Tuesday, July 03, 2012

When Mini-Reviews Attack! Day 2: Bollywood/Hollywood

When I first saw Deepa Mehta's Bollywood/Hollywood many years ago, I was absolutely blown away by it, convinced that I had stumbled upon a movie made just for me. And no, not for the reason you're all assuming. 
Though that does not impede my enjoyment, obviously.
Bollywood/Hollywood ripped into me because it is a story about loving someone who turns out to be someone other than you wanted and expected, which happened to happen to me in the very city that this film is set in. I have written briefly before about the second major heartbreak of my life in my reflections on, of all things, Bachna Ae Haseeno (and echoes throughout Shakespeare-Wallah as well); Bollywood/Hollywood has become the filmi reference for the first one, which happened years before I ever saw an Indian movie. (And believe me, I never thought I'd be a person who found cinematic references for her life, especially in Bollywood, but there we have it.) The experience left a huge scar: it was the saddest and loneliest I have ever been, the most helpless and distraught, the furthest away I have ever felt from understanding my life—or from anything that made sense at all. By now it has become a scar I usually wear with comfort, so much so that last summer I stayed several days with the fellow in question in Montreal and had a gay old time, but it is a big part of who I am, why I often fear that I do not understand how people think or feel about me, why I don't trust my own perceptions of love.

I divulge all this to help explain why I had such a strong and empathetic reaction to the story of confused and faltering Rahul Seth (Rahul Khanna). I could imagine nothing more devastating than falling for someone who keeps lying to you, even if they have good (if selfish) reasons. Toss in my life-long attraction to stories with cultural conflicts within immigrant experiences, the Akshaye Khanna cameo ("Sona Sona Roop Hai"), familiar glimpses of downtown Toronto, and the hilariously underplayed Jeeves-like Ranjit Chowdhry in the comic version of Rahul's tragic love interest, and I was sunk.

I still think the film has some solid achievements: the story is inherently interesting, some of its jokes about Bollywood tropes are nicely integrated, and Dina Pathak is very crisp and funny as the Shakespeare-spewing grandmother who is nowhere near as conservative at heart as she likes to pretend when Rahul's first girlfriend, a white pop star (played by none other than Jessica ParĂ©, aka Mrs. Don Draper from recent episodes of Mad Men), comes to visit. But...how do I say this...[sigh] Lisa Ray (as Sue, Rahul's primary love interest) is just not very good. Hardly any of her dialogues come out in anything approaching natural speech—or even more filmi speech, which wouldn't have suited her character anyway. She is, however, strikingly pretty, and there is good interplay between her physical traits and aspects of the script that question her ethnicity and the issue of belonging and passing in particular communities. Sue is a complicated character and I wonder if Ray just didn't know what to do with all the different facets of her in all the different contexts Sue is in (with Rahul on his own in various stages of familiarity and love, with his family, being a friend to his little brother, with her own worrying mother and more traditional and unsupportive father). She comes off as lost rather than complicated or layered, though in a few scenes that sense of bewilderment actually suits what's going on, since Sue too is taken by surprise by her emotions for Rahul. It's probably a flaw in the script that Sue is in fact a liar; it's her right to be one, of course, but it does not make her somebody we root for.

In some films, it's enough to like one character enough that you just go along with whatever the film says about romance, willing to accept person A's love for person B because A is so compelling. This is not one of those films, and as endearing as Rahul is as the rug is continually pulled out from under him, he's a person that things happen to rather than one who engages interest. It's Sue who bears the heart of this film, and Lisa Ray cannot support it. She does much better with director Mehta in Water a few years later. When Sue and Rahul are the center of the action, the film too often feels like an awkward community theater production. But when the elder generation is the focus, things click. Kulbhushan Kharbanda is effective at a sort of Amrish-Puri-in-DDLJ Punjab-nostalgic father who sings film songs under his breath and learns to cherish his daughter's happiness. Moushumi Chatterjee is a little bit one-note, but so is her character, Rahul's loooong-suffering mother who loves to wail about how unlucky she is.

Those are two of the nods to Bollywood throughout the film, and I cannot imagine I picked up on most of them when I saw the film the first time. Film songs are constantly playing on tvs in the background of people's homes and restaurants, and there's a Pretty Woman-esque scene with Sue singing and dancing around the guest bedroom in the Seth family home as Urmila Matondkar gyrates on her tv (to "Tanha Tanha," I think?). I love the realness of the dancing in Bollywood/Hollywood and how the film clearly approves of people having fun with song and dance even when most of us aren't very good. There's a sweet—or, again, real-ish—anti-hero feel to Rahul, who, yes, is the male romantic lead but who is definitely not confident, bold, Maa-worshipping, or prone to big pronouncements. Even the Seth house is filmi, with a huge staircase, a swimming pool to brood by, and some questionably gaudy decor. And I love the little scribbled comments that appear at the bottom of the screen throughout, nudging our responses or making sure we know the significance of what's going on. They put into words what filmi conventions do in actions or music.

This film would have been stronger with a different female lead. I don't know who, though. I think it's important that Sue is (or at least sounds) like a native of the new world so she better contrasts with the values of the more recently-arrived Seth family and her life choices are slightly more normal in impetus, if not in detail, than the Seths are initially willing to think. Lisa Ray reminds me physically of Rani Mukherji, who of course would have been brilliant, but I think she might have been "too Indian" for a role like this. Maybe Rishma Malik, who was quietly solid in her very small role as Rahul's younger sister?

Anyway. This review is well past mini. I'd love to know what you thought about this film and whether it has ever made any particular impact on you. Though I wouldn't quite slot Bollywood/Hollywood into the following category, sometimes revisiting movies you haven't seen for years can be more interesting than the movies ever were in the first place. 

3 comments:

Ramsu said...

I think this film deserved a better reception than it got. I wonder if the polarized reactions Deepa Mehta usually gets for her more serious works has something to do with it.

My all-time favourite moment is when Khulbushan Kharbanda breaks into song with Yeh kya hua.-- it is so unexpected, given what we have seen of the character so far. What seems to be shaping up into a standard rom-com moment is suddenly infused with glorious whimsy.

Jenny K said...

I recently rewatched this on Netflix and it fared much better for me than it had at first. But I have to say that as much as I adore Deepa Mehta's dramas, her comedic sense leaves me flat. The same thing hit me in another comedy that she wrote, directed by her brother, Dilip, called Cooking With Stella. The dramatic elements and her social commentary side kept creeping in around the comedy bits and deflating them for me.

At least in BW/HW I could tell that Deepa enjoyed the films that she drew from, but never felt she duplicated the charm and lightness of the originals. Granted, that is a very delicate path to walk, and why cry if you can't do every form of film, when you can do one superbly?

ptch said...

Interesting! I actually thought this is the best parody since Andaaz apna apna. It's been awhile since I saw this, but the scenes that stand out in my mind are the ones with Moushmi's parody of the quintessential bollywood Ma. I kept seeing Bina Rai and Durga Khote in it. Also I thought Lisa Ray's character was supposed to be lost as that made most sense to me. Someone who doesn't identify with the values of their parent's generation, but didn't know exactly what to replace them with and so just went for the radically opposite. Although I do agree she was a bit wooden and it could have been someone else.