Indian cinemagoing never died in America the way it did for Hong Kong movies.
Bear with me.
While we lost our last great Chinese-language theater at the turn of the 21st century (The Music Palace), Indian cinema has long since found its way into mainstream multiplexes. Whether this is through canny booking by distributors or because theater owners realized they could make some real money off of a two week run for NRI audiences, you can now hop on a train to Times Square and catch the biggest Bollywood release of the year, Shahrukh Khan’s Ra.One.
This can only be a good thing, because Ra.One is awesome and should be seen by anyone who loves big, goofy spectacle and inappropriate R and B dance numbers.
For those of you who are unaware of Shahrukh Khan, feast your eyes:
Or try watching this musical number from his 2006 film Om Shanti Om.
Holy SHIT. Right?
He is the biggest, most enduring movie star currently working in Hindi cinema, and this is beyond dispute. While other performers have seen their stock rise and fall, it’s been almost a decade since Khan starred in anything but a smash hit (cameo appearances notwithstanding). He heads up a production house with its own visual effects wing, picks his collaborators and basically gets to make whatever the hell he feels like making. This is all the more remarkable for the fact that he is a practicing Muslim who has not been shy about it; hell, his most recent blockbuster was a tearjerker about an autistic Muslim man in post 9/11 America on a journey to tell President Bush that he is, in fact, not a terrorist. Cloying? Perhaps. An easy movie to sell? Definitely not. But he made it, and he made it a hit. There have been protests, threats and even violence around Khan’s work, but the fact remains that he is a beloved movie star the world over. For all intents and purposes, he’s been India’s pre-couch-jump Tom Cruise for a long time now, and unless he does something really, really fucking stupid, that’s not changing.
Of course, one thing he could do would be to produce the most extravagantly expensive movie in Hindi history, play a double role in it and promote it until even his staunchest fans were begging him to take it easy.
Enter Ra.One, his magnum opus/folie grandeur, released just in time for the festival of Diwali. Take a look at the trailer.
Hindi cinema has tried for years to break into the global FX blockbuster business with fairly poor results (see, or rather don’t see, Drona, Blue and Love Story 2050). Khan talked big about trying to break the curse. This, he said, was the one that would show the world that Bombay could play with the big boys (never mind that the existing audience for Indian film is already in the billions; this was about domination). Of course, the last film that talked a game like that was Endhiran, a megabudget Tamil sci-fi epic starring a man you may know as Superstar Rajnikanth. While Endhiran was a massive success by any measure, in America it was thought of as high spirited, culturally impenetrable camp. In fact, it was only picked up on in the mainstream through the snide, ironic viral popularity of this video, a Russian dub of Endhiran’s climactic action scene:
Endhiran was then acquired by an independent distributor who thought it was just a GAS, a distributor presumably unaware that it had played across America already and made a tidy profit. Yay for white people!
A full year before its release, promotions began in earnest and since then there have been soft drink tie-ins, video games, mobile apps, an endless stream of Ra.One in every conceivable medium. Many have called this overkill. Some have suggested that promotions this enormous can only signal flopsweat, a colossal case of the Emperor’s new clothes.
Having seen Ra.One in a packed, enthusiastic theater, I can tell you this: it’s a doozy. At over 2 and a half hours, Ra.One manages to stuff an exhausting amount of entertainment value into the most polished package Bollywood has yet offered. If Khan really thought this would be the one to crack the pan-cultural market, though, he was fooling himself: it is as Bollywood as can be, a loony amalgam of slapstick comedy, syrupy sentiment, musical spectacle, superheroics and lush romance. If Endhiran bewildered Western audiences, Ra.One will be no less alien, though its values are considerably more accessible (Endhiran featured a genuinely upsetting scene in which a woman whose naked body has been witnessed by a crowd throws herself into oncoming traffic in shame; that she does this is never remarked upon as unreasonable behavior).
The story of Ra.One is one for the XBox age: superdork Shekhar Subramanium, video game designer and husband to Sonia (the velveteen beauty Kareena Kapoor), decides it is time to do something badass enough to impress his standoffish son Prateek (Armaan Verma). Egged on by game-head Prateek’s insistence that bad guys are the COOLEST, he designs a video game with the most powerful villain ever conceived, Ra.One. The bulk of the film deals with Ra.One’s escape from the game environment and subsequent real world battle with Shekhar’s sleek heroic digital doppelganger, G.One.
It’s standard doofus-y whiz-bang action plotting, and the screenplay just ignores more than a few “wait, what?” moments, but no matter. The damn thing just works. While the first half is a little spastic in its “MUST PLEASE ALL AUDIENCE QUADRANTS” contortions, the second half tears the roof off of the place. Director Anubhav Sinha (who has made some okay movies and some dreadful ones) keeps the pace rocketing along with confidence, and the visual elements are beyond reproach, a surprisingly smooth mix of digital and practical effects. Two scenes in particular stand out: a frankly bonkers fight at a power station where G.One and Ra.One HURL FUCKING CARS AT EACH OTHER and a chase scene in which G.One must outrun and stop a runaway train. The latter is the scene that most encapsulates the experience of watching Ra.One; it’s big, loud, unstoppable, fast as hell, and ludicrously, breathlessly entertaining.
The film has its very obvious mythic antecedents; Ra.One, spoken with an accent, is a homonym for Ravana, the ten-headed villain of the Ramayana. And G.One stands in for Jeevan, meaning life. The film plays with all of this pretty lightly, but it does give us one extraordinary scene of Ra.One strolling into a massive Ramlila and frightening the children away, backed by flames and the ten heads of Ravana.
But what of the big man? The Shah? King Khan? Well, he’s the hardest working man in Bollywood. He over-eggs the nerdiness as Shekhar, but once G.One is on the scene, Khan gives a graceful, witty, physical performance. Kapoor, who has little to do in the pre-intermission segment but look stunning, gets to stretch her wings a little in the second half, and her chemistry with Khan is palpable. These are two old pros just enjoying the hell out of each other, and it’s a pleasure to watch.
The songs are a lot of fun, too, and if they’re a little prone to the chart R and B affectations much of Bollywood has succumbed to (Akon makes an appearance and sings on two tracks), they’re well staged. The barnstormer is Chammak Challo, in which Kapoor, sari-clad and lushly glamorous, gets to kick out the jams.
Here it is:
The secret ingredient in all of this is conviction. Ra.One features much talk of goodness, love and heart, and though it’s never more than cliche, it’s un-ironic and sincere. Khan believes in this picture (he’s even one of the writers), and if you surrender to its sheer immensity, you will, too. Hail to the King.
Tamil cinema had its own Diwali spectacular this year, and the pitch was so inspired in its lunacy that I simply had to see it on a big screen (Tamil films are a little harder to find than Hindi, and this one was all the way out in Jackson Heights). 7aum Arivu arrives billed as a kung-fu sci-fi romantic thriller, and, well, the least you can say about it is that they weren’t kidding. As ungainly in its ambitions as Ra.One is laser-focused, 7aum Arivu first caught my notice because it comes from A.R. Murugadoss, whose unofficial remake of Memento, Ghajini, is one of my favorite Bollywood experiences of the last few years (more accurately, it was Murugadoss’s Hindi remake of his own Tamil remake of Memento). Then there was the trailer, which promised….something.
Many people call all Indian movies “Bollywood,” but this is incorrect. Bollywood refers only to the Hindi industry, and while it’s the most visible globally, it’s hardly the only game in town. In 2010 alone, there were releases in 24 different regional languages across India. Tamil has the second most productive film output in the country, and if anything, it makes fewer concessions to global tastes than Bollywood. You never forget your first hypercharged taste of it, something most people first got from another viral video of Rajinikanth, one of his signature fight scenes from the film Chandramukhi.
Potent stuff. And not easily culturally translatable.
7aum Arivu looks at first as though it might buck the trend. It opens with a long and gorgeous prologue detailing the journey of Bodhidarma to China, where he’s received first as a devil and then, once he’s taught them all of Tamil’s martial arts and medicine, as something like Jesus. With its painterly cinematography, impactful action (courtesy of veteran Peter Hein), and quietly commanding performance from Suriya, it’s gripping stuff. So of course it’s followed by about an hour of wacky modern day musical romantic comedy. This is nothing new for anyone who’s seen a Tamil film, and the romantic track between Suriya and Shruti Hassan (the offspring of Tamil film hero Kamal Hassan) is eminently charming.
Summarizing the plot hardly does it justice, but it’s the story of a modern-day descendant of Bodhidarma (this is a twist, but the game is rather given away by casting the same actor in both roles) who must seize his destiny and fight off an attempt by the evil, evil, EEEEEVILLLLL Chinese to dominate and destroy India. With his kung fu. And hypnotism skills.
It all sounds like so much more fun than it is, and if there’s less to write about here than there is in the comparatively substance-less Ra.One, it’s because 7aum Arivu, once its thriller track gets moving, deflates with alarming speed. For every fascinating idea it introduces (the genetic inheritance of certain skills, Tamillian culture and its corporate co-opting), it undermines itself by doing something really stupid (the film’s xenophobia is alarmingly frank, and Hassan quickly turns into a bit of a drip once her true motives are revealed). Perhaps its biggest crime is that it makes us wait until the last five minutes before our lead revives his inner Bodhidarma and kicks some ass. The smart call would have been to do this at the intermission point, freeing up the second half to be the epic spiritual smackdown-fest it keeps promising to be.
This is not to say it’s devoid of entertainment value of course; that opening is almost worth the price of admission. Suriya and Hassan have a fair amount of infectious fun together before the plot goes awry. Johnny Tri Nguyen, the terrific Vietnamese martial arts star, nearly walks away with the film (despite having atrocious dubbed dialogue). There’s also a setpiece involving an overturned truck, a shit-ton of crashing cars, and dozens of hypnotized attackers that nearly revives the film through its sheer face-blasting insanity. There’s a lingering feeling of squandered potential, though, and it hangs over fully half of the film. Murugadoss seems either unwilling or unable to fully engage with his own ideas (and he has to own it; he wrote and directed it solo).
Not to harp on it, but the anti-China sentiment here is often off-putting. I understand national pride, and lord KNOWS China has its problems, but sending psychotic hypno-spies to Tamil-Nadu to weaken and destroy India with bio-weapons isn’t, so far, one of them. Ra.One has a Chinese character mysteriously named Akashi, which isn’t so much culturally insensitive as it is…weird. When one character calls him Jackie Chan, you brace for a bit of the racial burlesque that still mars a lot of Indian cinema, but actor Tom Wu responds with hilarious annoyance. “Stop calling me Jackie Chan! Not all Chinese are JACKIE CHAN!” How very odd that the less serious film would be the more sensitive (bear in mind that Ra.One is also a film with a gay joke and a bunch of nut-shots).
Watching these two films together is a study in the importance of sticking the landing. It doesn’t matter how rock-the-house terrific your opening is if your film can’t close the deal, and you can get away with a lot of loosey-goosey silliness at the outset if you bring the pain for a big finish. It’s also a keen reminder that Indian cinema is a game of parts. While both films are overcrowded and nutty, only one manages to draw its disparate strands together into something remotely coherent. You can admire the mad ambition of 7aum Arivu or detest the pandering populism of Ra.One as much as you like; one’s an inert hodgepodge, and one’s a thrilling action movie.
Still, over the course of a day, I saw a superhero video game musical and a kung fu sci-fi musical. To complain almost seems churlish. These are two hard-working entertainers and if one finally shortfalls, it’s not for lack of trying. And how wonderful is it that in this age of multiplex dominance, our choices are not limited to Someone Gave Mark Wahlberg a Gun and Adam Sandler Has No Respect For Your Money or Time?
Give me the subtitles and thousands of gaudily clad dancers every time. Happy Diwali, everybody.