Mr Natwarlal (1979)

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I love Mr Natwarlal. It has so much masala goodness, it always puts a smile on my face. We are given Amitabh as a hero with some unheroic ideas, Rekha as a gorgeous and quick witted village belle, Amjad Khan as a typical Amjad Khan villain, more familiar faces than you can poke a stick at, a catchy Rajesh Roshan soundtrack and writer/director Rakesh Kumar continues working out his tiger wrestling fetish. The only major negative is that some of the horse stunts have a look of careless finality for the horses that always makes me queasy.

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The film is framed with Amitabh narrating the story of a child that turns out to be himself, telling the story of his past to his own child. I only mention that so I have an excuse to post this picture of an awesome playground complete with lion statue. I suspected immediately that despite the plethora of cute kid actors I was going to love this.

Natwarlal (Amitabh Bachchan) is a smooth talking fast thinking criminal with Robin Hood tendencies. This dates back to a traumatic childhood incident when he was played by Master Laddu, and his older brother Ghirdharilal (Ajit) was entrapped by Evil Vikram (Amjad Khan). Natwarlal has been raised by his brother and sister-in-law (Indrani Mukherjee), who treats him as a son. Grown up Nattu is tricked by a heavily scarred man into stealing a diamond necklace and smuggling it out of the country. Scarface is actually Micky (Satyendra Kapoor), Vikram’s old (betrayed) business partner who is pretending to be one of Vikram’s Victims. Vikram likes his V symbolism. Poor Ghirdharilal keeps trying to nab his little brother to set him straight but Natwarlal easily produces alibi after alibi. He is determined to become a big enough crook to go after Vikram and set things to rights. Micky wants to use Natwarlal to take Vikram other out so he can take over the secret diamond mines. Revenge is a long and complex game, especially in masala films.

Natwarlal is an audacious crook and easily carries off the heist, even under the watchful eye of his brother. He heads to Chandanpur as instructed, arriving to find the village under a siege of sorts. Vikram is using a tiger (pleasingly, she is credited as Bharati) as a smokescreen for kidnapping villagers in small batches and forcing them to work in the mines. Now. Since the mining operation seems to take place on the river bank just a stroll or a long and desperate horse ride from the village, I would have thought people might notice their “dead” loved ones wandering about. But thanks to the filmi laws of locality blindness it seems not.

Natwarlal arrives suited and booted, toting a gun, unaware that village leader Baba (Kader Khan) has sent for a hunter to come and deal with their tiger issue. He isn’t interested at first in the village problems, being more focussed on the diamonds, but agrees that he is Avtar Singh, the hunter.  Amitabh makes switching from high drama to slapstick comedy look effortless. He is also nattily dressed for the country and Natwarlal must have been very efficient at packing such an extensive wardrobe into one small valise. And I suspect his boots have bullet evading properties.

That tree covered in people always makes me wonder how they got them up there, how long were they up there, and how they got down safely again. Also, given the speed and agility of those ladies the villagers may have been better advised to let them go battle the tiger while the menfolk stayed safely indoors. Sassy Shanno (Rekha) quickly sets her cap at the tall dance-challenged stranger, so Natwarlal gets a little distracted and seems quite happy to wait around.

Zimbo is despatched to check out the impostor as Vikram is quite certain he slapped the real Avtar Singh with a dead pigeon before having him killed. Poor Zimbo wasn’t mourned for long, if at all, when he disappeared under the quicksand. Ah well. No one is irreplaceable. Vikram is a surprisingly rational villain despite being completely nuts, and Amjad Khan seems to be having some fun with the grandiose threats. Vikram tries not to draw police attention, he acts with moderation to achieve a logical goal. But he can’t help branding everyone and everything he owns with a V and can’t just move on quietly or shoot the hero from a safe distance. Nooooo.

Natwarlal realises Vikram is behind everything and goes in search of trouble. Trouble finds him easily enough. Natwarlal rescues Shanno from Vikram’s not very bright goon squad. She is not good at taking orders not to stay out of harm’s way and actually rescues him back on multiple occasions. And they invent a new couples activity – tiger wrestling!

Rekha and The Big B’s on screen chemistry is always wonderful and while Shanno appears to fall for insta-love, Rekha plays her as funny and direct in their many scenes together so the relationship comes to life. Shanno gets her share of the big scenes too, and Rekha gave her fire and resolve. Amitabh also had good rapport with the tiger so I was vaguely hopeful that Bharati was not too traumatised by her many and varied fight scenes.

A lot of the humour comes from how the dialogues are delivered or those small beats in timing. There are some light Sholay references which made me laugh despite the drama brewing, especially Shanno’s Basanti-esque dance while she was being held captive at the diamond mine. I also enjoyed the irascible Natwarlal’s journey to loving something more than himself.

Will they overcome the dastardly Vikram and his all singing all dancing food juggling henchmen? Will Ghirdharilal and Natwarlal make their peace? Will Shanno get her man and her sheep? Will the starving villagers eat the tiger? (Spoiler – no!) Will Natwarlal ever stop blaspheming? Will Vikram get his comeuppance in a satisfyingly poetic manner? So much plot, so little time!

The locations are gorgeous and so is the cast. If you like masala with a modicum of moderation this is a great film.  4 stars! (Deductions for animal welfare concerns and annoying ghostly subtitles.)

Pravarakhyudu

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I’m quite fond of hero uncle Jagapathi Babu and I always find Priyamani worth watching. They definitely make this more watchable than the material warrants, although I did enjoy the relatively low key look at relationships in this romantic comedy. The comedy is the unfortunate bit.

Recently returned from the US, Sasi (Jagapathi Babu) is taken out to meet many prospective brides. He is an educated man and his funky glasses impress, but he seems to struggle when presented with a modern opinionated woman who has ideas about her own life. But one day, while driving in the country, Sasi is drawn to a woman he sees working in a field. His friend Ravi (Sunil) tells him that is because she looks like his legendary ex-girlfriend Shailaja (Priyamani).

We are hurtled into the past where Sasi wears his hair in a down do, and everyone looks years too old to be an undergraduate student. Shailu is arrogant and none too kind to her suitors, humiliating one by reading his letter out to her friends while he listens. But she has a point that she shouldn’t have to reciprocate just because a guy likes her. Sasi tells her guys don’t like her because she is good at studies and things, it’s just because she is hot. Shailu is offended as she believes her superior qualities make men fall for her. Cue shower scene (for Shailu, of course).

Sasi sees romance and sex as biologically necessary but love is just a stupid human invention. At a temple festival Shailu sees only the beautiful spiritual celebration while Sasi spots the couples taking advantage of the crowd to cop a feel. She is intensely irritated by him yet seeks him out all the time (she knows she does both things and that annoys her too), and he seems quite unruffled although it’s obvious he is attracted to her. When a fellow student threatens suicide by jumping from a water tank, Shailu challenges him to do something to break up the crowd and their encouragement of the wild behaviour – so he kisses her. He sees it as a tactic to draw the crowds’ attention and stop them encouraging the boy to jump, but Shailu starts to see all of his past actions as hints of his love for her.

Shailu tells all her friends she loves him just as he arrives to laugh it off as a bit of silliness. Shailu insists that he is lying to conceal his heart, and a rainy goodbye is on the cards. Question – why did none of the friends run for shelter? Or use the handy umbrella lying there. Or just give them some privacy? Shailaja goes to transfer out of college, but he says he will leave and does. There is a lot of Goodbye Forever in this film.

Back in the present day Shailu is the very strict principal of a ladies college and gets introduced with a jaunty chorus of “Lady Hitler!” Oh dear. But she does wear some nice sarees. And I do question that one of her perceived negative characteristics is that she gets security to beat up eve teasers outside the college. Is that really worse than eve teasing? Anyway. Her school had been looking for a Zoology lecturer and Sasi just happens to be a world famous Zoology lecturer.

Will Sasi ever overcome his intimacy issues that he says stem from not being breastfed as an infant? Will Shailu ever get off her high horse? Please. Nothing is impossible when you have an entire college stationery cupboard at your disposal.

Sasi turns into a mansplaining fauxmenist at times, usually to prove Shailu wrong. So I sometimes found myself agreeing with what he was saying even as I was itching to give him a tight slap for being such an arse. According to this film women feel empowered once a man, most likely Sasi, has told them how and when they may do so. But then he tells a girl she is at least partly responsible for a boy trying to kidnap her so you know Sasi really is a Telugu film hero, albeit one low on biffo and machetes. Jagapathi Babu manages to play off that tension between genuine good guy and insufferable know it all very well. He has a likeable screen persona and he is a good actor. He cannot dance to save his life and generally refuses to even try, preferring enigmatic walking, jazz hands and occasionally fighting with the air around him. Although with lyrics like”her booty is bigger than a Mercedes Benz. Baby baby baby, she’s my best friend”, I can understand he may not have felt inspired.

While she gets a slightly better deal out of the soundtrack, Priyamani has a challenging role in some respects. Shailu is often extreme and inflexible, although she is clearly not a bad person. But having been humiliated once by Sasi, she has a dim view of humanity and believes she needs to keep herself and her students safe from those bad boys.

Shailu’s character bears the burden of silly decisions (and a few dodgy outfits) for the sake of getting the plot to where writer-director Madan wanted it. But Priyamani brought her own presence and nuance to the piece. Both she and Jagapathi Babu added their own touches to the roles and their rapport and interactions helped me find enough to respect in both characters that I could overlook the worst. There was more of a Much Ado About Nothing vibe to the relationship than a Taming of the Shrew and I enjoyed some of the verbal sparring.

Unfortunately there are the tedious comedy tracks. Brahmi is in his element as a slimy teacher and does have the occasional good one liner. Ali is at his sleazy worst in an appalling racist, sexist, and homophobic skit set during a school trip to South Africa. Hamsa Nandini plays a glamorous married teacher with an eye for the professor, and is effectively coquettish as she irritate Shailu into fits of jealousy. Sunil is inoffensively amusing as Sasi’s mate Ravi, and does his usual bewildered shtick.

I like the leads, and am slowly working my way through as many of their films as I can track down.  Both the story and style of the film are quite engaging, and the fast forward button was made for those moments when Ali suddenly appears in tribal getup. See this if you like the idea of a slightly quirky hero with a smart and articulate woman, or just want a bit more talking and less killing in your mass fare. Plus a lion. 3 ½ stars!

 

Aaj Ka Goonda Raj

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Aaj Ka Goonda Raj is a Hindi remake of Chiranjeevi’s Telugu blockbuster, Gang Leader. The dishoom sound effects are quite subdued by Telugu standards but Chiru’s hair is even bigger than a regulation police hat and he goes all out in the action and dances.

Raja (Chiranjeevi) is an unemployed specimen and lives with his grandmother (Dina Pathak), brothers Ravi (Raj Babbar) and Amar (Parikshit Sahni), and Amar’s wife (Sudha). He dreams of being Robin Hood, but is more likely to get into a scuffle with the police on the way to the disco than righting any larger scale wrongs.

Admire his awesome moves, even as you may recoil at the sweat flicking and floor humping. Plus bonus Ravi Teja!

Raja takes a job to evict a squatter – Shalu (Meenakshi Sheshadri). She turns up at his house spinning a sob story, looking to move in. His family turn on him of course and take Shalu’s side, or at least feel they need to protect a poor defenceless girl all alone in the world blah blah blah.

Raja agrees to go to jail over a car accident to protect the driver, a father trying to marry his daughter off. Or something. He gets paid for the time served and the cash helps Golden Boy Ravi take the exams for whatever he wants to be. The father (Satish Shah) is actually the jailer. Oh so filmi. Raja is treated well while he is a jailbird. Except that they let Shalu in to see him as she says she is his wife so I think they failed in their duty of care towards him, although I admire her persistence and the power of her imagination. Who says Mass films are simplistic? I get conflicted all over the place.

Reluctant hero and pushy heroine can be very amusing or not at all, and this is a bit too slapstick for my taste. But once Shalu stops just obsessing about Raja she gets a lot more interesting and Meenakshi seems more comfortable in the role. She and Chiru have nice chemistry and Meenakshi certainly gives him a run for his money in the songs and in the drama.

Raja can’t win as he is criticised for not working and then berated when he does. His family love him but despair of him ever getting his life sorted out. He occasionally impersonates his deceased grandfather who ostensibly appears to ask Grandma to go easy on the boy. It’s all silly but the family are there for each other when it counts.

Amar sees something he shouldn’t and villain Tejpal (Prem Chopra) has him eliminated. Tejpal’s pet police officer Saxena (Dalip Tahil) has been trying to get Raja out of the way for most of the film, and finally marries his sister Ritu (Geetha) to Ravi. She is tasked with tearing the brothers asunder, but sorely underestimates the power of filmi bro-dom and the effect on her own psyche of being around decent human beings.

Finally Tejpal and his weirdo sidekick (a very creepy Sharat Saxena) stage a fatal accident using Raja’s taxi, and his friends. Raja goes to trial and is devastated to see what happened to his poor harmless mates.

Raja escapes, thanks to Shalu driving the getaway car and looking striking in huge puffy yellow sleeves. She tells him her sad story of how Tejpal killed her mother and then she shoots Raja’s handcuffs off. Most of Raja’s family are useful in a fight and Shalu gets in there, boots and all too. No one waits for Raja when they can do something for themselves, so the final confrontation is epic and random and had me cheering them all on. I do love a needlessly complex plan and the film obliges.

Apart from the murdering aspect (because it is wrong, even when Chiru is doing it), I liked that Raja simply stepped back and let Shalu deal with Tejpal. He didn’t take her revenge from her or make his own need for justice more important than hers. And anyway, he had Saxena so there was plenty of vengeance to go round.

Despite all the death and mayhem, it’s quite a cheerful and upbeat film for the most part. The songs are not as good as Gang Leader but they are filmed well and I can never be unhappy with Chiru dancing on giant props.

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Side note: This wall decoration is in several Telugu films and now turns up here. Was it a common item in that day, or did some poor set dresser lug it around from house to house?

This was Chiranjeevi’s second Hindi film. It is hardly a stretch for Chiru but might have been a bit confronting for the mainstream Hindi film audiences of the day. I mean, he can actually dance. Mithun would have been spewing to have his moves put to shame so easily. And the action is energetic and athletic and a bit brutal although there is less fake blood than I recall in the original. It’s a good vehicle for him as it retains the mass flavour of the original and his heroics need no tweaking to be transplanted to Bombay. Sadly, I don’t think Bollywood was ready for this jelly. And that is their loss, as there was a golden opportunity for less of this:

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And more of this:

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See this for a ripping yarn of family and revenge, Chiranjeevi at possibly peak mullet, and Meenakshi as a feisty heroine. Then go watch Gang Leader! 3 ½ stars!

Dilwale

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Kaali (Sharukh) and Meera (Kajol) fall in love. Kaali tells Meera he is a gangster, son of don Randhir (Vinod Khanna). Meera tells Kaali she is an artist and they do lots of picturesque and cutesy romancing. But Kaali finds out there is more to Meera than being a simple artist. Eventually they part and go their own ways. Fifteen years later, Veer (Varun Dhawan) meets Ishita (Kriti Sanon) and they fall in love. Veer is Kaali’s little brother, although Kaali now calls himself Raj and is a simple mechanic and car modifier. Ishu’s big sister? Yeah. Will Veer and Ishu ever get together in the face of such strong family opposition? And why did neither Kaali nor Meera ever move on and marry someone else?

My love for Shahrukh goes way, way back, and I was not disappointed at all by him in Dilwale. I’ve always liked him most in roles where he is not too sugary sweet. I particularly liked the moments when, as Raj, he let the calculating menace of Kaali show through. He seemed completely at home in his character’s skin without looking like he’d phoned this one in. The fight scenes showed Kaali as a relentless and brutal machine. Careful angles and editing made it seem as though Shahrukh was doing all his own work in the action sequences so there was no break in the dramatic tension. I’m sure his stunt guy was working overtime but I think they’ve done a great job when it is hard to pick who is who.

His stylist also did a great job of making the 15 year gap between timelines seem believable. Plus I enjoyed the double layered linen shirts, sometimes matching or in a monochrome mix, and always with a hint of cleavage. Well done, that person.

And after Janam Janam, all I can say is “move over Mr Darcy”. (Plus, as far as I know, Colin Firth has not fixed a VW Beetle in the rain while dancing and wearing his Mr Darcy puffy shirt.)

Like Kaali there is more to Meera than meets the eye, and Kajol is fantastic. She looks great and gives Meera a tough femininity that really works. Of course she has amazing chemistry with Shahrukh, and I think the film should have concentrated on their story. Kaali and Meera were like Romeo and Juliet who had survived and moved on in life, if not emotionally. I was more interested in what they had been up to since they last met, how they went legit, and what would happen next, than I was in Veer and Ishu’s sincere puppy love. One thing that I really liked is that the women drive the pace of developments in their relationships. Raj/Kaali told Meera she had got him all wrong. She didn’t budge just because he looked sad (and hot), but when she was ready she investigated further and she listened to the evidence.

Varun is pleasant, can dance, is good in action, but his dialogue delivery was odd. It sounded Shatneresque. Mumbled! And! Like! He! Spoke! With! An! Exclamation! He seemed to be pushing to make his action bigger, but instead it looked like his timing was off. His best moments were one on one with Shahrukh as the brothers dealt with the rocky road to true love. In one scene they are laughing through tears and it was genuinely touching, and then later a grim looking scene turned to sheepish laughter. I’d like Varun to do more action centred roles as I think he’d be great in that genre.

Kriti Sanon seems to be eminently qualified to be a romantic lead by virtue of not wearing much. Her acting is not offensively bad, but like Varun her shortcomings were all the more evident for the contrast. She fares better in scenes with either Shahrukh or Kajol as maybe she had something more to work off where Varun was a bit patchy.

Vinod Khanna and Kabir Bedi played Kaali and Meera’s respective fathers. They were charming and pragmatic, loving their families and hating their enemies with equal vigour. The stuff revenge sagas are made of.

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Shetty’s taste is hit and miss for me. The audience I saw this with was in stitches at the excruciating wordplay from Oscar (Sanjay Mishra). I loved the montage of lies that Anwar (Pankaj Tripathi) and Shakti (Mukesh Tiwari) spun, using snippets from what was on TV, to cover up Raj’s past. Veer cheekily does the SRK arms flung wide and lean when he needs help, channelling his inner filmi hero, and knowing that pose never ever fails. But when Mani (Johnny Lever) turned up in a fro, lungi, and mesh vest, masquerading as a South Indian thug I couldn’t understand why Shetty thought it was OK in Dilwale when he’d largely avoided such nonsense in Chennai Express. Boman Irani has settled comfortably into a half-arsed overacting groove that belies his abilities. There are lots of little references to DDLJ and other films from Love, Actually to Dude, Where’s My Car, and some laugh out loud lines so it pays to pay attention.

I was dying to see Gerua. I’ve recently been to Iceland and had visited several of the locations, not knowing Dilwale had been shooting there earlier in the year. I can assure you that the countryside really is THAT spectacular. Janam Janam is lush and full of longing, and showcased Kajol and Shahrukh’s chemistry with some age appropriate choreo. Varun got the best intro with the colourful Manma Emotion Jaage. Tukur Tukur plays over the end credits so if your audience is as annoying as mine was, you’ll probably just see a line of people’s butts shuffle past! The difference in style between Kajol and Shahrukh and Kriti and Varun is really evident as the youngsters act at the camera while the established stars know exactly where the camera is, but also know it will find them so they just do their thing.

This is definitely a good bet for the SRK or Kajol fans, but for others maybe not so much. I do think Dilwale delivers on the promise of being (fairly) entertaining, gorgeous to look at, and with loads of energy, but it falters when the film moves away from Raj and Meera. One I’d watch again on DVD and make judicious use of the fast forward button!

Pagla Kahin Ka (1970)

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I was supposed to be posting a review of a Jayalalitha film but I feel she has had quite enough publicity about now, and I shan’t add to it. Then I thought I would swap in something more upbeat as the world has been quite a trying place, but I remembered Pagla Kahin Ka. It has the perfect 70s cast, some great songs, and Shakti Samanta at the helm. But it’s a mostly sad story about love, friendship, and loss. I discovered this via the excellent Memsaab, and if you follow that link to her review you will also find a link to a subtitled download of the film.

Sujit (Shammi) and Shyam (Prem Chopra) are in a hotel nightclub band, and Jenny (Helen) is their featured artiste. Sujit and Jenny are madly in love and building plans for their future. Sujit proposes but Jenny is reluctant due to their different status. There are also rumours that Sujit is mad but Jenny doesn’t see his wildness as a problem.

Hotel boss Max (K.N Singh) is less enthusiastic about their union as he will lose his eyecandy and probably the associated income. Max and Shyam come to blows and Max is killed. Sujit takes the blame and pleads insanity, his sad past going a long way to convincing the judge despite his useless lawyer (Bhram Bardwaj). He goes to the asylum, leaving Shyam who is secretly in love with Jenny.

The asylum is full to the brim with overacting extras that make the place seem like a true Bedlam. Sujit is genuinely depressed and worried by his incarceration and his memories of his father who was committed following a breakdown. But that isn’t enough as he is meant to be an insane murderer and Shammi (over)indulges in some of his “crazy” acting. Shalu suspects he is faking and takes his case on.

That song is his answer when Shalu asks him what would happen if Jenny had forgotten him. Oh the foreshadowing…

Meanwhile Shyam seems to be keeping things from Jenny and trying to make her doubt Sujit, and also keeping Sujit isolated. Things come to an emotional crescendo when Shalu hints at her feelings for Sujit, envying Jenny her love, at the same time Jenni is being raped by Shyam who has had enough of waiting. As if Prem Chopra was ever going to play a wholeheartedly good friend! Poor Sujit. He only has two real friends, and now things can never be the same.

Sujit’s release coincides with Shyam and Jenny’s wedding. Jenny looks very pretty and utterly miserable and I was pleased to see the movie gives the “marry your rapist” solution the side eye. At the wedding reception Madhumati dances a love triangle themed song in a very Helen-y outfit. And Sujit, clueless about why or how or even what but still wishing his dearest friends happiness, has a multi instrumental breakdown.

Now genuinely losing it, he is unable to process the shock and betrayal he feels at losing the friendship and loyalty that had been his foundation. Shalu sees the shocking difference in Sujit this time and immediately grasps that something devastating has happened. The other inmates welcome him back, some gently chiding him and some seeing his return from a cruel and inhospitable world as inevitable. It’s a nice change of tone from the more comedic first stint and Shammi plays it beautifully. He is heartbreaking as Sujit tries but fails to grapple with the facts, knowing there is something seriously awry but unable to process it or do anything to help himself.

Jenny visits Shalu and tells her the truth, hoping that Shalu will help set things right with Sujit. Shalu is quite conflicted through all of this as she can now see her chance with Sujit but is bound to try and treat him. Asha Parekh smiles approximately three times through the film, but her chemistry with Shammi is spot on. She shows a gentle empathy and tenderness with him and despite some questionable doctor patient interactions, I was glad to see someone wholeheartedly for Sujit. And he does blossom under her care, eventually regaining his memories and feeling robust enough to deal with losing Jenny.

He is able to declare his love for Shalu. But he still sees Shyam as his great friend and Shalu decides she must dispel that illusion so he can really move on. And by move on, I mean move on to her.

Does anyone ever run up against Prem Chopra and survive unscathed? Not Helen, sadly. Sujit and Shalu appeared to need about, oh, a nanosecond to deal with Jenny’s fate. I understood the plot point needed to be resolved but that was callous. And without wanting to be too spoilery I was hoping that random tree was sturdy and her aim was good.

Anyway.

The soundtrack is a delight and Shankar Jaikishan run from rollicking cabaret numbers to songs of quiet yearning. Helen gets a couple of good dances in before marriage and sarees end her career, and I liked seeing Madhumati as a clear Helen substitute and dancing up a storm. Shammi has always had great musicality and while he sometimes overdoes the hairography he really sells the swooning romance of the ballads.

See this for a star cast in a not so typical story, and for the bonus of Helen in a substantial if thankless role. Despite the downbeat elements, ultimately this is a story about finding your happiness where you can and learning to trust (but not indiscriminately, and never Prem Chopra). 4 stars!