Mardaani (Brave Woman)
There are a number Indian film actors, male or female, that one can easily think of taking on the role of an action hero badass, but far from immediately coming to mind to fill such an avatar is Rani Mukerji, what with her pocket-size-petite frame. But not for nothing is she considered one of Bollywood's most accomplished actresses, stretching beyond the typical romantic heroine comfort zone to fearlessly take on difficult parts (most notably, her justly multi-award-winning turn as a blind, deaf, and mute woman in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's 2005 drama Black). In Mardaani, she and director Pradeep Sarkar take the right approach in easing the audience into the idea of Mukerji playing a tough cop determined to take down sex traffickers who have abducted a young friend of hers. We don't see Mukerji immediately dive into action, but instead essay the role from the inside-out, projecting her natural poise, confidence, and intelligence as she leads a police bust... undercover, clad in a sari. From there the layers are peeled away and the rougher edges gradually, organically exposed, talking tough and taking no crap (though not to the heavy-handed, F-word-flying extreme as her rather abrasive reporter in 2011's docudrama No One Killed Jessica) and convincingly embodying righteous authority that by the time her literally slapping (!) wrongdoers evolves into her chasing after a motorcycle-riding perp on foot and taking him down with a flying tackle, one doesnt question it at all. Not that Mukerji ever loses her vulnerability, which is valuable in keeping her from being a stock hero, subtly shading in humanity without ever going girly-soft, best exemplified by a memorable pre-intermission phone standoff with the head trafficker (well played by newcomer Tahir Raj Bhasin). Mukerji and Sarkar previously collaborated on 2007's Laaga Chunari Mein Daag: Journey of a Woman, where the director dared to tackle the bold story of a desperate woman driven to prostitution but somehow made it feel safe and chaste as if careful to not offend the masses. Here, much like how he doesn't compromise with Mukerji's role, he doesn't softpedal the young women's ordeal, crafting some harrowing but not exploitative sequences. That said, here he (and writer Gopi Puthran) still isn't above sidestepping crowdpleasing convention, but in this case he is forgiven. After all, with the film's main USP being cinema sweetheart Mukerji kicking some major ass, to not have the film climax with anything other than some old-fashioned hand-to-hand brawling (with which Mukerji proves to be surprisingly convincing) would be a letdown.
Metro Manila CityLights
One of the more depressing signifiers of the independent/foreign language/arthouse theatrical market being in its death throes is the throwaway fate of Sean Ellis's Metro Manila. After winning much acclaim on the festival circuit and racking up accolades such as a Sundance Audience Award (back in 2013) and a BAFTA nomination only in the last month has it received a "proper" U.S. release--that is, if a single cinema screen with day-and-date VOD can ever be termed as "proper." What makes such a fate so disappointing and even shameful is that there are so many marketable virtues, both commercially and as far as awards, and such an effective marriage of convincing, real-world dramatic grit, universal relevance, and accessible genre touches is too rare a gem to find from any corner of the globe. Just how effective isn't immediately apparent while watching the film though Ellis and co-writer Frank E. Flowers, though it's certainly instantly and consistently compelling. In order to seek out a better livelihood for his family, simple farmer Oscar (Jake Macapagal) in the Philippines moves himself, his wife (Althea Vega), and two very young children to the metro of Manila--and, per the norm in real and reel life, quickly find their ideal hopes and dreams dashed by the hustle and bustle of the big city all too ready and eager to prey upon the naive likes of Oscar and family. The struggle becomes slightly less so when Oscar lands a job as an armored car driver, and a senior co-worker (John Arcilla) who becomes a mentor of sorts may have the key to ending it completely.
Ellis has to pull off a series of balancing acts to make the entire picture work. Oscar and his family have to be nice and simple but in a truthful way that doesn't sink to the level of idiotic, unsympathetic bumpkin cliché. The city's seedy grime must be matched by its denizens' predatory actions, but in an authentically menacing way that yet never comes off as salaciously exploitative. Finally, the serious social drama and the more genre-driven elements the film takes on in its latter half must organically, seamlessly blend without shortchanging either. That the difficult feat is pulled off with nary a hitch is a direct result of how all of the talent involved align perfectly in sync. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Arcilla an electrifying presence at once likable and scarily mysterious; his would be a movie-stealing turn had it not been for Macapagal and Vega's soulful portrayals, which are key to maintaining the empathetic, heartbreaking face to the increasingly grim and often dehumanizing circumstances they face. With such piercing performances, the character-driven dramatic stakes are never lost and are perhaps even more strongly felt even as more action and thriller paces take over--culminating in a climax whose nail-biting suspense and tension is surpassed only by its startling emotional impact. Satisfying as entertainment and remarkably cathartic as drama, this is a masterful achievement that deserves to find the audience that the marketplace seems determined to deny it.
So protracted was the delay between Metro Manila's Sundance premiere and its official American release that not only was a Bollywood remake produced and release during that time, but an officially authorized one. CityLights, produced by Fox's Indian imprint Fox Star Studios, does find director Hansal Mehta and screenwriter Hansal Shah pulling some of Ellis and Flowers' punches; the focal family only has one child, and they are spared some of the twists of the knife suffered in the original. But be it a farmer in the Philippines or, here, a garment salesman (Rajkummar Rao) in Rajasthan, the struggles in moving from a small village to a big city (in this version, Mumbai) and that to provide a better life for one's family remain the same, and Mehta and Shah are wise enough to not deviate from Ellis and Flowers' undeniable dramatic hook and universally relatable themes, all the while lending their film a specific, local cultural flavor and thus establishing its own identity. In fact, the wife's (Patralekha) side job as a bar dancer makes for a comfortable fit for Bollywood, leaving a natural out for the requisite song interludes (though, in keeping with the artier vibe, here do not feature either choreography or lipsynching). If other concessions to Indian cinema convention, such as a needless flashback framework and a dash of more broad sentimentality in the finale, don't work quite as well, that's compensated by still-suspenseful and involving storyline and the committed performances by the actors.