When "Bollywood/Hollywood" opened last year -- on my birthday, no less -- I didn't see it. Was I remiss? Did I shirk my duties? My friends were certainly gung-ho about getting me into the theatre..."Come on!" they'd say, "You're a fan of Bollywood, and there's a drag queen in it, and it's a cross-over film! It was shot in Toronto! It's playing just down the street! Put your tail feathers on and let's go!"
But I said no. I shushed them away like bothersome flies. I made excuses about being busy, or being sick of Indian cinema, or needing to stay at home and oil my cat. But my real reason for never seeing the film was because I was SCARED.
Yes, I admit it. In fact this is the first time I've admitted it to anybody, anywhere. I was scared because "Bollywood/Hollywood," with that ominous slash in the middle of the title and the "Same wood, different tree" catchphrase was meant to appeal to Western and Eastern audiences in equal measure. It was a film combining two elements together, one of which I deeply enjoy and another that I'm deeply suspicious of. That combination spells "eventual bastardization of Indian films until they end up looking like bland porridge with a few raisins in it." A little creature deep down in my guts was telling me that if Bollywood ever seriously caught on with a non-Indian audience, the film-makers would start targeting the west...and before you know it Amitabh would become Jackie Chan and there'd be a hundred rail-thin versions of Rambha on MTV. NO!
So, paralyzed with fear, I stayed at home (and oiled the cat) and shunned the movie like I might catch atypical pneumonia from it. I muttered under my breath about money-grubbing filmmakers who can't leave a good thing alone, and my friends called me names like "elitist" or "stupid" or "covered in oil." This resulted in me missing a great film and denying the filmmakers that little dribble of money that they would have earned from my cinema ticket. The best I can do now is buy the DVD and the soundtrack -- even if it does have an abysmal version of "Mera Naam Chin-Chin Chu" at the end -- and hope that I can make up for lost time.
Deepa Mehta has taught me something about the Bollywood AND Hollywood genres, but before I get into that I'd like to tell you what this movie is about. Then I'd like to discuss a little creature that lives inside of our guts, because it has some relevance to What It Might Possibly Mean To Be A Canadian Or An Indian, with a caveat that I'm going to make some wild generalizations very, very soon. I'll explain right off the bat that I majored in Psychology and am therefore, even today, filled with half-baked theories and pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo. I'm telling you now so you can be ready when I reveal them. Freud damaged me as much as he damaged everybody else, especially those rich, hysterical, corseted women who didn't realize that their feet were numb just because their laces were too tight.
But first, a brief synopsis. The cunningly-named Rahul (Rahul Khanna) is a very rich man whose family insists that he marry an Indian girl. PRONTO. Maybe they're worried that if they stretch things out any longer, the viewers might want to know how Rahul became so rich and want to see his office (no Indian business tycoon's office is complete without a wall-to-wall mural of a woodsy landscape...and do you know how hard it is to find those things nowadays? It would destroy the budget!) When his flaky white girlfriend Kimberly -- forever quoting Deepak Chopra and levitating around -- fails to impress the clan, Rahul comes under intense pressure from his mother and grandmother: "find an Indian girl and marry her, or we'll hold off your sister's wedding." And since his sister is pregant, the clock is ticking.
I'd like to point out that calling a girl "Twinky" in North America is bound to lead to early pregnancy, but I digress.
Rahul meets Sue in a sparsely-populated, Atom Egoyan-esque "club." What I mean by that is that the club looks like a set-designer's wet dream, but resembles more of an art installation than a place where you want to get drunk and vomit. Sue looks like she can pass for any of a dozen ethnicities (she claims Spanish) and she loves Bollywood, which Rahul claims makes her an "honorary Indian." Sensing a scheme, Rahul pays her to pretend to be his bride-to-be, and with some coaching she fits right in with the rest of the family. Everyone is happy. Mummy ji is enchanted when Sue (now "Sunita") is willing to do "whatever Rahul tells me to do." Grandma ji is intrigued by Sunita's straight-talk. On her part, Sunita has had her own effect on the family, transforming Govinda (Rahul's younger brother) from a horrible nerd into somewhat less of a horrible nerd, and she actually gets Grandma to dance at a party held in a shopping mall. Rahul himself is falling in love with Sunita, as you'd expect, and it's mutual. The only catch is that they can't get over the origins of their conceit. He's paying her, she's taking the money, and she's a professional escort. In the best Bollywood tradition they are worthy, wonderful people being kept apart by lies and deception and their own personal hang-ups. And that's the tension of the movie.
You can already see the Bollywood elements here: a melodramatic and somewhat hysterical mother (referred to as a "drama queen"), a grandmother with a stony manner but a warm heart, a son who wants to "do what's right" (or, in Rahul's case, who wants to keep a promise he made to his dying father AND to get this whole unpleasant business over with) and a future bride who isn't quite what she appears to be. There's also the knowledge that, no matter what, these lies between Rahul and Sunita need to be revealed sometime, and when they come out in the open there's going to be some head-clutching and weeping and hopefully a heart-wrenching song on a mountaintop. At least, that's what would happen in Bollywood. What about in this strange, hybrid, Canadian film?
Deepa Mehta's got it all figured out. She has a few ways of making this palatable to the west, first off by injecting some ever-popular culture clashes: grandma ji quotes shakespeare, the NRI ladies get confused about the origin of ecstasy ("it's a drug, like hashish"), and there is a running gag with an Indian woman who wanders around at all the events saying "What a bunch of losers," which I found extremely funny in that Addam's Family, repetitive humour sort of way. In fact, I'd rank this running gag as one of the top five moments of the film, right up there with the ghostly visitation scene near the end and Sunita's hilarious Urmila Matondkar impersonation.
But Deepa has an even more impressive method up her sari, something I wasn't aware of until the film was over and I was oiling the cat again: she made this film tasty to a western palate by SOFTENING it.
Now, Bollywood films are inherantly harsh. They have strictly defined codes of conduct that lead to strict plots, strict scenes, and strict ranges of emotion. They have, generally, sharp transitions between those scenes: a funny sequence ("to release tension"), followed by an action sequence ("to outline who is good and who is bad"), followed by a song ("the inner dialogue") with very little to connect them. The characters usually have a role that the viewer is aware of as soon as we see them walk on the screen: the guy with the scary moustache = bad guy = will remain unsympathetic to the audience until the end, when he MAY repent and try to fix the situation before he dies...and he MUST die, always. That's the harsh fact of Bollywood. Things MUST happen, certain elements MUST be there, and it's the ELEMENTS of the movie that matter the most, the scenes, the moments...NOT the transitions between them, not the western idea of "plot," lord forbid!
"Bollywood/Hollywood" softens the Bollywood approach in the same way that Ram Gopal Varma tends to in his movies. He creates a plot arc that's smooth and isn't tangential. There are no bad guys, just ordinary people who are obstructions. This is what Deepa Mehta does. When the grandmother objects to something, she doesn't stand up and yell, the camera doesn't zoom in on her as she says something vicious about the heroine...grandma ji just makes a firm but funny joke. When she calls Kimberly a whore, the circumstances around the insult are light and funny. When Sue's father gets angry at her for sneaking out at night, the scene ends with a somewhat maudlin and touching examination of his frailty and his shattered dreams. Nobody in the movie is a strictly "comic" character, or "bad" character, or even "hero" or "heroine" (both of whom have got problems of their own regarding their backgrounds and ability to commit emotionally, I suspect). While there are certainly typical characters in this movie, they are not constrained as they would be in Bollywood. They're allowed to be both sympathetic AND annoying, funny AND sad. But never "tragic" or "cruel."
And what's more, these scenes CONNECT. There's a flow between them, presumably because this flow seems to be much more important to Western viewers than it is to Eastern ones. When the actors break into a song -- normally a somewhat jarring transition to one not used to it -- a helpful subtitle is given ("The Romantic Song" for instance) to ease the movement to a new type of scene. The way Deepa Mehta accomplishes this is masterful and subtle, and besides having written a funny (and great) script and directed a wonderful film, I congratulate her most on this "softening" of Bollywood. I think it manages to keep the important elements without bastardizing them or mixing them up, which was my initial fear.
But it's not all chameli and margosa leaves. My biggest problem with the Bollywood/Hollywood mix involves -- bear with me here -- that little creature living in your guts. Please forgive me while I explain this.
All of us, I think, have a little creature down there that mediates our behaviour. I'll call it an imp. It's sort of like Freud's "Ego," but it chuckles (in a nasty, high-pitched way) at many of his other theories and likes to stomp around demolishing the Oedipus Complex. This little creature wears different regional clothing and is as distinct as a set of fingerprints, and if you put your head near your boyfriend's belly you can sometimes hear it gurgling.
The Canadian version of the imp is dressed like a theatre usher, and it takes it's job very seriously. When a Canadian laughs at a joke, or gets up to dance, or goes to see a band perform, that little imp is always saying "Shhhh, keep it down! Don't bump into anybody! Don't act crazy! Act like an adult! You look silly doing that! It's getting late, time to go home!" I have a feeling that the Indian imp is a little different...it often does that Daler Mendhi dance (with it's fingers pointing up in the air) and it plays wicked Antakshari. It is just as restrained as the Canadian imp sometimes -- "Bow respectfully to your auntie! Take Hanumann seriously!" -- but it also knows when to have a coffee break and stop controlling things. In some ways the Canadian imp is a good thing, as we don't often have riots here and aren't apt to spot killer Monkey Men when we travel to Delhi. But our little creature is FAR too concerned with keeping things neat and clean and tidy. It doesn't "rock the boat" when it should. It doesn't get out of line when it should. And, most importantly, it won't let us party.
Most of the actors in "Bollywood/Hollywood" are not Canadian, which makes this observation seem sort of strange: some of them, especially Sue (played by Lisa Ray) are just not letting loose like they should. Lisa Ray is brilliant in the movie, playing an entirely convincing role and looking gorgeous as sort of an added bonus. But during her song & dance numbers, you can see the Canadian imp holding her back...her eyes are distant, her arms are awkward, her interactions with other dancers are nervous and aloof. Maybe this is what growing up in Ontario does to a person. The other actors, as well, just don't seem as energetic as most Bollywood characters are. Maybe, when a foreigner comes to Canada to make a movie, they are given their own Canadian imp to keep them in line, or maybe they feel outnumbered by the Canadian imps in the production staff that surrounds them...I don't know. But while "Bollywood/Hollywood" cuts loose more than your average Canadian film, it still looks like it's holding something back, which was disappointing.
A case in point: the much-touted drag numbers. It turns out that Rahul's chauffeur (Rocky) is a closet drag queen who has -- somehow -- achieved international acclaim by looking terrified and wooden on stage. As much as I loved Rocky's character as a man, his drag numbers (as "Rockini") are stilted and unnerving, and the movie would be better off without them. I mean, he's doing BOLLYWOOD numbers -- which, as I mentioned, even Lisa Ray falls short of providing the requisite mugging and energy for -- but he's just standing in one spot, eyes almost shut, apparently impersonating a sleep-walking Marlene Dietrich who isn't actually walking. Rockini just doesn't make the cut as a drag queen, let alone one in a song & dance extravaganza. Though his "tuck tape" revelation is fun, not least because it takes place in Toronto's Shubh Laxmi Jewelers, a sort of mecca for Canadian Bollywood fans (we at the BollyBob Society know every Shubh Laxmi commercial off by heart, right down to when one of the employees picks up his enormous 1980's cel phone and tries not to look at the camera).
"Bollywood/Hollywood" does what I felt no film could do: it actually manages to combine elements from both genres (or at least, take elements from one genre and streamline them for western tastes), and make an enjoyable film...without becoming bland or generic. What's more, the movie was touching (if not exactly tear-jerking), and was a gentle and successful satire. Congratulations are in order! All that's lacking is energy and a certain degree of conviction...somehow the actors never reached high gear, which was a shame. The ideal blending of genres is still on the horizon, and I'm no longer quite as terrified of it.
This does NOT, however, mean that I'm going to rush out and see "The Guru."