“Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela” (2013) starring Ranveer Singh & Deepika Padukone

This Bollywood movie (directed by the prolific, yet shallow, Sanjay Leela Bhansali) uses Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a frame; it is also influenced by works of American director Quentin Tarantino and (in my opinion) Aussie director Baz Luhrmann. In a village in Gujarat, Ram (Ranveer Singh) is more of a flirt (Romeo) than a fighter. Though his hardened father’s gang deals in guns, Ram manages a small theater showing porn films. In another part of town, Leela (Juliet) is the spirited daughter of a petite boss lady dealing in spices. Of course, their families hate each other; these communities (the Saneda and Rajadi) have been enemies for 500 years. Ram sneaks into Leela’s part of town for Holi w/ his pals; they fall in love at first sight. This movie brought these two actors together (in real life); they were recently married.

The landscape of this movie (shot primarily in Udaipur) reminded me of Westerns (of the American Southwest). This movie has (for the most part) good/catchy songs, most notably the mega-hit Nagada Sang Dhol (sung by one of Bollywood’s best voices- Shreya Ghoshal- and Osman Mir). In order to perform the fast-paced/energetic choreography for this dance, Padukone had to learn to do garba (dance). The costumes are unique, intricate, and colorful, as seen in other recent Bhansali films (Bajirao Mastani; Padmaavat). There is a mix of modern (incl. ripped jeans) and historical fashions. The chemistry between the leads is obvious; the director had them spend time together alone and at various events.

If there weren’t cell phones, movies, bullets, or guns shown, it could easily be a historical film. Guns are fetishized throughout; this may put off some viewers. The title translates to A Play of Bullets: Ram-Leela. Rifles are being sold openly in the village market, a visitor is shocked to see. At the slightest insult, men and boys from opposing gangs start shooting (like the Wild West). There is very little blood shown, as that’s the norm in Bollywood. Even the chilled out Ram wears an embroidered pistol holder at his waist. The lovers flirt using pistols; it was unexpected and ironic. There are Gujarati slang terms and curses which Ram uses, some viewers/critics pointed out.

This movie clocks in at 2 hrs and 30 mins; this isn’t unusual for this genre. Padukone comes off as confident and natural; her large/expressive eyes are her finest asset. There are not many well-developed supporting characters. Leela’s mother, Baa (Supriya Pathak Kapur), makes a big impression as the villain She has very imposing looks and a rough/world-weary voice. We don’t learn much re: Ram’s father, his older brother, or Leela’s scheming male cousins (who want to succeed Baa). Instead of the old Nurse in Romeo and Juliet (or feisty Anita in West Side Story), we have Leela’s sister-in-law, Rasila (Richa Chadha). She tries to help the star-crossed lovers escape town. Bhansali chose Chadha for her more “typical Indian features and dusky skin” (which is in contrast to the leading lady). In one standout scene, Rasila (who has confidence and toughness) escapes being raped by Ram’s friends! I’m sure that scene will be upsetting to some viewers, though it is a common trope in Bollywood.

Priyanka Chopra dances during the song Ram Chaye Leela Chaye Ram; she was up for the role of Leela years earlier (after Kareena Kapoor turned it down). Chopra (now famous worldwide) is a rather limited actress. I though that this dance was unnecessary; it didn’t flow w/ the movie and mainly involved moving her (quite toned) stomach. Chopra got a more meaty role in Bajirao Mastani. Speaking of abs, Singh was put on a diet of mainly fish, broccoli, turkey, and green tea to help achieve his look. He also worked out at a gym built specifically for him. However, great (or defined) abs don’t equate to great acting. I don’t see the point of having actors (male and female) go to such lengths when their time would be better spent in acting classes. Also, with this type of (shallow) material, actors can’t do much!

Blinded by the Light (2019) directed by Gurinder Chadha

Gurinder Chadha (a British Asian Sikh journo turned filmmaker) made a big splash w/ the 2002 indie film, Bend it Like Beckham, starring Parminder Nagra (a theater actress who US audiences watched on ER) and a teen Keira Knightley (who became a worldwide success). At first, Chadha (now a mom of twins w/ her writing partner/husband Paul Mayeda Berges), felt that Blinded was too similar to her previous film. After Brexit happened, she was determined to tell the story (based on the life of a journo of Pakistani/Muslim heritage Sarfraz Manzoor). The movie was approved by Bruce Springsteen two years ago; after a private screening, The Boss told Chadha: “I love it. Don’t change a thing.”

Javed (Viveik Kalra) is a 16 y.o. living in ’80s Luton, England; it’s not a good time to be Pakistani, Muslim, or a dreamer who wants more than what’s planned by his parents. Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister. The National Front (NF) supporters spray hateful graffiti on mosques and homes, including in Javed’s working-class neighborhood. Though he (secretly) wants to be a writer, his immigrant father- Malik (Kulvinder Ghir from Goodness Gracious Me)- wants him to be a doctor, engineer, or estate agent. Jobs are scarce in this town; money is tight in the family; the parents are anxious re: upcoming wedding of Javed’s older sister. Javed and his mom give their earnings to Malik; this was a surprise to many people in my screening.

Javed has been keeping journals for many years; he also writes songs for his best friend/neighbor Matt’s (Dean Charles Chapman from Game of Thrones) band. Things start to change between the long-time pals when Matt gets his first girlfriend and Javed goes into the sixth form (in preparation for university). Javed’s new English teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), sees potential in his work. She explains that he has an unique voice. Another British Asian kid in school, Roops (Aaron Phagura), introduces Javed to the music of Springsteen. Roops is based on the (real-life) best friend of Manzoor, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Javed falls in love w/ this American rock music (which was fading from popularity- FYI), feeling that Bruce is singing about his life!

Suddenly, Javed’s father is laid off from the factory job he’s had for 16 years. From the nightly news clips, we see that many people in factory/industrial towns are out of work. His mother, Noor (Meera Ganatra), has to take in more sewing to support the family; she works well into the night w/o complaint. Even Javed tries to go back to the bread factory where we worked the last summer, but there are no jobs. About half-way through the film, we get a (touching/sensitive) scene between Malik and Noor. I don’t think another filmmaker would have done it as well as Chadha. The parents would’ve remained more stereotypical, one-note, and unchanging. One critic esp. liked how they showed how much Malik cared for his fellow Pakistanis and mosque.

Javed’s younger sister, Shazia (Nikita Mehta), doesn’t understand why he’s so into Springsteen. We later learn that Shazia has a bit of a rebellious side also; she goes to “daytimers” (parties featuring bhangra music w/ fellow British Asian students). I had never heard of these events before- they look fun! Though this story is centered on a boy and his dad, it’s great to see a bit into a girl’s life.

One of the girl’s in Javed’s English class, Eliza (Nell Williams), is an activist who is impressed by his writing and personality. We eventually learn that she’s from a wealthy Tory (politically conservative) family. Her parents comment that Eliza dates boys who are “controversial” in the scene where Javed goes to their house. Aside from his obsession w/ Bruce, Javed is “a good, straight arrow kid” (as a film critic noted), so there isn’t much for her parents to worry about.

There is more to this (optimistic) story; you should check it out if it’s playing nearby. It doesn’t shy away from (in your face; period accurate) racism. FYI: People in my screening were shocked by a few scenes. A desi man in my audience commented after the film: “I grew up in Birmingham; it’s pretty accurate.” There is lot to like about this film, but it’s not perfect. The musical scenes may put some people off; a few viewers in my audience and critics considered them “cheesy” or “cringey.” They didn’t always fit well w/in the story; I was expecting them to be more naturalistic. FYI: 19 different Springsteen songs were featured through the film- WOW!

Photograph (2019) starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui & Sanya Malhotra

[1] …if you appreciate ambiguity, the film leaves a lot to imagination and interpretation, which has its own charm. The open-ended climax in particular is cleverly done. It makes you ponder and crave for more.

[2] This movie is about the budding romantic relationship between characters of two completely different backgrounds and the director is successful in capturing the nervousness, the newness and the hesitance of a growing relationship.

[3] Photograph is a film that thrives on silences, and it is beautiful to acknowledge how, at times, they overcompensate for the absence of words.

[4] The detailing was insane in this one. The screenplay really allowed me to learn so much about the world and its characters in an organic way.

[5] If you talk about the pace of the film my defence would be it is just like old & matured wine which do not give you kick in first sip but you have to feel it, give it time to grab you very slowly. If you respect it then it will give you magical moments which will be with you for very long time. The best part of the movie is its simplicity in terms of storyline & acting. Characters are written/played so well, so imagine them to be someone next door to you.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

This a movie for the anti-Bollywood (don’t be shy) crowd! Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui; he also co-starred in Ritesh Batra’s first film- The Lunchbox) is a serious-minded, middle-aged Muslim man (originally from Uttar Pradesh) struggling to get by in Mumbai. He lives w/ 4 roomies/pals and works as a photographer at the (popular tourist spot) Gateway of India. Miloni (Sanya Malhotra, one of the grown-up daughters in Dangal starring Aamir Khan) is an introverted student in her early 20s working toward her C.A. (Chartered Accountant) certification. She is from a strict Hindu, middle-class Gujrati family that wants her to achieve and marry a successful young man (perhaps one going abroad to the US).

Word reaches Rafi (via several sources) that his grandmother (who raised him and his siblings) back in their village has stopped taking her meds; she wants him to find a bride ASAP. He meets Miloni at the Gateway one day, takes her picture, but she goes off suddenly w/o paying. Rafi decides to send her photo to his grandma and calls his pretend fiance Noori (after the heroine of a classic Hindi movie). Miloni is soft-spoken and (at first) seems to have no opinions of her own, even when it comes to picking out the color of a new salwar kameez. Then, one night at dinner, her mom explains to her brother-in-law that Miloni used to win awards in grade school for acting.

When his grandma writes that she’s coming to Mumbai for a visit, Rafi goes in search of Miloni (whose photo, luckily, is on billboard ads for her CA program- she’s the top student). After a few attempts, he gets a chance to talk to her; Miloni (surprisingly) agrees to meet his grandmother and play along. It turns out that, despite their looks, backgrounds, and ages, they have much in common! They’re both kind, careful, observant individuals who form a connection. The ending, unlike what most films deliver, is hopeful (yet not conclusive).


New Series Trailers: Turn Up Charlie, Delhi Crime, & Ramy

Turn Up Charlie (Netflix) – This show is now streaming!

This show stars British actor Idris Elba; he worked as a DJ in London & NYC for years in his 20s & 30s.

Delhi Crime (Netflix): March 22nd

NYC-based writer/media critic Aseem Chhabra (who I’ve been following since 2005) posted re: this show on IG. He “loved the first two episodes,” which were directed by his Canadian friend (Richie Mehta). The cast includes Rasika Dugal (Bombay Talkies) and Shefali Shah (who some of you will recognize from her memorable co-starring role in Monsoon Wedding). The show focuses on the Nirbhaya rape case of Jyoti Singh. I’m guessing that most of the actors in this show are theater veterans.

Ramy (Hulu): April 19th

You may have seen Ramy Youssef’s stand-up before. In his 1st series, he plays a young man (NOT unlike himself) who is a first generation Egyptian-American exploring the challenges of being a Muslim in today’s world. His mother is played by internationally-acclaimed Israeli Arab actress, Hiam Abbass (The Visitor; Blade Runner 2049). Mo Amer (another stand-up comic) who is a Palestinian-American/refugee is part of the cast; he has a Netflix special (The Vagabond) that is funny and educational. Dave Merheje, a Canadian-Lebanese stand-up featured in Comedians of the World (Netflix), also has a role; he just won a Juno award this week. Indian-American actress Poorna Jagannathan (The Night Of; Gypsy) is also listed in IMDB for 3 eps; she is a friend of one of my writer friends (from my NYC days).

Book Review: “American Dervish” by Ayad Akthar

Hayat Shah is a young American in love for the first time. His normal life of school, baseball, and video games had previously been distinguished only by his Pakistani heritage and by the frequent chill between his parents, who fight over things he is too young to understand. Then Mina arrives, and everything changes.

Mina is Hayat’s mother’s oldest friend from Pakistan. She is independent, beautiful and intelligent, and arrives on the Shah’s doorstep when her disastrous marriage in Pakistan disintegrates. Even Hayat’s skeptical father can’t deny the liveliness and happiness that accompanies Mina into their home. Her deep spirituality brings the family’s Muslim faith to life in a way that resonates with Hayat as nothing has before. Studying the Quran by Mina’s side and basking in the glow of her attention, he feels an entirely new purpose mingled with a growing infatuation for his teacher.

When Mina meets and begins dating a man, Hayat is confused by his feelings of betrayal. His growing passions, both spiritual and romantic, force him to question all that he has come to believe is true. Just as Mina finds happiness, Hayat is compelled to act — with devastating consequences for all those he loves most.

-Synopsis of the novel (Amazon)

As some of you know, I’m a V slow reader, BUT I managed to finish 75% of this novel (according to my Kindle)! I’ve been following this author for a few yrs now; in 2017, journo Bill Moyers said of Akthar: “We finally have a voice for our times.” One of my friends read American Dervish a few years ago; she didn’t recall ALL the details, BUT said that she’d never read something like this before. She passed it onto a friend, then that friend gave it to another. A newcomer to the book club said she also liked the book- subject matter and writing style. The moderator who read it 2 yrs ago said that this book goes into the issues faced by ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis), NOT only those particular to Muslims. 

WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS for the novel. 

NOTE: The following topics/questions (which my book club discussed) can be found here: https://www.bookbrowse.com/reading_guides/detail/index.cfm/book_number/2649/american-dervish

Do you think that one has to reject one identity in order to embrace another? What choice does Hayat make? What will the result be?

I think that children and adolescents (such as Hayat Shah, the protagnist/narrator) can often feel this way; my book club agreed w/ this comment. For Hayat, he identified as a Muslim, at least as a preteen boy. His goal was to be a hafiz (someone who knows the Quran by heart), though his father was dead set against this plan. Akthar said in several interviews that he was V interested in Islam as a child; he convinced his (secular) parents to take him to the local mosque and allow him to study the Quran. 

Hayat’s mother and father have a difficult relationship. In fact, all of the relationships between men and women in the book are complex, often troubled. What might the author be saying about such relationships within this culture?

Back in Pakistan, Mina’s first marriage turned sour b/c of her abusive mother-in-law. Her husband didn’t do anything to stop this, so Mina made the drastic decision to go to the US (w/ her son Imran). She couldn’t go back to her parents; they had urged her to stay w/ her husband’s family (she was rejected in her time of need).  

The newcomer to our group said that there were messed up power dynamics between Hayat’s parents; his mother (Muneer) didn’t have a job, so his father (Naveed) has all the money (thus the decision-making power). The ONLY relationship that was positive was between Hayat’s mom’s best friend, Mina, and his father’s friend/colleague, Nathan. They have an old-fashioned courtship, under the watchful eye of Muneer for about a year. This is a kind of fix-up, though based on mutual respect and admiration. Mina and Nathan talk re: books and ideas, share meals, and grow to love each other. When Hayat asks why they can’t be alone, his mother explains that Mina is a Pakistani woman, so “dating” is out of the question.

Hayat’s mother has grown angry and bitter b/c her husband drinks (secretly, he thinks) and cheats on her w/ white women. The women are possibly nurses at the hospital where Dr. Shah conducts research. Hayat’s mother, Muneer, refers to the other women as “mistresses” and “prostitutes.” Her view of white women is thus very negative, though she has a positive view of the Jewish people (incl. Nathan). In one scene, Muneer says that she’s raising Hayat “like a little Jew” (so that he’ll grow up to love and respect women).

Do you think it’s valid and/or authentic for male authors to write about feminist issues? What was your feeling about the portrayal of women in American Dervish?

Yes, someone can be “a male feminist,” my friend said quickly. Akthar said that he was inspired by the women in his life, incl. his own mother (a medical doc), his aunts, and various Pakistani immigrant women from the community of Milwaukee, WI (where he grew up). 

What are the different visions of Islam portrayed in the book?

Naveed (a man of science) has a contempt (perhaps even hatred) of Islam; this is echoed in Disgraced, where Amir even hides his origins. Naveed makes fun of Nathan when the younger man shows an interest in the religion. After Mina and Nathan’s break-up, he declares to his son that he “never wants to see you w/ that book [the Quran] ever again.” On the flip side, Mina wants to know more re: Islam; she studies and also teaches Hayat for a time. She is BOTH religious and spiritual, explaining to Hayat that it’s the “intention” of an action that counts. 

What did you think of the relationship between Islam and Judaism in the novel?

This is a tough one (IMO), b/c in this novel, these religions are put at odds w/ each other. Mina rejects Nathan (a cultural Jew) b/c he doesn’t want to convert to Islam. After all, he had a shocking/scary experience the one time he attended the masjid. Naveed warned him, BUT Nathan’s curiosity and love for Mina compelled him to give this religion a chance. Muneer, who had such high hopes for the pair, is disappointed when they don’t marry. She saw Nathan as a decent man and great choice for Mina, even though he was white and Jewish. I feel that Muneer wanted her friend to have a better life than herself.