MICHAEL DEQUINA’S BOLLYWOOD STARTER-KIT (1/2)

I’ve long been intrigued by Bollywood films, but I had never actually sat down to watch one. Fellow movie critic Michael Dequina generously offered to get me started by sending me a 6-pack of Bollywood, accompanied by background on each title, reprinted below in italics, followed by my own impressions. This little homemade festival should warm up my winter, all right!

1) LAGAAN: ONCE UPON A TIME IN INDIA
2001, directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, starring Aamir Khan, Paul Blackthorne, Rachel Shelley, Gracy Singh.

This was nominated for the FLF Oscar, and it’s one of the two films of 2001 that were considered major leaps for B’wood production polish and one of the three big blockbusters from that year (needless to say, that was a benchmark year). Aamir (I’ll go by B’wood media tradition and call actors by their first name, heh), who also produced, was called by the U.S. media at the time of the nod as “the Indian Tom Cruise,” but his intensity, range, fairly infrequent screen appearances, and (infamous) method techniques make me think he’s more the Indian Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s a B’wood rarity in that he commits to one role at a time when most stars do two or three films simultaneously (hence why most major stars have about three major releases a year), and apparently this film’s polish and Hollywood-level production were all his influence as he’s tried to bring reform and professionalism to the normally slapdash B’wood. Anyway, it’s easy to see why this got the FLF nod as it’s very Western, not to mention of a very American genre of the underdog sports film. Some great music here by A.R. Rahman, perhaps B’wood’s most celebrated composer; a number of his B’wood tunes (though none from this particular film) were adapted and strung together for the stage show Bombay Dreams, which closed on Broadway after a sadly less-than-successful run (which makes me glad that I caught it when I was in NYC). So this is a good film to start with as it’s very Western in feel and formula though the B’wood dances and music are all here, and there are some standouts.

In 1893, Indian farmers starve while struggling to pay taxes to the EVIL British colonialist army… Unless they can beat them in a game of cricket! If you’ve ever wondered what a David Lean epic would be like with musical numbers and sports movie clichés, “Lagaan” is your answer! This is a gorgeous production, full of color, melodrama, music, humor, romance… A little long, maybe, but I understand that’s the case with all Bollywood films. Good times.

2) DEVDAS
2002, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, starring Shahrukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Madhuri Dixit

This was India’s Oscar entry in 2002, and it sadly didn’t make the cut. My guess is that it’s too strong a dose of B’wood. This is very far removed from “Lagaan” in that this is grand, operatic, romantic tragedy, from the sumptuous set and costume design to the outsize emotion and emoting. I think Academy probably saw it as a bit too much, but on that same token I think that’s what makes it more quintessentially B’wood. While I saw “Lagaan” before I saw this, this was the first B’wood I saw on the big screen at the then-recently opened local Bollyplex, as I call it, and this is what really sold me and made me a fan. Also helps that this stars three of the biggest B’wood stars around here: Shahrukh (or SRK, as he’s known) is easily the biggest draw out there right now (and featured in other films in this pack). Madhuri Dixit was B’wood queen in the ’90s, and actually this is her last film before she settled into married, quasi-retirement in Denver, where she lives now; she says she’ll come back, but she’s currently pregnant with her second child, so that’ll have to wait. And then of course there’s the reigning queen herself, the goddess among us that is Aishwarya Rai. SRK is good if a little hammy here, but the two women are the ones who really carry this film, and both are terrific in their performances and there renowned dancing skills–and that says something about Madhuri that she’s able to come off so strong to me when Ash is there, heh. This is the director’s third film, and he’s kind of become synonymous with big, lavish romances (though his next one, due out in a month or so, is a change-of-pace, song-free drama). This film is an adaptation of a very well-known novel that in India is as ingrained in the consciousness as is, say, Romeo and Juliet in the West, and as such has been filmed numerous times. Needless to say this is the most extravagant version yet, and it at the time was the most expensive Indian film ever made; to call it the Bollywood “Titanic” is a bit apt as it then went on to become a global box office success, and this film is what got all the Hollywood interest in Ash rolling from its premiere at the Cannes fest in 2002, where it made a big impression.

When Devdas comes back to India after spending 10 years abroad, his childhood friend Paro is overjoyed, as she’s never stopped longing for him. But their passion runs against the castes system, alcohol, courtesans, arranged marriages and various questions of “honour”. This is an hopelessly romantic story like I like it, with melodrama and cartoonish villains coming between the lovers. There’s also a touch of slapstick and, of course, song and dance numbers that will make your heart throb. This makes American movies look so bland! Why can’t we embrace bright lights and colors like this? It’s like Bollywood has taken over the mantle of the old Technicolor MGM musicals, but went for an even more over the top and flamboyant approach. Again, the film’s a tad too long for its own good, but it’s still a lot of fun and Aishwarya Rai is one of the most stunning beauties to ever grace the screen.

5) KABHI KHUSHI KABHIE GHAM… (Sometimes Happiness, Sometimes Sorrow…)
2001, directed by Karan Johar, starring Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan, Kajol, Hrithik Roshan, Kareena Kapoor, Rani Mukerji

NOTE: You’ll notice that the order is screwed up from here – my bad. I really wanted to go through the films as Mike planned, but somehow I grabbed the wrong tape and thus watched this instead of the “real” third film in the lot.

OK, with this film we start to dip a little more into the cheesiness that less informed people equate with B’wood, for there’s no more perfect embodiment of all the cheesiness and amateurishness that runs through B’wood than the hacktress known as Kareena Kapoor. She’s a big, in-demand B ‘wood star for some reason even though her movies routinely flop (excluding this one, the third of those three 2001 global blockbusters) and, frankly, she isn’t very attractive and can neither act *nor* dance. But it speaks to how good this film is in general that I’m able to overlook her general obnoxiousness here (and, indeed, this is one of her more obnoxious performances). This is a great example of the distinctly Indian film genre known as “family values,” in which bonds of family are affirmed and all that good stuff; the writer-director here is another top young filmmaker, Karan Johar (who also wrote and produced Kal Ho Naa Ho), who’s become synonymous with the genre. This is also a good intro to a number of the biggest names in B’wood; unfortunately Kareena happens to be one of them, heh. Amitabh is a living legend, known as Big B; he won some BBC poll as “star of the millennium.” His wife Jaya (seen in Kal Ho Naa Ho as Preity Zinta’s mother), playing his on-screen wife here, is also a star and award-winning actress in her own right. By now you’ll know Shahrukh, and his leading lady here is Kajol, with whom he makes one of the most popular screen couples in B’wood history; this is their third film together. I guess the contemporary Hollywood equivalent would be, say, Hanks and Ryan, but with a totally unique erotic charge. Their big romantic duet here (“Suraj Hua Maddham”) is considered a classic in both song and picturization, and is also rather controversial due to its intense sensuality–but it must be noted that all the heat is solely due to their palpable chemistry and no real overt raunchiness. Kajol is known for playing kooky/goofy/zany yet charming characters (hence the Ryan comparison), and those qualities are in full blast here. This is actually her last film to date, as she then had a child; she has yet to return to the screen despite her overwhelming popularity. Then we have Hrithik, dubbed the Brad Pitt of Bollywood, and I think that’s a spot-on analogy. He’s a bit of a pretty boy, but his acting ability is generally underrated, and this is one of his best performances; also like Brad, his performances are inconsistent and generally needs strong direction. One thing all of Hrithik’s own, though, is his fantastic dancing ability; he’s easily the best male dancer in B’wood, and it’s a shame he and Ash have yet to do a film together. Rani, the third of the top tier B’wood actresses, has a smallish but important role here. This film also happens to feature what is my all-time favorite B’wood song, “You Are My Soniya,” which I fully admit to being a shameless bit of bubblegummy dance-pop fluff, but dammit if the bubble gum is irresistibly delicious–so much so that I can forgive the fact that Kareena handles the female dancing/lipsynching duties on it, heh.

Between this and “Devdas”, I do indeed know and love Shahrukh Khan, a truly cool leading man. The story deals with a business empire and a difficult relationship between Shahrukh and his father, but unsurprisingly the movie’s at its most involving when he’s flirting with Kajol. I’m starting to feel that Indian girls are the most loveable in the world, they’re so pretty and lively! At times, I didn’t even bother reading the subtitles, Kajol’s facial expressions and body language alone kept me entertained. As do the bright-colored clothes and the dancing, of course. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, these movies make ours look so effin’ bland! So they’re too long and all over the place… Fine by me, joy doesn’t need to be focused and disciplined. Something like the “Shava Shava” party scene is one of the best moments of pure cinema I can imagine, in or out of context. I was depressed being home alone on a Friday Night, but the movie totally cheered me up (the Maudite helped too, I guess, but still). About Kareena Kapoor, I don’t know why Dequina’s so hard on her. She comes out of nowhere post-intermission (introduced in a ridiculously effective montage – Poo, Halleluhah!), and the movie becomes about her, like we’re watching Hindi “Mean Girls” in London all of the sudden. Ok! More flirtation (with the great Hrithik Roshan), more musical numbers… It’s all good.

3) KAL HO NAA HO (Tomorrow May Never Come)
2003, directed by Nikhil Advani, starring Shahrukh Khan, Preity Zinta, Saif Ali Khan, Jaya Bachchan

This was easily one of my fave films, period, of 2003. I showed these first three films to jchensor and LVJeff as a big intro tripleheader, and this one is the one they liked best. Actually, I find out of any film, this is the one that works best as a cold turkey B’wood intro, and if we were going to just go with one film, this would’ve been it. However, since you’ve bravely chosen to get the full intro, it’s best to watch it third. Anyway, one of the big things about this film’s appeal to Western viewers (and it was B’wood’s biggest North American hit of 2003, with U.S./Canada grosses nearing around $3 mil) is that it was shot almost entirely in New York, and the familiar locations I find really go a long way. Of course, it helps that this is simply a terrific, entertaining film. If “Lagaan” was very Western in its genre placement and “Devdas” more generally Asian in its romantic tragic extremes, then KHNH is perhaps the most specifically Indian in that it’s a great example of the classic Bollywood masala film–that is, the distinctively Indian mixing of disparate genres, and here it’s pretty darn seamless: funny, sad, bittersweet, silly, highly dramatic and emotional, and it all feels of a piece, not to mention hits every note about perfectly. The comedy gets a little silly and broad as B’wood is prone to do, but it’s genuinely funny, but then it’s also intensely involving due to the three well-drawn lead characters, relationships, and performances. Shahrukh is again the star, and his two main co-stars are two other big names, Preity and Saif. Preity is considered one of the three top rung B’wood actresses–it’s her, Ash, Rani Mukerji (seen elsewhere in this “festival”) and then everyone else, and this award-winning performance helped cement that. She also regularly writes a column for BBC’s website, and before getting into acting in 1998 (with “Dil Se”, which I would’ve included in this package but didn’t have space) she did some work as a model and newscaster. Saif was one of those reliable supporting guys in B’wood (another of these turns to come later), but this particular supporting turn won him a bunch of awards and acclaim and helped bump him up to his own lead projects, which he has since been successful at. This film was the big Indian film award winner in 2003 and went on to win great acclaim on the festival circuit, and of course great commercial success. I do think that if the North American distributor were a bit more ambitious with the advertising, or maybe even partnered with a mainstream distributor, this could’ve been the big crossover film as my non-B’wood fan friends who’ve seen it also adore it. For whatever it’s worth, after I threw the flick a bunch of ‘Rati award nominations last year, Gabe checked it out for himself and loved it. The music here is by the trio of composers known as Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, whose more modern, Western pop-inflected sound first broke through with… (see #4)

Whoa, this is something else! Not only is the movie set in New York, it’s also got a more hip and modern feel. The opening 20 minutes dynamically introduce all the characters with witty narration and snappy camerawork, then we’re totally engrossed in their lives. In true Bollywood fashion, the upbeat and jokey tone cohabits with high melodrama: Naina is lonely, her father committed suicide, her mother’s restaurant is on the verge of bankruptcy, her little brother is handicapped and her little sister is sad because their grandmother hates her. Sounds depressing, but it’s surprisingly not, particularly once wisecracking Aman enters the picture. I love the banter between Shahrukh Khan and Preity Zinta, the love triangle that develops with Saif Ali Khan is rather unpredictable and moving and, of course, the musical numbers are a gas. Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman in Hindi, disco, salsa, a few slow songs… Good times.

PART TWO HERE!!!