Tag Archives: Film Review

Film poster for 'Sherni'

A Sherni Herself, Vidya Balan Tells IC of Muted Feminism in Her Newest Release

After watching the movie, when I come across overt/surreptitious sexist remarks in my interactions, Vidya Vincent’s face flashes upon my mind’s eye. Vidya Balan eloquently describes her connections to the universality of her character in our exclusive interview. Find the video below!

The title means “tigress” in Hindi. The -ni appendage highlights the female-centric theme of the film.

Vidya Balan was delighted that the name Sherni was selected after she signed the script. She is amazingly authentic as Vidya Vincent, a forest officer trying to navigate the cantankerous machinery of government jobs in the wilderness of Madhya Pradesh.

Amit V Masurkar of the Newton fame (India’s submission to the Oscars in 2017 ) takes his camera to a tiger preserve and focuses on the struggle for existence between wildlife in their natural habitat and humans. It’s a satirical bare-bones exposure to the lethargy of the Indian government’s Forest Department. The film Sherni is not about the female tigress who has attacked two people. It’s not about forest conservation. It’s also not about the livelihood and safety of the people who rely on the forest. The filmmaker’s purpose is to expose the indifferent government officials, the power struggle between opposing political parties, and corrupt contractors who blatantly pocket taxpayer rupees.

Vidya Vincent and the tigress are caught as unexpected but tenacious bystanders in the flawed patriarchal system. Male characters in the movie indulge in overt and covert actions to save face by ignoring, talking over, and finally transferring the resilient officer, Vidya Vincent, out of their midst. The hungry tigress who cannot hunt deer and other small herbivores to feed her hungry cubs becomes prey to a macho gunslinging Pintoo Bhaiya (Sharat Saxena). He is eager to kill any “tiger” he can lay his eyes on without properly identifying the wild animal. The nauseating mediocrity and male bravado percolate the fabric of the film like pug-marks. 

It was funny to watch Brijendra Kala as the weaselly Bansal who is totally disconnected by the responsibilities of his seat, serendipitously placed in front of a humongous tiger portrait. He is just going through the motions. He would much rather be a snake oil salesman or a poet.

Vijay Raaz is refreshing as a zoologist and educator. His professorial duties run the gamut of collecting a rustic “punch and tiger” show for the villagers, collecting DNA samples, and making biryani. The camera exposes the gut-wrenchingly meager subsistence of local sharecroppers and their disillusion with the local elected officials. Frustrations climax with the burning of government vehicles. Vidya Vincent wants to resolve the problem by capturing the tigress alive. She rebels against her superiors and politicians.

As an actor, Vidya Balan is famous for playing strong female roles and is very expressive. In an interview for India Currents, the actor said It was challenging for me to portray the identity of Vidya Vincent in a quiet way.” She said, “I have a very expressive face even in real life.” I think that her deliberately obtuse performance is commendable on multiple levels.  

Film stills from the movie Sherni.
Film stills from the movie Sherni.

Dressed in muted earthy tones, she sets a precedent that she wants to blend with the environment. She knows what her job demands but after spending nine weary years, we get the impression that she knows that she cannot change the system. Then an inciting event of a tiger sighting, followed by the death of a villager, pulls her attention. Vidya is overwhelmed by a sense of doom and wants to resign. But her husband who is nicely tucked away in their apartment in Mumbai advises her to keep her recession-proof job: “Apne kam se kam rakho aur ghar chalo”. It’s easy for him to say.

She is not confrontational but is also not intimidated by men trying to outmaneuver her. Her impudence in pocketing the oil bottle to thwart the clownistic shenanigans of Bansal (Brijendra Kala) is funny. Vidya Balan laughed in merriment when I mentioned that sneaky move to her. She said, “I have received so many texts, phone calls, and accolades from all over the world. Siddarth Roy Kapoor loved it. How so many people found out my number and texted me, was amazing!”

Vincent’s anger at a failing system, deep concern for the villagers, grief while handing the compensation check to a bereaved widow are apparent in the strained look in her eyes and her tightened lips. When Vincent pulls the jewelry off when she is called to duty in the middle of dinner, it shows her attitude towards feminine trappings and the subtle oppression of domestication. Balan mentions, “Her character did not want to be confrontational. If it was easy for her to wear the jewels, she just wore them.”

It would have been more appealing to watch the movie in the jungle outdoors but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the film was released through Amazon Prime Video on June 18, 2021, and reached viewers in over 200 countries. As a woman in the professional arena, I was proud that Vidya Vincent tried to save the tiger cubs. I felt as though I was punched in my guts by the alarming visuals of the decrepit state of our government offices. I applaud Masurkar and his team on meaningful cinematography. Masurkar has cleverly exploited Vidya Balan’s acting potential by building her character with nuanced yet realistic complexity.

Vidya Balan has dazzled us with her kaleidoscopic performances as the innocent Parineeta, vivacious Jhanvi in Lage Raho Munna Bhai, a determined pregnant woman in Kahaani, and now as Vidya Vincent in Sherni. She left us with a parting message for young girls. She said: You are unique. There’s no one like you. Be the best version of yourself.” Commendable!


Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.


 

Top 10 Hindi Movies of 2019

It was a year for the creative and the restless in Hindi cinema as filmmakers told inspirational stories which balanced reality and fantasy in equal measure. Innovation won and we had some brilliant winners in the process.  Here are my top 10 picks for 2019.

1. Soni

This Netflix movie quietly and softly won hearts. Ivan Ayr spent significant time watching female police officials go about their jobs, the result shines in every frame of Soni. He also hired Kimsi Singh, his own producer to get a female perspective on the first draft of his story. It shows. It is a compelling glimpse into why India is unable to free itself from its pervading rape culture, without even showing a rape.

Rating: 5 out of 5

2. Gully Boy

A giant response from director Zoya Akhtar to her critics. She does slums as funky as the high-brow movies. Gully Boy soared sky high.  The movie paid an ode to real-life Indian street rappers Divine and Naezy and was filled with textured, crackling characters to the brim.  The writing, direction and music shone 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

3. Article 15

You can’t go wrong with Anubhav Sinha’s crime drama Article 15. Laalgaon, a small village, operates eerily in an oppressive, caste-dominated political setup. New ACP Ayan ( golden boy Ayushmann Khurrana) faces resistance as he attempts to investigate the rape and disappearance of two Dalit girls, taking on the caste system as he tries to trace the clues. Although grim and gritty, it’s also heartening and reaffirming.

Rating: 5 out of 5

4. Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota 

Director Vasan Bala creates a wonderful fantasy world inspired by his childhood of karate classes, tributes to various movies including Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan et al, and a real life story. The lead character has Congenital insensitivity to pain and goes on a mission to conquer his foes. Giving him a fight on an equal footing is his childhood friend and girlfriend. If you adore movies, this is a rockstar of a movie that you do not want to miss.

Rating: 5 out of 5

5. Laal Kaptaan

Navdeep Singh unites Saif Ali Khan and Deepak Dobriyal to satisfying results, with the historical Battle of Buxar as the backdrop. A ferocious Naga Sadhu is hungry for mukti aka salvation by exacting revenge while Deepak Dobriyal guides him with an acute sense of smell. The movie burns slowly and surely to create a fascinating human tale filled with adventure, sorrow and a sense of loss. It didn’t get the success it deserved but that doesn’t take away from its genius.

Rating: 4 out of 5

6. Sonchiriya

Set in 1970, Sonchiriya captures the ravines of Chambal with assured confidence as it captures a group of dacoits and their anguish with grit and determination – they fight to exist with caste, gender, masculinity and patriarchal issues. Abhishek Chaubey’s taut, tense and masterly narrative shines, aided by a superb cast and crackling performances.

Rating: 4 out of 5

7. Judgementall Hai Kya

Prakash Kovelamudi’s  Judgementall Hai Kya tackles complex themes of domestic violence and mental illness aided by black humour at every jump and turn in the dark narrative. The fact that Kanika Dhillon pens this quirky whodunit with a conscience makes it all the more delicious. Kangana Ranaut and Rajkummar Rao don’t play one false note and hold the movie together with panache. The film deserves applause for its quirkiness and over delivering on its thriller template.

Rating: 4 out of 5

8. Section 375

Like it or loathe it, Ajay Bahl’s Section 375 is one for the watch list. A filmmaker is arrested when a costume assistant accuses him of rape. The movie plays out in a courtroom, setting the stage for defense lawyer Tarun Saluja (Akshaye Khanna) and Hiral Gandhi (Richa Chaddha) who fights for the survivor. 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

9. Bala

With Bala, Amar Kaushik delivered a superb take on how the concept of beauty affects a man who lives with alopecia (baldness). It’s funny, it’s warm, it’s empathetic. Although, it’s mainly Ayushmann Khurana’s story and he is excellent, Bhumi Pednekar and Yami Gautam make their presence felt and heard with strong turns.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

10. War 

War is a slick and sassy masala action entertainer. Hrithik Roshan hangs from the sky, breathtaking, suspending our jaws in disbelief. Tiger Shroff conquers the ground with his moves and strikes. Watching them in tandem kicking, dancing and firing guns is a lesson in balance and coordination. When a Hindi movie delivers on action, entertainment and superstars, the question about story and authenticity is automatically moot. Siddharth Anand directed this box office bonanza.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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

Swinging Second to None

Swinging Second to None

SACHIN–A Billion Dreams.  Director: James Erskine.  Music: A. R. Rahman.  Marathi, Hindi and English with Eng sub-titles.  Theatrical release (200 NotOut Productions)
No matter how one approaches an entry like Sachin: A Billion Dreams, either as docu-biopic or nostalgia trip down sporting glory memories, one thing become abundantly clear. India can get as crazy about cricket as, say, Argentina or Brazil get about soccer, Americans about football, Canadians about ice hockey and Cubans about baseball. That is to say the entire nation goes completely gaga around major cricket events in the year. The other takeaway is that the story of Indian cricket, indeed the story of all cricket, cannot be complete without a chapter or two on Sachin Tendulkar, the Indian cricket king who, as outlined pretty well in Sachin: A Billion Dreams, elevated the sport and the nation along with him to new heights.Sachin: A Billion Dreams

Etched out as an origin story in the early going, Tendulkar’s middle-class Bombay upbringing is nicely reinforced with the story of his father Ramesh Tendulkar, a professor of Marathi, and his homemaker mother Rajni. Taken under the wing by older brother Ajit from Sachin’s early teens, the spark of raw talent showed promising potential. From a prodigy selected to play in a test match against Pakistan at a record-setting and astonishingly young age of sixteen to his courtship and eventual marriage to his wife Anjali, that part of the meteoric arc flows with ease. A portrait begins to coalesce; that of unassuming, modest by any measure, and surprisingly grounded personality more interested in keeping in touch with his close-knit family then with any scoring statistic.

As appealing as it is, Sachin: A Billion Dreams, in part because Erskine’s movie has Tendulkar’s early childhood events staged with actors to maintain narrative cohesion, goes lacking as a true documentary. The overall feel is that of Tendulkar sitting down to narrate his life-story and then news footage or play-acting getting inserted for dramatic flair. Sachin: A Billion Dreams falls somewhere between fictitiously made biopics of real-life sport starts (Mary Kom, Baag Milkha Baag, Paan Singh Tomar, Azhar, M. S. Dhoni: The Untold Story or even Dangal) and outside observers connecting lost footage or home movies, formal or scratchy-mike informal interview and press clippings. In Hollywood, Steve James’ Hoop Dreams (basketball) and Stacey Peralta’s Dogtown and Z Boys (skateboarding) sway in that direction.

Where Sachin: A Billion Dreams misses out takes away absolutely nothing from Tendulkar as a phenomenal cricketeer, second perhaps only to the legendary Australian batsman Don Bradman as the all-time greatest, who broke and still holds so many records in test matches.  The feeding frenzy Tendulkar inspired in Indian cricket —making him by the far the greatest sports figure in India’s history—resulted in a mass following where the entire country practically shut down when this great player was doing his magic on international cricket pitches in televised games.  The closest popular figure to compare to such mass adulation would arguably be the following that movie star Amitabh Bachchan—a megastar of a different kind —generated in his prime.

Tendulkar’s arrival on the big cricket stage more or less paralleled the unveiling of “New India” under Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister. For international satellite channels first pitching globally-linked broadcasting tents in India, Tendulkar’s ascent pretty much summed up the story of India.  A talented/outward looking, young/youthful, man/nation,   breaking out onto the world stage, to batting invincibility/as a budding regional superpower.  The sports star symbolized the nation as much as the nation idolized this star.

Sachin: A Billion Dreams is more than nostalgia dressing and more than the true story of a sporting figure’s achievements as a first-among-equals modern gladiator with kill ratios that count on non-lethal charts. Sachin: A Billion Dreams may be appealing to something deeper. This simple surefire legend of a grounded mortal, whose followers may readily believe that his feet don’t necessarily touch the ground, resonates today when there is a subliminal hunger for truth, when many news stories are suspect, the ground rules are being re-written and perhaps even the playing field is shifting.  Let Sachin: A Billion Dreams resonate.

EQ: A

Lipstick Under My Burkha

Director: Alankrita Shrivastava
Cast: Konkona Sen Sharma, Ratna Pathak Shah, Aahana Kumra, Plabita Borthakur

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. Lipstick Under My Burkha

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.