“Padmaavat” (2018) starring Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, & Shahid Kapoor

SPOILERS: Don’t read this post if you haven’t seen, or don’t want to know, details from this movie.

Set in medieval Rajasthan, Queen Padmavati is married to a noble king and they live in a prosperous fortress with their subjects until an ambitious Sultan hears of Padmavati’s beauty and forms an obsessive love for the Queen of Mewar. -Synopsis

I didn’t know I would have to suffer THIS much just to see Shahid Kapoor’s spectacular abs! Seriously, this is one Bollywood movie (directed/co-written by Sanjay Leela Bhansali) which deserved the controversy it got- it’s misogynistic, Islamaphobic, and homophobic. One army is shouting and riding through a desert carrying green flags w/ a white crescents (just like the flag of Pakistan). There is a scene of many men all wearing white thobes and turbans doing namaz (prayer), then yelling and picking up weapons to fight in the next moment. The stereotypes are so blatant, this movie could be considered dangerous (esp. given the tensions between Muslims and Hindus in Modi’s India)! For those of you who watched Game of Thrones, there is a murder scene very similar to the killing of a lesser Lannister cousin by Jaime in Season 2.

I’m sure some of you’ve heard re: the characterization of the medieval sultan, Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh); he is violent (even w/o cause), lustful (incl. for power/lands), obsessive, and animal-like (eating raw meat w/ his bare hands). In stark contrast, Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), is peaceful, loving (having eyes only for his wife), calm, and honorable leader. I learned that one of my fave veteran actors (who has worked all over the world), Naseeruddin Shah, is a maternal uncle of Kapoor! Yes, the actor has both Hindu and Muslim heritage; this is not unusual when it comes to some of Bollywood’s film families.

In the early 1300s, an arrogant/confident prince named Alauddin marries his cousin, Mehrunissa (Aditi Rao Hydari), and plots to take the throne of her father/his uncle- Jalaluddin (Raza Murad). None of the Muslims in this movie are portrayed as good, aside from the luminous/sad-eyed Mehrunissa. In one memorable scene, a warrior named Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh), kills two hardened soldiers with balletic/swift strokes of his knife. Unfortunately, he spends most of the movie pining after Alauddin like a love-sick teenager.

When Mehrunissa is close, Kafur is jealous. In one scene, he is washing Alauddin while they sit in a big bathtub (talk about homoerotic undertones)! In the original story (written by a Muslim poet), Malik Kafur was both a fighter (respected general who fought in many successful battled) and a lover. In Ridley Scott’s Alexander, he has a handsome male companion who hails from somewhere in the Middle East; this was based on records uncovered by historians. In this case, Malik Kafur’s homosexuality serves as a running joke and makes Alauddin seem like even more of a freak of nature.

The princess (of what is now Sri Lanka), Padmavati (Deepika Padukone- sporting an unibrow), is first seen frolicking in the woods w/ a bow and arrow. This might bring to mind Diana (the huntress in Greek mythology) or Katniss from The Hunger Games trilogy. She attempts to shoot a deer, but ends up wounding the King of Chittor- Ratan Singh! He admits that it was his fault- he was staring at her (struck by her beauty, not just her arrow). Padmavati takes care of the king (in the cave where she lives- no reason why) while he recovers. This section of the movie reminded some viewers of Wonder Woman.

Of course, Padmavati and Ratan Singh fall in love; the actors portray this well. She gives Ratan Singh handfuls of pearls (which he had been searching for at the request of his queen). The marry and go off to his kingdom, where his first wife, Nagamati (Anupriya Genka) is put on the back bench. When the court priest- Chetan- is caught spying on the king and queen; he is promptly banished. Chetan ends up working for Alauddin, convincing him that in order to succeed, he must have Padmavati by his side! This is one character I wanted to see a bit more of, along w/ his motivations.

The middle section of this story drags on… and on; the viewer is bombarded w/ scenes of dust, desert, marching armies, as well as the opulence (of the Rajputs). Honestly, I couldn’t judge who had the better costumes- Kapoor or Padukone! Eventually, Ratan Singh invites Alauddin to share a meal and talk alone (w/o any men or weapons). When Alauddin asks to see Padmavati, Ratan Singh is deeply offended and says no. Alauddin says that he expected to meet both the rulers. Padmavati convinces her husband that, in order to appease Alauddin (and maybe save the kingdom from war), she will let him see her. Before Alauddin can get a good look, a curtain is pulled down, hiding the queen. This makes the sultan very angry; he vows to get Padmavati to come to him! Alauddin invites Ratan Singh to his tent for meal, then kidnaps him. Though Nagamati pleads w/ her not to, Padmavati insists on going to rescue her husband (w/ his two best soldiers by her side and 800 attendants).

The movie opens with some disclaimers, one being that it is not endorsing jauhar (Wikipedia: “the act of mass self-immolation by women in parts of the Indian subcontinent, to avoid capture, enslavement and rape by Islamic invaders, when facing certain defeat during a war.”) As some of you may have guessed, jauhar is closely connected to sutee (“bride burning”)- the custom of a Hindu widow being burned to death on the funeral pyre of her husband. Kaushik Roy said that the jauhar was observed only during Hindu-Muslim wars; John Stratton Hawley states it was present before them and was likely started by the actions of the Greek conquerors.

Well, in the last act of the film, jauhar is most obviously valorized! After the fight between Alauddin and Ratan Singh (where the good king is shot in the back), the girls and women (incl. ones who are pregnant) inside the fort are seen dressed in their finest (bridal) red outfits. They are led by Padmavati, who defiantly declares that Alauddin’s army will not defeat them. They walk in a slow procession for some time- too long- and bravely walk closer… and closer to a huge wall of fire. No one looks nervous, scared, or even hesitates for a second- that can’t be realistic!

Tel Aviv on Fire (2018)

FYI: This film was released in 2018 in France, Israel, and parts of Europe. It is now in theaters here in the U.S. Have you ever been a fan of a soap opera? Would you like to see a (fresh/light) take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is a certain level of camp (incl. melodrama) OK w/ you? Then this comedy (co-written/directed by Sameh Zoabi- a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts) is worth a watch. It’s light and fluffy at first glance, but there is the weight of history, occupation, and everyday struggles underneath.

Salam (Kais Nashif- Palestinian-German actor seen in AmericanEast) is suddenly promoted to scriptwriter on a historically-based soap opera developed by his uncle Bassam (Nadim Sawalha- veteran British Jordanian actor/father of actress Julia Sawalha)- Tel Aviv on Fire. During a time of war in 1967, Manal (AKA Rachel) is a Palestinian spy trying to get secrets from the Israeli army. She is in a love triangle w/ two very different men- Marwan (a poetic Muslim freedom fighter) and Yehuda (a straight-laced Jewish general). Tala (Lubna Azabal from Rock the Casbah) is the lead- egotistical, glamorous, and very successful (based in France). She gives her opinions on the script, explaining that at her level, she won’t act if the dialogue is bad.

Salam (very anxious about his job) tries to find inspiration for his character- Yehuda. He is a former bartender and not gifted at writing, as Salam’s ex-girlfriend Mariam (a doctor) reminds him when they run into each other. One morning, Salam is pulled over at a checkpoint between Jerusalem (where the TV studio is located) and Ramallah (where he lives w/ his elderly mother). He meets Assi, an arrogant captain of the guard whose wife (along w/ many Israeli Jewish women) loves the show. Assi’s wife is sure that Rachel will end up w/ Marwan (her favorite character), not the boring Yehuda.

Assi (who is both funny and potentially dangerous) has opinions, incl, on how the season should end- a wedding between Rachel and Yehuda (his favorite character). Assi objects to the way Yehuda has been characterized so far- he doesn’t speak like a real military man. At first, Salam is bemused by these suggestions, then relies on Assi for dialogue. Salam also analyzes his failed relationship w/ Mariam, putting some of her words into scripts. Yehuda becomes a more authentic and sensitive character. Can a mere TV show unite two divided peoples (audiences)?

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).


JxJ Film Festival: Abe (starring Noah Schnapp)

Abe (Noah Schnapp who plays Will Byers on the popular Netflix show, Stranger Things) is a quiet, sensitive, 12-year-old half-Israeli and half- Palestinian kid living in Brooklyn who loves cooking. He has a food blog, IG account, and many (online) friends who follow his progress in the kitchen. One side of the family prefers to call him “Avraham” (in Hebrew), the other side “Ibrahim” (in Arabic), while his atheist parents call him “Abraham.” But he prefers Abe. A few boys in school are turning 13 y.o. and planning big bashes for their bar mitzvah; Abe admits that he’s curious about the Jewish religion. This is music to his (maternal) grandfather’s (Mark Margolis) ears. Abe also wants to know more re: Islam; he tries fasting for a day (like his paternal grandparents).

Abe’s parents, Rebecca (Dagmara Dominczyk, wife of Patrick Wilson and 1st gen Polish-American) and Amir (Arian Moayed, a Tony nominee of Palestinian heritage) want him to make more (real-life) friends, so suggest he go to a summer cooking camp. It’s too easy for Abe, so he decides to bail w/o consulting his parents. He seeks out an experienced Afro-Brazilian chef, Chico, who specializes in fusion food at local pop ups. At first, Chico is reluctant to let a kid work in his kitchen, but then he sees the passion and potential in Abe. He rides the subway on his own, starts working at Chico’s kitchen, and eventually creates some recipes of his own (combining the ingredients used by both sides of his conflicted family).

This is such a well-made, timely, and unique film; I hope it comes out on a streaming service soon (so can get a wider audience)! Abe is just one representative of the many kids in modern society w/ families from different races, cultures, religions, etc. He’s not sure if he wants to be atheist, like his parents, b/c the traditions of his grandparents appeal to him. His maternal grandmother left a box of family recipes; his mom gives these to Abe. He does some research and discovers that Jews and Palestinians, who have a contentious past, use many of the same ingredients in cooking.

JxJ Film Festival: Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles

The origin story behind one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals, Fiddler on The Roof, and its creative roots in early 1960s New York, when “tradition” was on the wane as gender roles, sexuality, race relations and religion were evolving. -IMDB synopsis

In the early 20th century, Jews and Orthodox Christians live in the little village of Anatevka in the pre-revolutionary Russia (when Czars ruled). The poor milkman Reb Tevye has been married for 25 yrs to Golde and they have five daughters . When the local matchmaker, Yente, arranges the match between his eldest daughter Tzeitel and the old widowed butcher Lazar Wolf, Tevye agrees to the wedding. However, Tzeitel is in love with the poor tailor Motel Kamzoil; they “gave each other a pledge” to someday get married. After seeing the couple so happy, Tevye begins to rethink some of the traditions he assumed would continue…

This was my favorite film (of the six that I saw) of this year’s festival; it’s a funny, educational, and touching doc (featuring Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda, veteran actor Austin Pendelton, cultural critic Fran Lebowitz, and many others influenced by the beloved and timeless musical). The theater was full (or nearly full) during the two showings. Did you know that several of the team who came up with the lyrics, music, dances, etc. are still alive?

We get to hear from theater greats like Harold Prince (producer), Sheldon Harnick (songwriter), and Calvin Trillin (writer). Several discuss the innovation, as well as the emotional/verbal abuse, of Jerome Robbins (the very talented choreographer). Robbins was a “conflicted Jew” and controversial figure because he revealed names to the HUAC. It turns out that he was a closeted gay man seeking to protect his privacy.

A youthful Norman Jewison (who directed the very popular 1971 movie) is seen directing a scene featuring Tevye (Chaim Topol, an actor from Israel who worked mainly on the London stage). Did you know that Jewison (who worked on many socially-conscious films) isn’t Jewish? Though Tevye is the center of the story, dreaming of being a rich man, talking to God, and trying to be the breadwinner, his three (independent-minded) daughters propel the story forward.

Stage/film actresses from different generations talk re: portraying Tevye’s practical wife (Golda), eldest daughter (Tzeitel), witty middle daughter (Hodel), and the gentle/shy one (Chava). Each daughter has (what we call these days) a love marriage. It was shocking to the family when Chava ran off to marry a Russian (not Jewish) boy; this action had more serious consequences in that time period and community.

The (timeless) themes of Fiddler on the Roof have made the play popular worldwide; we get to see clips from a professional performance in Japan and one from school kids in Brooklyn and Thailand. Non-Jewish creative types, including Gurinder Chada (best known for the British indie hit Bend it Like Beckham), talk about how the tale has influenced their works. Miranda even used the song “To Life” in his wedding reception; he, his father-in-law, and members of the wedding party surprised his wife! The doc wraps up w/ how the plight of (modern) refugees is not unlike Tevye’s family.