Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 01/08/2002.
I still get to see a couple of Bollywood movies a year (thanks to the good people at Cineworld cinemas), although shamefully they mostly tend to be ones involving the principal cast and crew from the three reviewed here. Take Lagaan, for instance. Aamir Khan has kept a comparatively low profile, appearing in a relatively small number of productions like The Rising: Ballad Of Mangal Pandey (shown at VidBinge 2005) and Rang De Basanti. Lagaan's director Ashutosh Gowariker came a bit of a cropper with Swades: We The People, but recently surged back to form with historical epic Jodhaa Akbar.
Hrithik Roshan has had some fun roles since K3G, including the science-fiction diptych of Koi... Mil Gaya and Krrish, and the lead in the aforementioned Jodhaa Akbar. But Shahrukh Khan has been working more or less continuously, including a pleasantly daft cameo with Devdas co-star Aishwarya Rai in Shakti: The Power, an even dafter lead role (40-year-old soldier poses as a college student to maintain national security) in Main Hoon Na, and leading a women's hockey team to victory in Chak De! India.
Not mentioned here: shameless ripoff director Sanjay Gupta, whose crimes include Kaante (a mashup of the plots of Reservoir Dogs and The Usual Suspects) and Zinda (a wholly unacknowledged adaptation of Oldboy).
Right now (July 2008), another attempt at a Bollywood stage extravaganza is touring the planet: The Unforgettable Tour, starring various members of the Bachchan clan. It hits London's O2 Arena on August 24th.
I'm stuck in the awkward position of having to write a piece about an event that didn't actually happen. Don't worry, it's not going to be as lame as it sounds.
At the end of June 2002, two huge live shows were planned to take place in Manchester and London, titled From India With Love. A celebration of the commercial Indian cinema they commonly call Bollywood, it was going to feature stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Aishwarya Rai performing on stage: as they said in the publicity, the Hollywood equivalent would be having the entire cast of the Ocean's Eleven remake doing a live set. Sadly, the irritating prospect of all-out nuclear war in India made the logistics of getting people over here unworkable, and the shows had to be postponed at the last minute.
Which is a great pity, because Bollywood cinema has never had such a high profile in the UK as it has right now. Or has it? Sure, these films regularly make the top 5 box office charts thanks to the large Indian audience in this country: but they do that with very little publicity or even acknowledgement from the mainstream media. The increased availability of subtitled prints has begun to make them more accessible to English speakers, but in the end it's a double bind: the arthouse brigade avoid Bollywood films because they're nakedly commercial, while Joe Sixpack avoids them because they're foreign. So it's up to those of us who watch kung fu films in the original Cantonese to point out that you can have it both ways, and that Bollywood cinema can frequently be more straightforwardly entertaining than pretty much anything else in town. The plan was always to pad out my review of From India With Love with notes on the films which had attracted me to the show in the first place: so what you're making do with now is the padding.
If there's one film that can be credited with starting the current wave of British interest in Bollywood, it's Lagaan, released in the summer of 2001 and widely available on video and DVD. At first glance, it would seem that this is down to the movie being about two traditional English pastimes: racism and cricket. Set in colonial India at the turn of the last century, it focusses on the inhabitants of a small village suffering financially at the hands of the ruling English Bastards and their land tax ('lagaan' in the local language). Outraged at the tax being doubled in a year of drought and poor crops, a delegation of villagers seeks justice from the Chief English Bastard, Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne). Annoyed that they've interrupted his cricket game to do this, Russell comes up with an evil plan: the English will play a three-day cricket match against the villagers in one month's time. If the villagers win, they will pay no lagaan for the next three years. If they lose, it'll be tripled. It falls to plucky young Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) to round up a team and train them, with the secret assistance of Russell's sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley) - an alliance which doesn't go down well with Bhuvan's girlfriend Gauri (Gracy Singh).
But it's not just the theme that's helped Lagaan strike a chord with international audiences, culminating in an Oscar nomination. Rather than trying to play down the elements of Bollywood cinema that tend to frighten off Westerners, Lagaan uses the simple trick of retaining them all and doing them better. The traditional break every twenty-five minutes for a song and dance number is made much more palatable by having a genius like A.R. Rahman writing the music: these are seriously good, hummable tunes (though a veil must be discreetly drawn over the hysterical eight bars in English performed by Rachel Shelley). And as in the best musicals, the songs are an integral part of the structure, advancing the story along while breaking up the epic narrative into manageable chunks. Rahman's incidental score also plays up the drama entertainingly: whenever there's a dramatic moment, the riff from the song Chale Chalo roars in on agitato strings, as much a portent of doom as that tom-tom roll at the end of an EastEnders episode.
Which leads neatly into the other traditional objection raised against Bollywood cinema: it's just so melodramatic. But writer-director Ashutosh Gowariker has got a solid, old-fashioned Western story structure - the sports training movie - that can stand up to the intense dramatic highs and lows. As a result, even when we reach the ludicrous mid-point climax where Bhuvan simultaneously invents spin bowling and single-handedly destroys the caste system, the sheer momentum of the story prevents you from scoffing. Sure, from the moment the climactic match is announced as a three day affair with the English opening the batting, anyone with a vague knowledge of the game can guess how it'll be played out for maximum dramatic impact. But you'll be so engrossed by then that you won't care. And thanks to the magnificently controlled pacing of the film, you won't even notice what looks at a distance to be the most fundamental flaw with this film: the last ninety minutes of its four hour running time is entirely taken up with a cricket match. Gowariker cranks up the tension superbly, with increasingly edgy camerawork and editing, and it's impossible not to be swept along.
Lagaan has among its plus points the crotch-moistening rumble of Amitabh Bachchan's voice performing the narration, and the man himself appeared on screen a few months later in the next Bollywood film to receive a major promotional push. Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham opened at Christmas 2001, and though it's a comparative disappointment as a movie, it'll be a show-stopping question in film trivia quizzes for years to come. "Which movie includes scenes shot at the Pyramids and at the Bluewater Shopping Centre?"
K3G (as I believe we should be calling it) is more along the lines of what we've come to expect from Bollywood. It's a comic melodrama in which a prosperous family is torn apart by the eldest son Rahul (Shahrukh Khan) and his affair with Anjali (Kajol), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. When his arrogant father Yash (Amitabh Bachchan) demands that an end be put to the relationship, Rahul and Anjali run away to start a new life. Younger son Rohan (Hrithik Roshan) takes on the challenge of reuniting Rahul and Yash. And that's basically it as far as the story goes, but it's still pretty entertaining.
Karan Johar's film opens with the message "It's all about loving your parents...", and for the opening few minutes it looks like you're going to be battered with the theme of Family Above All Else. Thankfully, for most of the running time this is put on the back burner, until the inevitable overload of sentimentality in the last 20 minutes. Rahul's romance with Anjali develops in a light comic fashion until his confrontation with Yash, played out in the latter's study during a rainstorm, with a huge kitschy thunderclap punctuating every major line of dialogue. (It was a bit of a shame some time later to discover an earlier film with Bachchan and Khan, Mohabbatein, which pivots on an identical confrontation between the two: oak panelling, thunderclaps and all.) From there events take an unusual turn as far as English viewers are concerned, because Rohan's search for the eloped couple takes him to their new home in England. This results in a surreal second act which transplants the Bollywood song 'n' dance cliches to London, with all the backing dancers obviously on hire from a Romford disco. Even the slushy reunion scene at the climax - oops, I didn't spoil it for you there, did I? - is given a quirky edge by its taking place in the Bluewater Centre in Essex.
The songs in K3G aren't as memorable as those in Lagaan, but the choreography (particularly Bachchan shaking his esteemed booty to Shava Shava) and editing are fabulous, and visually anything goes. Frequently the songs drop into fantasy sequences, with the 'real' characters observing their fantasy selves from inside the same shot. And at one stage Anjali runs out of a Bombay street market directly into a song set in front of the Pyramids, which ranks up there with 2001's bone/spaceship jump-cut for sheer reckless audacity. Curiously, there were no English subtitles for the songs in the theatrical release, though that wasn't really a problem. In Lagaan, the songs drove the story forward, so you needed to know what was being sung. Here, it's more like the story stopping dead so everyone can have a bit of a sing, and then carrying on from where they left off. Anyway, the UK DVD release fixes that problem.
You can't help but be aware of the devices used throughout the movie to generate an emotional response - aside from the Thunderclaps Of Doom, I love the way that whenever a character has a dramatic closeup, there's suddenly a fan turned on them from nowhere. But here's the curious thing: even though they're obvious devices, and you know exactly what they're doing, they still do the job. So although this may be the most conventional film of the three reviewed here, anyone who isn't completely jaded by the cliches of the genre should find K3G enjoyable enough.
The latest Bollywood film seeking Western approval is Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas, which is playing in cinemas as I write this (July 2002), with a video release probably timed to hit the Christmas market. Devdas is playing in cinemas as large as the Empire Leicester Square, and even made it as far as the Cannes film festival, leading to speculation about its chances of repeating Lagaan's Oscar success. I don't really think it's likely. Having seen a couple of these now, it's kind of a shame that Lagaan was the first one I saw, as it's looking more and more like a one-off: not just a great Bollywood movie, but a genuinely great movie by anyone's standards.
That's not to imply there's anything wrong with Devdas: just that it's more like the traditional melodrama that people expect, albeit with a terrifically glossy production. It's a simple story - one that's been filmed several times before, apparently. Shahrukh Khan stars as the title character, back in India after ten years away and telling remarkable tales of his adventures in England. ("They only use paper?" "Sometimes not even that. I never shook hands with anyone.") His childhood sweetheart Paro (Aishwarya Rai) has been waiting for him all this time, and their happy reunion bodes well for their future together. Except this is Bollywood operating in tragic mode, so by the time we hit the intermission Paro is already trapped inside a loveless marriage to someone else, while Devdas is up to his dhoti in booze and whores.
I suspect some concessions have been made to a Western audience here, more so than in the other two films. The standard trappings are all present and correct: toe-tapping (but, again, slightly unmemorable) songs, eye-destroyingly brash colour schemes, impossibly attractive stars. Khan, in particular, always looks great even when he's in his booze/whores hell. But Prakash Kapadia's dialogue is more carefully crafted than you'd expect: there's some delightfully witty wordplay and flirtatious banter that comes across well in the subtitles, without the broad comic strokes that are sometimes thrown into these things for light relief. (Yes, I know I quoted a poo-poo joke back there, but at least it was a subtle poo-poo joke.)
And by Bollywood standards it's comparatively short: just under three hours, including an interval. The story is structured carefully around that interval to build to a spiffy climax at the end of the first act, and then to an even more outrageous one at the end of the second. How much you enjoy this movie probably depends on your taste for the melodramatic, as all the storylines are brutally whittled down to a single one in the last scene: a small symbolic act that has to be achieved, or else all hope is lost and we live in a Godless universe. And up until the final seconds, it could go either way, which is more than you can say for pretty much anything from Hollywood nowadays. Gratifyingly, Devdas was released in UK cinemas in the same week as Joel 'Evil Dog Rapist' Schumacher's much-hyped Bad Company, and effortlessly outgrossed it at the box office, despite only playing in one sixth of the screens. Its success is well-deserved.
Presumably the positive reception of these three films will result in more Bollywood productions getting a wide subtitled release: and that can only be a good thing. I'm perfectly aware that I haven't even begun to scrape the surface of what these films are capable of. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to widen my experience and have something to compare these movies against. And maybe, armed conflict permitting, they'll get around to rescheduling the From India With Love concerts as well. So don't blame me that I never got around to reviewing them. After all, it wasn't me who started that old crazy Asian war. Being a monkey, and all.
Lagaan, K3G [dead link] and Devdas all have official websites: Bollywood producers have been quick to realise that as their films rely heavily on audio/visual impact, having pictures and songs available for download is a useful method of promotion. Though unforgivably, the audio page for Devdas appears to be totally buggered and full of dead links. Sort it out! [It's still buggered in 2008.]
Eros Entertainment are one of the leading distributors of Bollywood cinema worldwide - if you watch Devdas in the UK, you'll probably get a four minute ad for their back catalogue at the start of the film. That back catalogue is available for sale or rent through this site.
If you'd like to investigate Bollywood cinema further, The Belated Birthday Girl suggests you try one of her favourite online shops, Poker Industries, which specialises in DVDs and VCDs from all over Asia.
Film Unlimited, as ever, is the premier site in the UK for film comment and discussion: the reviews you've just read first appeared in a more badly written form on their talkboards. As far as professionally written content goes, you may want to check out Rachel Shelley's Lagaan diaries, with some interesting insights into the production and its reception at the Oscars.
Channel 4 are jumping on the bandwagon with their Indian Summer [dead link] season: primarily built around their coverage of the Test Matches against India, but featuring other cultural aspects of the country as well. Between late July and September 2002 they'll be showing a number of Bollywood movies [dead link], including Kandukondain Kandukondain (which I saw at LFF 2000 under the title I Have Found It), the early classic Mother India, and the mighty Lagaan [dead link]. So you've got no excuse for missing it, unless you don't have a telly or don't live in the UK.