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'Choices' Film Poster

Pro-Life or Pro-choice: San Jose Indian Writes a Film on Abortion

A short film about abortion written by a San Jose resident and an Indian American is an exciting prospect. Choices, a film directed by Amir Jaffer, produced by Ajit Mukundan, and written and co-acted by Puneet, is taking on the socially relevant debate surrounding abortion. The short film is about two individuals who are steadfast in their views but are forced to reckon with changed circumstances requiring them to revisit their entrenched positions on being pro-life and pro-choice, respectively. 

Though Roe v. Wade, a landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that ruled in favor of a woman’s choice to seek an abortion, felt like a positive resolution, the 50-year discourse on pro-life and pro-choice continues to be contentious. This year, 165 bills banning abortion were introduced in state legislatures. Every election cycle, hopeful candidates seek a platform built on the divisive issue in an attempt to pander to their demographic. 

According to Jackie Dallas, the female lead of Choices, “Stances on abortion have become heavily politicized, with opponents citing religion or science without a true understanding of either. However, in actuality, an individual’s decision may not be based on fear of eternal damnation or a conscience against murder at all, but something as selfish as shame or deceit. This is a story that could be told by anyone, but I appreciated how it gave a voice to Asian-American representation, and by doing so, exposes a cultural taboo that is rarely discussed in such communities.”

I could not agree more! I was ready for the Indian American and, possibly, Hindu prerogative on the subject matter. A topic that is rarely discussed in Indian households would benefit from a film written from the lens of an Indian American in the Bay Area.

“As a Muslim, I believe in projecting the benevolence of the almighty towards all,” Altaf Khan (Puneet) preaches in the first scene of Choices during a book signing on his pro-life book. 

Puneet, who does not identify as a Muslim, plays into the trope of Islamic tradition (western religion) and the discourse surrounding abortion. When Puneet was questioned about his decision-making process, he responded, “Altaf Khan could have been a conservative Christian person too…[He] can be modern and orthodox. [He] could have been anyone.”

The unique viewpoint which Puneet has to offer was overlooked for generic appeal. Religion is pivotal to the plot but cultural implications of abortion within the Islamic community are left unanswered. Much like his character, Altaf Khan, Puneet chose to pinpoint religion when it was expedient to do so. 

What I knew began with good intent, seemed derailed by the many themes it ventured to address – religion, politics, career, marriage, infidelity, AND abortion. It took a bite out of the very extensive, nuanced dialogue and presented it to the viewer in 20 minutes.

And, perhaps, that bite was much too big. The film wasn’t able to do justice to any of the motifs and touched on each one in a superficial way. 

Some elements of Choices that I did appreciate were: the interracial couple, the diverse cast in every scene, the directive to approach a heavy topic, and the willingness to underscore the hypocrisy of the male approach to the female body. 

Ultimately, I wish this short film had offered more than what already existed in the media space but I do think it was worth the watch. More narratives on abortion are welcome and, potentially, the film can prove to be thought-provoking for South Asians once they see themselves represented on the screen. 

Choices is now available on Amazon in the United States and in the United Kingdom. It is also available on Disney+ Hotstar (India and other geographies). 

For the trailer, pictures and details go to: https://www.pranapictures.com/movies/choices


Srishti Prabha is the Managing Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.


 

The Legend of Hanuman: India Currents’ Exclusive Review

I light the lamp and pray to Hanuman,” Aur devta chit na dhariye. Hanumat se hi san sukh kariye.”

The phone rings. My grandson is on FaceTime. We are thousands of miles away but through the Legend of Hanuman series, we transcend the space-time continuum and are sitting side by side on a crescent moon, eating mangoes and taking turns gleaning takeaway points from each episode. 

The Legend of Hanuman is a 3D animated fantasy streaming television series based on the Hindu Epic Ramayana, created by Sharad Devarajan, Jeevan J. Kang, and Charuvi Agrawal for Disney’s Hotstar, under the banner of Graphic India. The series premiered globally on January 29, 2021, in seven Indian languages. The storyline narrated by Sharad Kelkar showcases the life of Hanuman and his metamorphosis from a mighty warrior to a legendary omnipresent powerhouse of good over evil. 

The artistic color scheme does not afford a sharp contrast but affords a vintage look akin to Amar Chitra Katha and Phantom comics. However, the animation is not as fluent as some Hollywood 2D animations like Donald Duck and Micky Mouse. Sugriv’s laughter is quixotic and Angad’s possessed evil eyes are quaint!

Everyone’s a critic in India. I think that comparisons to prior versions of Ramayana are not justifiable because Ramanand Sagar’s 1987 Ramayana was a Television phenomenon of the century. No wonder it was the most popular show during the pandemic because it conjures hope in distress. I remember life came to a standstill in the 80s, all over Inia, at 10 AM when the epic was aired. It was like an hour of holy pilgrimage. The portrayal was authentic even though the battle scenes were archaic! Legend of Hanuman is an attempt to appeal to wider global audiences who are familiar with the Avengers.

Vedic aphorisms between old Jambavan and Hanuman borrow conversation style from Kungfu Panda, Lion King, and Jungle Book. I watched it in Hindi and discussed the story with my grandson in India who calls it the “Leeegend” phonetically. The episodes that generated a lot of discussions were: “Indra’s Curse”The Mango and the Sun” and “Forgotten Truths”.

There are many easy to remember sayings:

The path of life changed in a moment.

Sometimes the egos overpower the soft relations of siblings.

Everyone shoulders their own responsibilities.

I am responsible for my own actions – Marne wale se bachane wala bada hota hai.  

Monita’s drawing of Hanuman eating a mango for her grandson.

The discussion makes it more meaningful. Although my grandchild is fluent in the Hanuman Chalisa and wears a Hanuman pendant under his SpiderMan Pajamas, the only stories he remembers are the ones where we incorporate incidents from the Avengers and relate them to our own life experiences. He confidently repeats the fables to his friends and lifts their cloud of unknowing: Hanumanji uprooted the entire mountain because his dadi had not taught him how to recognize Sanjeevani booti

My life flashes by me in a vignette. My mother chanted Hanuman Chailisa and went to the temple every Tuesday. When I was five years old, I frequented the  Durgiyana Mandir in Amritsar with my great-grandmother. When I was ten, we prayed at the Sri Hanuman temple in Jalandhar, and at fifteen, the Hanuman temple on Sion Trombay Road in Chembur was our refuge. Married at twenty and in Jaipur, I found Khole Ke Hanumanji. In my thirties, I started frequenting the Jagruteshwar temple in Vashi Gaon and the 33 feet  Bhakt Anjaneya temple in Nerul similar to the one in Thiruvananthapuram where they offer garlands of udad daal vadas as prasadam. At forty, when my mother came to visit me in the US, she dreamt of a standing Hanuman deity in Alabama. Sure enough, we found him in Birmingham Hindu Temple  When I was fifty, we found Flying Hanumanji at the Neem Karoli Ashram, in Taos, New Mexico on Hanuman Jayanti. In my sixth decade, I painted a kalamkari painting of Hanuman so that I can share the story with my grandson and ask him if the sun really tastes like a ripe mango? In my home temple, I have a small Panchmukha Hanuman idol. 

So as you can see, I did not write this review on a whim, I have spent several lifetimes preparing for this.

As far as my grandson is concerned, one day he will recognize my spin in the narrative but I hope he will comprehend that it was all in an effort to make him a devotee of Hanumanji! For this weighty reason, I give The Legend of Hanuman and A for effort!  I will certainly watch Season 2 with my family when the terrible battle ensues between Ravan, the King of darkness, and Rama, the Mahapurush.

Jai Sri Ram Jai Bajrangbali Hanuman!


Monita Soni, MD has one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India, and a heart steeped in humanity. Monita has published many poems, essays, and two books, My Light Reflections and Flow Through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.

Coolie No. 1, Another 2020 Disappointment

I interviewed the poised and reticent Shikha Talsania in mid-December for Coolie No 1, starring Varun Dhawan and Sara Ali Khan in the lead. Normally I would have posted the review based on her comments but she did not reveal anything about the movie other than quoting  “it’s a refreshed version” and “ a family movie”.

So, I watched the movie on Christmas Day with my family. Although I had forgotten the scene by scene roll out of the 1995 blockbuster, the raving zest of Govinda, his side-splitting interactions with Kader Khan as Hoshiarchand. The credulous “Barbie-like’ mannerisms of Karisma Kapoor had left a mental imprint. Twenty-five years ago, I remember borrowing the VCD tape from a street vendor in Manhattan over a long holiday weekend, watching it with my friends and being flabbergasted by the song “Main to ladki ghuma raha tha...Tujhe mirchi lagi toh main kya karoon?” At the same time marveling as to how the lyrics-tune beat combo “Husn hai suhana ishq hai deewana had created a cult-like appeal.

As I watched the 2020 David Dhavan remake, I was catapulted back into the frenzied hip-hop of the roaring 90s! Apart from that, the new movie was unable to cast a spell. Varun Dhavan is a handsome and talented actor who has cast a spell in Badri Ki Dulhaniya and other films. Sara Ali Khan is glammed up (though costumes are not tasteful) but her acting skills are untapped. I wish David Dhavan would have reimagined the storyline after a quarter of a century! If he is thinking of vesting money and energy in remaking other Govinda movies with Varun, he must rethink it. 

There are a myriad of stories and current real-life issues to be explored and presented to the audience in commercially successful cinema. I hope to see Varun, Sara, Shikha, and other stars cast in original socio-economic-political narratives to entertain and enlighten the audiences. If the lure of “rags to riches” theme is too hypnotic to ignore then there are stories like that of Ambani, a son of a village school teacher, and Narendra Modi selling tea at Vadnagar railway station. Although the remake has a backstory, it could have been more creative! Bollywood must come to grips with the fact that the 2020 filmgoer finds it ludicrous to believe that a change of costume can conjure a completely different identity, whether that be of twin or not.

The story is as follows: Humiliated by a mercenary hotelier, Jeffrey Rozario (Paresh Rawal), matchmaker Jai Kishan (Jaaved Jaaferi) avenges himself by introducing a railway coolie Raju (Varun Dhawan) as Kunwar Raj Pratap. Raju is smitten by the photograph of Jeffrey’s daughter Sarah (Sara Ali Khan). Sarah gullibly believes Raju’s tall tales. It might have been more interesting to see the daughter Anju (Shikha Talsania) marry Raju’s friend Deepak (Sahil Vaid) rather than team up with a fictional twin of Raju. 

If the movie was made as an homage to the original, it falls short. If it was made to erase the original from our memory, it fails hopelessly. Govinda’s unexpected words, irrational antics, and outlandish costumes are unforgettable, as are his bona fide dance moves in those loose trousers! Govinda pulled off a con in Coolie No 1 by holding the audience spellbound but Varun Dhawan’s over-rehearsed expressions and mimicry failed to tickle the funny bone. Paresh Rawal’s limericks, or Rajpal Yadav and Javed Jaffrey’s pranks did not do the trick either. I feel that the entire cast was so much in awe of Govinda’s comedic high jinks and they lacked the oomph to overshadow the original Coolie No 1. It’s like comparing an original Indian soda to the same soda in a fancier bottle but with more sugar and less fizz! Although the songs will be good for zoom zumba the movie fails to dazzle! Coolie No 1(2020) is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, and Hotstar.

 


Monita Soni has one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, and the other in her birth home India. Writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. Monita has published many poems, essays, and two books: My Light Reflections and Flow Through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.

Dil Bechara: From Reel to Real

Sushant Singh Rajput’s posthumous film Dil Bechara recently released on Disney+ Hotstar. Clearly dedicated to him, the film begins with a smiling SSR playing the guitar while a quote of his flashes in the background: “Perhaps, the difference between what is miserable, and that, which is spectacular, lies in the leap of faith…#selfmusing.” Inspired by John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars, the film is set in Jamshedpur and its opening dialogues are what most bedtime stories start with: “Ëk tha raja, ek thi rani; dono mar gaye, khatam kahani.”   

Kizie Basu (Sanjana Sanghi) is a young girl suffering from thyroid cancer. An oxygen mask is attached to her person, which she carries with her at all times. Due to her disease, she has a largely boring life and feels like a reality TV show contestant who can be eliminated from the game of life anytime. She often attends funerals of strangers and sympathizes with their loss. More than anything else, she longs to be just like any other normal girl her age. 

Enter Manny (SSR), who she meets at a cancer counseling group. Though ill too, he is fun-loving and likes to sing, dance and act. SSR is sadly so energetic and full of life in this—his last film—with expressions that remind one of Shah Rukh Khan from the DDLJ days. He also spins magic with some promising dance moves in the film’s dreamy title song. Watching it one can’t help but lament with a heavy heart about such a talented life tragically wasted. 

The film has its share of clichés too—like the fact that Kizie and Manny’s taste in music doesn’t match. While she likes to hear soppy, mellow songs, he prefers the likes of Honey Singh. Along with Manny’s friend, the two of them start shooting a comical film together, and he shows her how to enjoy life. In turn, Kizie gets him to hear an incomplete soulful song by a singer whom she admires, and he begins to love the tune too. They write to the singer to conclude his song and request to meet him. Kizie can barely believe it when the singer invites them to Paris. Since her immune system is weak, it’s risky for her to travel, but with some coaxing, she goes to Paris along with Manny and her mother—who agree to fulfill her long-cherished dream. Though meeting the crazy singer (Saif Ali Khan) is a bit anticlimactic, the three of them have a great time in the city. 

With the stars of young love in her eyes, Kizie soon finds a raison détre in Manny, but filled with emotion, she frequently gets breathless and her heart beats faster when around him. Manny later tells Kizie that an ache had led him to discover sometime back that he too is going to die very soon. In a poignant scene, his family hugs him and cries, as his condition steadily deteriorates. He also attends a mock funeral for himself where his best friend and girlfriend read weepy vows to him, while he sits across and hears them out. Predictably the end of the film is melodramatic, made more true to life by the fact that SSR is no more in reality too. There are several dialogues that seem ironic now—and while they were being shot, no one probably had a clue about what the future holds. In one instance, Kizie tells Manny, “One doesn’t need to be popular to be a hero. You can be one in real life too.” 

The film’s subtle message is in the letter that Manny leaves behind before dying: “We don’t decide when we are born and when we die, but we decide how we live.” As Kizie tearfully watches visuals of the completed film that they had shot together, it could very well be Sanghi herself watching the completed Dil Bechara in real life now. In a sense, the film and SSR’s life remind you of the fleeting nature of existence itself, making you almost want to hug your loved ones a little tighter, laugh a little louder, and just live life a little more fully…

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Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in New Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.