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Khoj review: Zara Khan pulls off Kajri Babbar’s heart-wrenching movie like a natural

The last day of the Kala Ghoda Art festival in Mumbai saw the screening of the short film Khoj, written and directed by Kajri Babbar, featuring Zara Khan, (earlier known as Sasha Agha Khan, who is the daughter of actress-singer Salma Agha), at the Prince of Wales Museum

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Khoj was shortlisted in the Best Student Film category on the Academy Awards list, reaching the semi-finals at the Oscars. It even premiered at the Cannes festival. However, this was the first showcasing in India. The screening opened with Purdah, Kajri Babbar’s first year film, which was a stark and screaming comment on the indignity and inequality women face in society. It told the story of a young Indian (Muslim) girl, a student in the UK, trying to make a living under the harshest emotional conditions. It showed the desperation she is driven to, in the face of sheer cruelty and chauvinism by a scheming male house-owner.  It was a heartbreaking story, portrayed well, despite amateur handling, leaving you with much food for thought.

What it’s about: Khoj, Kajri’s final year film (she studied filmmaking at the University of Bournemouth in the UK) told the tale of a young bride (look for the term Holiday Brides- a common occurrence even today), who is abandoned post the wedding by her NRI groom. Khoj is the story of this young girl travelling to the UK to find the man who married and deserted her a few days after. It traces her lone and traumatic battle, her female allies in the UK, and her victory at the end of the unhappy journey. The cast comprised Zara Khan, Amrit Pal Singh, Navinder Bhatti, Hassan Khan and several others.

Yay: Zara Khan as the lost, young bride brought a maturity and pathos beyond her years to the character of Gurpreet, a small-town Punjabi girl. In a completely deglamourised avatar, the pretty actress was even left devoid of a smile to enhance her looks. But she played the role to the hilt. The meek submission, the dumb ignorance and blind trust, the determined journey to seek acceptance, and when that didn’t come, justice and retribution, the rebellious anger in her fight to escape her trap. Zara played it all out like a natural.

The film ended on a note of hope, when Gurpreet, now free of the sham of her marriage, decides to enroll herself in college. Kajri’s treatment of the story obviously reflected her growth since Purdah. It is difficult to capture so much in so little time. But she did so effectively, creating an impactful film, which should shame perpetrators of such malicious and criminal intent.  Special mention should be made about the detailing of the costumes (costume supervisor- Catie Louise Matheson) and the set design (Production Design- Bene Gibson). Both were on point, lending much credibility to this little but Herculean effort.

Zara Khan had debuted in 2013 with Yash Raj Films’ Aurangazeb, which unfortunately did nothing for the lass in terms of a career. People should watch this film, take notice of her keen talent afresh. It is heartening to know that issues like these are a matter of concern for youngsters like Kajri. She has wanted to make a difference and has put all heart into telling the story.

Nay: The downside is the fact that films like this do not merit theatrical releases and bigger platforms for public consumption. Khoj will not have a theatrical release. But it has been picked up and released on Zee 5, for viewing on the OTT platform.

Cine Blitz Verdict: Films like Khoj and talents like Zara Khan and Kajri Babbar need to be encouraged. They are the voice of our society today, and for tomorrow.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Movie Reviews

Bulbbul review: A visual spectacle let down by thin writing

Bulbbul on Netflix is a horror revenge drama film produced by Anushka Sharma and stars Tripti Dimri as an enigmatic woman in early the 1900s in Bengal Presidency.

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Tripti Dimri in and as Bulbbul

Director: Anvita Dutt

Cast: Tripti Dimri, Avinash Tiwary, Rahul Bose, Paoli Dam, Parambrata Chattopadhyay

Rating:

When after watching a film, you talk about the cinematography, production design, colors or music more than the film’s story, it’s an indication that the storyteller has lost his/her audience. Netflix India’s latest original film Bulbbul unfortunately falls into this category. The opening credit sequence with red flowers is captivating enough to raise the expectations from the film. You’re blown away by the visual spectacle that writer-director Anvita Dutt has created with her team – cinematographer Siddharth Diwan, production designer Meenal Agarwal, costume designer Veera Kapur Ee and the VFX department at Red Chillies.

The film is a celebration of colors – red hues symbolizing anger, celebration, menstruation and above all womanhood, stark blue representing the grim past. Adding to this visual spectacle is Amit Trivedi’s hauntingly beautiful score, dominated by violin. It’s a great combination of audio-visual storytelling. What hurts Bulbbul is its writing. Writer-director Anvita Dutt has tremendous command over the language, and the dialogues have a literary touch (no surprise as it is set in Tagore’s Bengal), but the overall narrative lacks novelty and doesn’t have much impact either.

Trailer of Bulbbul:

The characters played by Rahul Bose, Avinash Tiwary, Paoli Dam become one tone and standard template for films like this. What stays with you is Bulbbul portrayed by Tripti Dimri (such a beautiful enigma). She gives Bulbbul her vulnerability and grace with ease. Her eyes and smile do half her work. She seems so synonymous with the red hues in visuals and the violins in score.

The story begins in 1881 when Bulbbul, a child bride is married to a much older man Indraneel (Rahul Bose). He has a twin brother Mahendra who doesn’t have a conscience. Their third brother is Satya, played with complete sincerity by Avinash Tiwary. Dimri and Tiwary reunite after their debut film Laila Majnu (2018), a story of unrequited love. Here too their relationship of brother and sister in law has shades of belonging. Satya is Bulbbul’s friend, confidante as both are of the same age. They are writing a book together. The book as well as their friendship comes to an abrupt end when Satya is sent to London to study law.

Also read: Aarya review: A thoroughly enjoyable crime drama

Satya returns after five years, to know that a chudail (she-demon) is killing men of the village. This story is about women, and the abuse and suppression they have faced since beginning time. Men ought to be the villains of this narrative. But there’s a mandatory ‘not all men are bad’ type character in Sudeep (Parambrata Chattopadhyay). The men in the film have a standard template. Rahul Bose, Avinash Tiwary do their best but there’s not much for them to play.

In spite of its visual splendor, Bulbbul falters in its narrative and ends up in the same situation where most horror films do. It would have been great to see a tale of revenge in a novel way but unfortunately, nothing great happens after the promising start. The film at times, moves at a meandering pace, which can be repellent to a film on OTT, as the viewer can quickly switch onto something else.

Also read: Rasbhari on Amazon Prime Video review: A scattered tale with no Ras

Bulbbul is produced by Anushka Sharma and Karnesh Ssharma’s Clean Slate FIlmz. In their first production NH10, Anushka seeks revenge from her husband’s killers. Their next two projects Phillauri and Pari were ghost folklore and supernatural thrillers. Bulbbul is a combination of all three. To sum it up, there’s a lot to marvel in the visual splendor and musical genius of Bulbbul, but the thin writing lets the film down.

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Movie Reviews

Aarya review: A thoroughly enjoyable crime drama

Disney + Hotstar’s latest special Aarya starring Sushmita Sen is an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable crime drama.

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aarya

Creator: Ram Madhvani

Cast: Sushmita Sen, Chandrachur Singh, Sikander Kher

Rating:

It starts with Aarya played effortlessly by Sushmita Sen hurrying up some morning household chores, getting her kid to school, managing to keep a tap on her younger sister’s wedding arrangements, and preventing her husband from having ‘just one laddoo’ as his triglycerides levels have gone high. This sequence as are other sequences in the series involving multiple characters is beautifully choreographed.

Ram Madhvani (Neerja), the creator of the show, along with his writer-directors is in no hurry to make this series compact. At 9 episodes, approximately 50 minutes each, Aarya unfolds slowly. If you assume that this is a crime thriller which such series get easily categorized into, Aarya might seem long and slow. That’s what people label anything that doesn’t move in quick cuts across multiple locations and plot twists.

Watch trailer of Disney + Hotstar Specials’ Aarya:

Aarya is an official Indian adaptation of the Dutch series Penoza. To me, Aarya came as a big relief from the overdose of crime thrillers on the OTT space. It does involve crime for it is set in the world of drug mafias. But it is as much about a woman, a daughter, a mother, and a wife. Interpersonal relationships have been woven so beautifully that the slow burn feel of the series is its asset.

Madhvani and his co-directors have got remarkable performances from their actors. Remember Sonam Kapoor in Madhvani’s Neerja (2016)? It is the only performance of the actress that stands out in her entire filmography.

Also read: Rasbhari on Amazon Prime Video review: A scattered tale with no Ras

Here, Madhvani has an ensemble cast that gives excellent performances. Leading the pack is of course Sushmita Sen. This is her show and she owns it. She portrays Aarya with poise. When her world turns upside down, she takes it head on like a fierce lioness protecting her cubs. Chandrachur Singh (also making a comeback) as her husband has his own charm. Vikas Kumar as ACP Khan, Ankur Bhatia as Sangram, Namit Das as Jawahar, Sikander Kher as Daulat, and Manish Chaudhary as Shekhawat leave their mark.

The series is remarkably cinematic in its production design, costume design, cinematography, sound and background score. The writing is organic. There’s not much dialogue-baazi in it. Yes, it is possible to keep the audience engaged by letting the characters converse than trying to dramatize every scene with filmy one-liners. There’s a lot to marvel at Aarya – the woman and the series.

Also read: Gulabo Sitabo is an ‘antique’ dramedy that owes its charm to its eccentric characters

Aarya might not be a binge watch for everyone. I took my time watching an episode a day. But I thoroughly enjoyed the series. The slow burn allowed me to get transformed to crazy rich drug world in Rajasthan and the world of Aarya. It gave me that time to absorb everything without having to be on my toes all the time trying to guess what’s gonna happen next. I liked that for a change. You might too.

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Movie Reviews

Rasbhari on Amazon Prime Video review: A scattered tale with no Ras

Amazon Prime Video’s latest Indian web series Rasbhari starring Swara Bhasker takes too long to make a point and falls all over the place while doing so.

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Swara Bhasker and Ayushmaan Saxena in Amazon Prime Video's Rasbhari

Director: Nikhil Bhat

Cast: Swara Bhasker, Ayushmaan Saxena, Rashmi Agdekar

Rating:

Nostalgia, a teenage boy’s sexual fantasies/awakening, small-town setting can be a good combination to put together a film or a show in today’s times. India’s youth have struggled hard to express their sexuality; often leading to perversions and sex crimes. Where boys with the so-called freedom that they have had got than the girls hasn’t really helped them becoming more mature or responsible romantic/sexual partners. Women still struggle to express their sexuality for the society they live in hasn’t really encouraged rather allowed them to do so.

Amazon Prime Video’s latest web series Rasbhari tries with good intentions to address this issue. Swara Bhasker plays Shanoo Bansal aka Rasbhari a seductress, sexually charged woman who is every man’s fantasy in Meerut – from school students and teachers to paanwala, cable guy and cop. Men lust over her whereas their wives call Shanoo a ‘kulta’.

Watch the trailer of Rasbhari:

One of the males lusting over Shanoo is her student Nand Kishore Tyagi (Ayushmaan Saxena), who boasts among his friends that he will score with Shanoo. There’s innocence and foolish craze in a teenage boy’s fantasies about a mature woman. For many boys, their first crushes have been their teachers. The makers here, writer Shantanu Srivastava and director Nikhi Bhat take too long to establish the setting and characters. Frankly, there’s nothing much that they reveal about either. First four episodes test your patience after which the story starts moving.

The writer tries to give the sub-text. For example, Nand offers Shanoo soan-papdi (an Indian sweet) to which she says, you should ask someone what they like instead of assuming it. Assumptions indeed lead up to f**k ups. It’s a subtle way of telling men about seeking consent before sex. Don’t know how many understood that metaphor. Sub texts like these are few and inconsistent. The whole narrative is. At times, it feels as if they’re trying to say too many things, which is fine as a series is where you can actually try it out, but it is so disoriented that you have to try hard to focus.

Also read: Gulabo Sitabo is an ‘antique’ dramedy that owes its charm to its eccentric characters

The series does produce a few laughs, most of them coming from the cuss words that the school friends use for each other. That’s the most organic thing in the series. Everything else looks forcefully stuffed. The cardboard characters don’t have many layers or depth. You know pretty much how everyone is going to react in a situation. Swara Bhasker as Shanoo and Rasbhari is inconsistent throughout and fails to make an impact in a series where there’s no competition for her. She is Rasbhari and it’s her series. Ayushmaan Saxena as Nand Kishore and Rashmi Agdekar as his romantic interest Priyanka do slightly better.

There is for sure a good intent to tell an erotic tale from a woman’s perspective. Although, a guy is a narrator of this one. But Rasbhari could have been more compact and impactful to make a strong statement. What could have been a fun 2-hour feature film is stretched to about four hours of series divided into eight episodes. Thus, Rasbhari becomes a scattered tale with no Ras.

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