From Middle Class Heroes to Kung fu Slapstick
While Indian audiences may not be impressed, Smitha Radhakrishnan wonders if underneath the clichs, there is diversification to be appreciated in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi and Chandni Chowk to China.
Published: Friday, February 06, 2009
Connecting Personal Issues to the Big Picture
Smitha Radhakrishnan has been publishing her podcast Desi Dilemmas from Podbazaar since November of 2005. On August 2007, she joined Asia Pacific Arts. Desi Dilemmas weaves together narratives, opinion, and research with Indians on three continents, to place common issues facing desis in a larger social and economic context.
Questions? Comments? Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Two of the latest Bollywood blockbusters to hit the big screen were simultaneously fresh and clichéd, trite and surprising. During my annual visit to the motherland this past January, I got to watch the much-awaited Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (A Match Made by God) and the mega-budget Warner Brothers-backed bonanza Chandni Chowk to China in packed movie theaters in India at the height of their respective popularity. The late show of Rab Ne in Hyderabad that I went to intially turned us away for lack of seats, before a few cancellations put tickets in our hands. The Sunday evening show of Chandni Chowk, at the iconic art deco movie institution Regal Cinema in the heart of South Bombay, was almost sold out as well.
Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi had all the ingredients of a superhit: Aditya Chopra (writer of 1995 megahit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge), reigning king of Bollywood Shah Rukh Khan, the Yashraj stamp, catchy songs, plenty of publicity. I came ready to suspend my disbelief for standard Bollywood fare, of the romantic melodrama vintage of other SRK flicks. But the setup of this movie was very different that most others: an ordinary schmuck in the lead, not a handsome athletic hero or a cocky college student. And the settings on display were the beautiful but traditional settings of middle-class lanes and homes in Amritsar, Punjab -- not palatial mansions in Mumbai or exotic snowy locations abroad. And the hero and heroine are married right at the beginning! Where's the suspense in that?
The first half of the movie is touching and funny, with beautiful visuals and memorable little moments. Shah Rukh is at his winning best, even as the dorky-but-lovable Surinder Sahni. Anushka Sharma, the newcomer, is adorable too, and you can't help but feel for both of them. I found myself giggling with delight at Surinder's worship of the yellow lunchbox his beloved wife prepares for him, and even as I felt embarrassed for him when he tries to be the hip-but-too-awkward Raj, I was rooting for him. I really was. The gorgeous old haveli-style house in which they live was beautifully filmed, and even Anushka's outfits were cute, understated. None of it was over-the-top Bollywood at all, and yet the innocent love, wholehearted affection, the whole setup could be nothing but.
Not having seen Shall We Dance or its Japanese predecessor, I thought that the whole setup was very fun and original, which it is, but not as much as I thought at first. In any event, the cost of the ticket was worth it just to see the star-studded, reference-laden, thrill-a-minute tribute to Bollywood, the song "Phir Milenge Chalthe Chalthe," even though the number itself was kind of oddly placed in the movie. It was too much of a copy of a similar scene in Dil Chahtha Hai (2002), arguably the first of the new generation Bollywood flicks to do a memorable tribute number.
And then, after we're all worked up, the whole thing goes crazy. The second half goes on for almost a year, with forced melodrama, disturbing little mind games, a completely bizarre and slightly alarming Sumo wrestling match. The resolution comes with nothing less than divine intervention, and the climax takes so long to come that by the time it does, we are so done with the whole Clark Kent routine that we almost can't see it through at all (that's right, the whole movie is premised on the fact this woman doesn't recognize her husband with hip clothes and no moustache, a device that works for a while, but one that just cannot be sustained so long!). In the end, I enjoyed it, but just wished it had been about an hour shorter, as I often wish with Hindi movies.
Then there was the crazy slapstick desi kung-fu bonanza, Chandni Chowk to China. Thank goodness I left my brain at home for this one because it would have only gotten in the way. Without my brain hindering me, however, I could laugh at the ridiculously twisted plot, the bumbling hero, and the predictably bad dialogue. And I could admire Deepika Padukone, even though there's nothing much in the way of acting to admire here. It was campy, it was over-the-top, and it was downright entertaining. Provided, of course, you don't spend any time at all actually thinking about it. If you do think about it, you might wonder how Warner Brothers sunk so much money into this standard Bollywood action comedy, just dressed this time, in Chinese robes, sort of.
Chandni Chowk is perhaps in many ways a standard kung-fu flick: the hero is stupid at the beginning, is then shamed, and, to seek revenge against a slain father figure, learns martial arts and becomes a real person. Twins are separated at birth, an ancient martial-arts master (in this case, a Chinese peasant revolutionary) is reborn, and the bad guy is hard to kill, even though he's so bad. But we're never supposed to forget that this is an Indian movie, and that our valiant hero is a die-hard Indian. He worships a potato, for instance, praying to Ganapati Bappa (that the potato represents) in every moment of strife. And when the moment of his ultimate test arrives, it is his skill in chopping vegetables and kneading chappati dough that allows him to finally realize his unique brand of "desi kung fu" that defeats his enemy. (The audience at Regal, by the way, cheered really loud in that part... can you blame them?)
Critics in India seemed to like Rab Ne for the most part, though the movie was hardly reviewed much at all in the US. Didn't quite have that transcontinental non-resident Indian appeal, I suppose. And although critics both in India and the US slammed Chandni Chowk, you'd be amazed at how many US-based reviewers actually really liked the film. Saw it as a ground-breaking genre-bending culturally pioneering kind of thing. I'm not sure it was all that, but okay, I grant that it kept me entertained, even though there's no way I could have sat through it on DVD.
Fine. Critics are critics. But here's the puzzling thing. But I didn't meet one other person in India that thought either Rab Ne or Chandni Chowk to be passable, even tolerable movies. Young and old, Bollywood-goers I knew were unimpressed and uninterested. My 20-year-old nieces are jaded of the romantic melodrama cloth that Rab Ne is cut from, and my slightly older cousins are unwilling to even invest the ticket money in what they are convinced will be an excruciating experience. As for Chandni Chowk, well, there was some mild interest from Akshay Kumar fans, but no one I knew in India ran out to see it the opening weekend as I did.
There have of course been zillions of kinds of Bollywood movies for decades, and it's only a small fraction of them that make it onto the transnational radar screen at all. That small fraction of movies that devoted Bollywood fans in the US and UK watch have been pretty darn uniform -- mostly centered around the lives of the rich or those living abroad, intensely family-oriented, always musical, and replete with ostensible romantic and moral lessons. At least with Chandni Chowk, there seems to be a shift. Akshay Kumar has been doing slapstick action comedies for Indian audiences for years, which is perhaps why the Indian press found little that was new or interesting in this latest offering. But it's all new to a burgeoning American audience for Bollywood that doesn't exactly know what Bollywood is. Yet. And with Rab Ne, despite its relatively short run in the US, the global Yashraj brand decided to highlight the lives of ordinary middle class Indians with conventional lives. So, perhaps amidst all the schizophrenia, there's a sign that the idea of Bollywood in the US is diversifying, even if only in not-so-original ways.