woman secretly has phone sex with a much younger swimming instructor, and he has no clue about her identity. Scenes like these and many more make Lipstick Under My Burkha tick and make the characters real. The actors give superlative performances, with a rare slipping of accent.
It takes a break from run-of-the-mill Bollywood romances, and speaks from the heart, in this case that of a woman. A film that unlike Bollywood films refuses to objectify women, and gives them real heart and soul. Women have dreams, women have desires, women have sexual desires, and seek control, at least of their bodies.
In an old residential building owned by buaji that houses all the central characters, Konkona Sen Sharma plays Shirin, a young mother of three and a secret saleswoman. She shines in the role of a repressed yet defiant wife, raising many a questions about independence, self-reliance, and respect for women.
Rehana (Plabita Borthakur), a young college girl, dreams of becoming a singer, struggling against her ultra-conservative upbringing. She attempts to blend in with the other college goers, even if it requires stealing, smoking or late night partying. This story seems to have a flawed sense of modernity, and in that sense falls short of the expectations and bars that the others set. It seems to propound conformity over exploration and adherence over questioning.
Leela (Aahana Kumra), a young beautician with a sizzling sex life with her boyfriend, is being forced into an arranged marriage. She is desperate to make money and struggles to start her own business. She is open and unabashed, even to the extent of cheating on her fiancé.
Buaji, addicted to erotic fiction, and widowed for far too long, craves to explore her sexuality. Her fascination threatens to spill into real life. At the age of 55, she seeks intimacy, which in case of a man would never even be question. But here, it is set to ruffle a few feathers.
The attempts of these women, at stealing this small slice of freedom results in comedy, and often in tragedy. The key strength of this plot is that these women don’t judge each other, taking their lives with a pinch of salt as they continue forward with indefatigable spirits.
The cinematography of the film adds to its realistic, raw feel. The editing helps seamlessly navigate through multiple narratives. The songs and music elevate the film. The pace in the middle part slackens a bit, but the engagement is high and we tide over it.
Refused a censor certificate for being “too lady oriented” and cited for “sexual scenes, abusive words and audio pornography,” the film has been blazing a remarkable streak on the festival circuit. Under that burkha lies a lipstick, and a heart.
Raees rides shamelessly on the tough and broad shoulders of Shahrukh Khan. Khan, being the dynamic performer he is, takes on the responsibility like a gallant hero but manages to save only as much as sheer presence and charisma can save, of an essentially lazily written film.
That is the main problem with the film. That it takes Shahrukh Khan and fails to make a mega event out of the proceedings. It is happy to keep everything and everyone except SRK ordinary, even the amazing Nawazuddin Siddiqui and lovely Mahira Khan. All eyes are on him, all spotlights on him and although he shines through, all guns blazing, thoroughly enjoying himself in a film best described as tepid, it’s not enough.
Despite being the hard-core mainstream, big-budget entertainer it is, Raees, the film somehow manages to forget that larger the star not only must larger be the mounting, but also the padding, and stronger must be the world he emerges from and merges into. If the world falls there is little the star and his star-power can do to save the ship except extract wolf whistles at isolated moments.
And this world that SRK as Raees inhabits is fortunately full of good actors but in generic roles, rendered almost useless in a generic world. From Mahira Khan who manages to hold her own opposite SRK, to the inimitable Nawazuddin Siddiqui who plays the tough, upright cop exquisitely, to Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub who infuses life into the staunchly loyal friend prototype – all these essential characters remain at the periphery and worse, generic.
SRK looms large, as he rightly should, but among a mayhem that is little more than a half-baked story about a bespectacled, bootlegging Robinhood who hates to be called ‘battery’ (coz of his specs) and launches into the usual Rohit Shetty style acrobatics to prove a point, which is his raw machismo. On that scale SRK gets full marks but stop to ask him what is this golden-hearted Raees all about and he’d probably look back at you with his kohl-rimmed eyes and simply mesmerise as you his comeback. That’s how the film works.
And it is really unfortunate because the mix does get interesting when he is pitted against Nawaz’ honest cop (even as Deewar plays in the background in the film). Nawaaz, with his foot firmly in his character and SRK in his own presence, spark off a rich potential of moments that fructify few and far between. Similarly, he strikes a refreshing chemistry with the much-younger Mahira Khan who is every bit as vibrant as him but without a character or arc that would raise any level of interest in her presence in the film.
It’s been a while since our films have changed and a while since Shahrukh has changed too. But the more Shahrukh changes the more he remains the same. That’s the joy of it and the pain of it too, and it shows up both ways in Raees.