“This looks kinda cool,” my partner stated, sitting across from me at our local, Astoria burger joint. “Kaufman is screening an Indian movie, a biopic on a 17th century warrior.”
Partially because I lacked strong feelings to any particular movie and because I seem to always pick our film choices, handed the decision over to him.
“Besides,” I thought, “It might be nice to sit in a theater surrounded by people who look like us, watching a screen filled with actors who honed similar features and allow ourselves to be washed by the colors and sounds that, although generations removed, somehow feels like home.”
We did not know when searching for our Saturday night movie fix that we would find ourselves in the midst of a larger, global issue—one where nationalism transcends borders and oceans and where islamophobia blooms behind the facade of bright colors, beautiful costumes and dramatic battle scenes.
Although already dark by the time we entered Theater 13, I could hear the whispered sounds of aunties speaking Hindi and the shadowed brown faces of couples, friends and family groups materializing in my peripherals.
My eyebrows raised at the endless disclaimers that scrolled past the screen as the movie began, and in less time than it takes to pop a new batch of popcorn, I held my breath in realization.
Oh no, it’s this kind of movie.
I was unaware that besides me, my partner had come to the same realization.
The character on screen was yelling at a man, stating that he must convert to their religion, pay their taxes, or die.
“What religion are they talking about?” he asked, hoping he had misinterpreted the dialogue.
“I-Uh-I-,” I paused, “Islam.”
We both rolled our eyes. This was going to be two hours of Hindutva, BJP propaganda, I predicted. I leaned back into my chair, longing for the itchy material to engulf and transport me elsewhere.
What was troubling, aside from the obvious anti-Islamic rhetoric, the overly done portrayal of the main Mughal character as dark, evil, impulsive and lustful (a depiction that lacks creativity on every front), was the audience’s reaction.
There were moments during “Tanhaji” where the crowd cheered and laughed at the death of Mughal soldiers. These were not comedic death scenes like those on Tom and Jerry or those scenes where the Roadrunner falls off a cliff, only to survive—these were gruesome, detailed, saddening deaths. In a film where the only comedy laid in the tackiness of its CGI images, laughter was not the reaction I expected. But in a culture and space such as Bollywood that treats historical battles and wars as entertainment with little time spent on the humanization of its subjects and more time on a hyper-produced dance scene celebrating a child marriage—it’s easy for audiences to disconnect the real from fantasy.
Our faces could not mask our reaction to the film and I found myself in awe (but yet, not) by the women in the bathroom who post-film, were joking about certain scenes, or as I watched their children reenact the battles they had just watched on screen.
But this is not just a movie. It’s a political tool in an era of continuously rising Hindu nationalism. The film, centered on Tanhaji—the benevolent, family man from the Hindu Marathas who pushes back and misses his own son’s wedding (a child marriage) in order to protect the saffron flag—propagates the Hindutva narrative and ideologies around duty and sacrifice for the Hindu nation. There’s even an entire scene where Tanhaji and his wife discuss where their true duty lies, and he tells Savitribai that the saffron flag means more to him than his duty to her or their son.
In fact, the BJP party was openly promoting the film. They were even distributing tickets for free following the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) protests in Delhi. The protests at JNU were organized after a group of masked men attacked and hospitalized nearly 40 students and staff members on campus. It is believed that this attack, which took place on January 5, 2020, was by members of a right-wing student group linked to India’s governing BJP. A reporter who was present and witnessed the attack, Rana Ayyub, noted that two of the attackers stated wanting “to cleanse the institute of Mughal progeny”— rhetoric that strikingly resembles the overall theme of the film “Tanhaji.”
Additionally, Bollywood film star Deepika Padukone’s attendance at the protest seemed to anger the BJP, further igniting them to distribute free “Tanhaji” tickets, an act against her opening film, “Chhapaak,” which was supported by India’s Congress and left-leaning student groups.
But what does a film screening in NYC have to do with the Hindu nationalist movement in India?
In 2011, there were 229,663 Indian residents in the NYC area, 70 percent of which were foreign-born and 65 percent of those living in the borough of Queens. Kaufman Astoria is one of the few theaters in the NYC area which continuously screens Bollywood films as they are released in India.
For many, taking your children, family, and friends to the theater to see a film in your mother tongue, and depicting aspects of your culture you otherwise do not see is an uncommon treat. However, Bollywood has historically depicted Muslims in a negative light, while displaying bias in favor of the BJP party and Hindutva ideals. The portrayal of Udaybhan Singh Rathore in “Tanhaji” is remarkably similar to the depiction of Sultan Aluddin Khilji in the film, “Padmaavat,” both cruel and driven by lust. The film “Padmaavat” starred Deepika herself, along with her husband, Ranveer Singh, who has shown support to Prime Minister Modi in the past. It seems that Bollywood and the BJP will continue to bend and twist history, depicting their favorite nationalists’ warriors and loyal Hindu wives against Islamic invaders.
Across borders and oceans, immigrant families will long for the familiar, turning to establishments like Kaufman for their Bollywood fix, and engulfing, with eyes wide open, the right-wing agenda of the BJP and further propagating these ideas in a new home over a jumbo popcorn and coke.
It’s always a flamboyant affair of colour, emotions and grandeur when Karan Johar directs a film, and his latest blockbuster “Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani” is as K Jo as it gets. After recently being recognised at the British House of Parliament for 25 years as a filmmaker, Johar is back to doing what he does best — bringing together families and star-crossed lovers, but this time with a modern touch. He makes a decent attempt at showcasing progressive ideals and feminist issues while taking us on this family-friendly ride.
“Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani” is a larger-than-life film revolving around the love story of a boisterous Rocky (Ranveer Singh) from a wealthy Delhi family, and Rani (Alia Bhatt), a sharp journalist from a progressive Bengali household. And of course, despite belonging to completely different backgrounds and lives, our protagonists, in true Bollywood fashion, fall hopelessly in love through a string of slow-motion gazes, warm embraces and some truly breath-taking song sequences in Kashmir’s snowy mountains. They are then forced to face their opposing families which brings along the family drama in the second half of the film.
The plot is not the film’s strongest point — there’s no real surprise about what’s going to happen next, and yet the film doesn’t fail to keep audiences engaged and pack an emotional punch. This is down to its strong acting, witty dialogues and K Jo’s classic, beautiful cinematography.
Ranveer Singh sinks into the skin of his character with ease – not only does he make the hall burst into laughter with the help of perfectly-timed gags but he pulls off those dreamy gazes ,expected in K Jo’s heroes, to evoke that typical, fuzzy-feeling kind of Bollywood romance. Alia Bhatt’s intelligent and undefeated character is no less a pleasure to watch on screen — not only does she look breath-taking in every shot but her feminist dialogues earn claps and cheers from the audience as she brings a progressive touch to this family drama.
Albeit, while Bhatt’s dialogues do their best to steer this film to the reformist drama it hopes to be, some of Singh’s gags and monologues on cancel culture bring out bumps in the road. The film could have done better to reinforce its points on feminism and racism without using the groups it tries to support as the butt of jokes.
There is also a case to be made about how long these Punjabi and Bengali stereotypes can go on with often gawkish displays of Ranveer’s ‘dilwala-from-Delhi’ character among the overly-polished English from Rani’s Bengali family. But it is with the expertise of the supporting cast, that the film is able to get away with it. Jaya Bachchan in particular is as classy as ever on screen; the stern Dadi Ji holds her ground between the two lovers, while Dada Ji Dharmendra, and Thakuma Shabana Azmi, tug at our heartstrings showing that love truly is for all ages.
Saving the best to last, it is the film’s cinematography that makes the strongest case for audiences to flock to the cinema. The soul-stirring songs steal the show with their extravagant sets and powerful dance performances that treat the audiences to the much-awaited cinematic experience of a K Jo film. While audiences may already be familiar with the viral songs, “What Jhumka?” and “Tum Kya Mile“, it was the family-defying fight for love in “Dhindhora Baje Re” that really gave me goosebumps.
Overall, the film does exactly what it says on the tin and is a family entertainer with something for everyone. It will make you laugh, cry, and cringe at times, but nothing leaves you feeling as romantic as some old school Bollywood with a mix of new school humour, in true K Jo form.
It’s never a dull moment with your girl gang; some shots and conversations about sex, right? If you agree, you’re in for a treat with Karan Boolani’s directorial venture, “Thank You For Coming,” which had its world premiere at the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival. This coming-of-age story unapologetically begs the answer to a very important question: Why should women be left high and dry in bed?
Kanika Kapoor (Bhumi Pednekar) is a successful, 32-year-old, Delhi food blogger who makes a huge revelation on her 30th birthday: She’s never experienced an orgasm. This dirty little secret (no pun intended!) has now become detrimental to her self-esteem. She feels so down and out that she even accepts the proposal of a very boring suitor, Jeevan-ji (Pradhuman Singh Mall).
But, it’s not like she hasn’t tried. Kanika’s been a monogamist since her teenage years, starting with puppy love in high school — unfortunately, their sexual endeavors coined her as “thandi” (cold) by her first boyfriend — all the way to dating in her adulthood. But, regardless of how great any relationship was, nobody had her achieve the big O. All until the night of her engagement with Jeevan, when the drunk bride-to-be leaves the party for her hotel room and gets into bed. What follows is her very first orgasm. Ghungroo, finally, tute gaye! But, with whom?
The morning after, an initially-satisfied Kanika works herself into a frenzy of confusion and frustration as she makes her way through the list of potential men who could’ve been in her room the night before.
Was it one of her exes? She’d simply invited them to come to wish her well.
Was it her fiance?
Or, God forbid, was it actually the rabdi-wala (ice cream man)?
Boolani takes a straight-forward and on-the-nose approach to drive the point home. There are no cutting corners, no mincing words, and no hovering over “taboo topics.” The dialogue is raunchy, the characters are horny, and no one is apologetic. It’s important for a film like “Thank You For Coming” to be so in-your-face because the subject of women achieving orgasms can’t really be presented in any other way. Anything more conservative in the narrative would feel like the makers are being mindful of addressing something prohibited. And there is no room for taboos here.
But, there is room for a more open conversation on the reasons why many women feel the need to suppress their sexual needs in bed; how generally, women have been brought up to be the more desirable gender and hence not cross certain boundaries that would make them appear too brash. The fight for the right of female pleasure would have been a little more effective if the modesty around the topic was addressed. But, that doesn’t mean that the point is remiss.
The plot moves swiftly along, never lulling too long over everything that seems to be going wrong in Kanika’s life. “Thank You For Coming” is full of all the right tropes that belong in a comedic, masala film, too; the direction very seamlessly takes classic fixings like the abhorrent admirer (enter Jeevan-ji) and effectively plugs them into this contemporary feature that will remain perpetually relevant.
And now, let’s come to the star of the show: the well-rounded characters.
Producer Rhea Kapoor has mastered the formula of a good chick flick and her casting is the magic touch. She’s got a knack for bringing together the right actors — cue, “Veere Di Wedding.” So, just when we think that it doesn’t get better than the veere, Kapoor surprises us with a refreshing trio — they’re modern, they’re rebellious, and they say it like it is. Thank you, Dolly Singh (Pallavi Khanna) and Shibani Bedi (Tina Das) for being the yin to Kanika’s yang — and for the bag full of sex toys your homegirl oh-so needed!
To complete Kanika’s story, we have her single mother, Miss. Kapoor, brilliantly portrayed by Natasha Rastogi. She is the face of a headstrong and self-assured matriarch and a symbol of the modern-day Indian woman. Rastogi’s character exemplifies the fact that with access to education, and a stable career, women do not need to mold their lives around men.
I love the fact that Miss. Kapoor is almost villainized by her own mother (played by Dolly Ahluwalia) in the film because she had a child out of wedlock in her yesteryears, she chooses to remain single, and she brings her boyfriends around the house to hang out with. But, there’s a point to be made here. The fact that Kanika’s mother is being antagonized just highlights that she is challenging the norms and pushing the envelope for what is socially acceptable for women. Miss. Kapoor definitely deserves an honorable mention.
Pednekar’s unexpected yet impeccable comic timing is the highlight of the entire film. Everything from being a damsel in sexual distress to a woman who unabashedly chases self-pleasure, Pednekar puts on a genuinely entertaining act for the audience. From being portrayed as a high-schooler to the 32-year-old, independent woman, Pednekar is fit for each role. Her naivety as a teen wins you over, as does her gusto as a full-blown adult with a broken ankle and some very messy relationships. This also speaks volumes about the versatility of her looks.
And, of course, Pednekar is not new to films that address social topics, but “Thank You For Coming” challenges her to balance Kanika’s droll with the responsibility of delivering a very important message to the viewers. Mission accomplished, Ms. Pednekar!
“Thank You For Coming” is a through-and-through entertainer. Everything from the casting — a huge shout out to the rest of the supporting cast including Anil Kapoor, Shehnaaz Gill, Karan Kundra, Kusha Kapila, Gautmik, and Sushant Divkigar, without whom this roller coaster would have lacked the thrills — to the homey locations and even the glitz and glamor in the song sequences, they’re all perfect pieces to help drive home a powerful message: Smash patriarchy!
“Ghoomer,” R. Balki’s latest directorial venture, had its world premiere at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne 2023 (IFFM), earlier this month, and the moment was nothing short of memorable. Lead actors Abhishek Bachchan, Saiyami Kher, and Angad Bedi, were present to unveil their labor of love to the world, and all three were left speechless at the reaction of the global audience; the film received a standing ovation on opening night, leaving the team extremely emotional — a feeling that Bachchan tells Brown Girl is one he cannot put into words.
“Ghoomer,” tells the story of Anina (played by Kher), an exceptional cricket player who loses her right hand in an accident. Downtrodden and with no will to live, Anina finds a mentor and coach in Padam Singh Sodhi (played by Bachchan), an insensitive and brash failed cricketer who helps her turn her life and career around; Anina also has the unwavering support of her husband, Jeet (played by Bedi). Sodhi teaches Anina unorthodox techniques to make her mark on the cricket ground once again. Enter, ghoomer, a new style of bowling.
Balki checks all the boxes with this feature — his protagonist is a female athlete, the film is his way of giving back to cricket (a new form of delivery), and he highlights the idea that nothing is impossible for paraplegic athletes. The heart of Balki’s film is in the right place — Kher mentions that the film is meant to be more of an inspirational movie and less of a sports-based movie. One can only imagine the impact that a film like this would have on an audience that’s hungry for meaningful cinema.
And, to chat more about “Ghoomer,” Brown Girl Magazine sat down with the stars of the show. Bachchan, Bedi, and Kher came together to talk about their inspiring characters, the filming journey, and how their film aspires to change the landscape of cricket and paraplegic athletes in the country. It was all that, with a side of samosas.
Take a look!
The featured image is courtesy of Sterling Global.