RAMBA RADHA RANI
Starring: Rambha, Jyothika, Laila, Vivek, Govinda, Abbas, Mumtaz
Music by Kartik Raja
Directed by Parmeshwaran
Sometimes you hear the phrase "so bad it's good" used to describe movies. It's an overused phrase, but it applies well to the wonderful mess that is "Ramba Radha Rani" because despite all of its drawbacks -- rip-off plotlines, zombie-like characterizations, brainless jokes, cheap fight scenes and a total lack of budget -- it is STILL a lot of fun to watch. Sure, half the time you're trying to figure out how you're supposed to react to the jarring and constant switches between pathos, action, and unrelated comedy...but the other half of the time you can stop worrying and just enjoy it for what it is: stupid fun. With emphasis on the word "stupid."
I know only vague rumours about the troubles that beset the film...something about it taking four years to finish because co-stars Rambha and Jyothika kept fighting about their clothes, which wouldn't surprise me one bit. I can only guess at the reasons for why the movie is so frantically disconnected...was it written by four different eight-year-olds, none of whom spoke the same language? Were the eight-year-olds autistic? Do they like to see women with large breasts jump around? Hey, most kids do. Is this film actually the unholy alliance of several different movies, some of them starring Mumtaz and Vivek (the "King Of Humour"), others starring the three (jumping, buxom) heroines in the title? My favourite theory is that the director decided to pull a "Peter Jackson" and film an entire trilogy all at once, but he couldn't finish any of them...so he threw them all together just to meet the meagre two hour minimum for this movie. Was that how it happened? Have I uncovered the Secret Of The Horribly Sloppy Film?
We may never know. Perhaps the answer is beyond human understanding, much like Vivek's jokes. So rather than ponder these questions I will present you with two objective facts, ones that I haven't made up (or even exaggerated!):
FACT #1: This movie didn't have a lot of money to play with. That's an understatement, and it goes beyond simple cardboard sets...it has an influence on every aspect of the movie.
The cheapness of the film is first apparent during the opening credits. The credits themselves are actually printed on little pieces of coloured paper and taped to a flat background, usually off-center. The film stock looks like it has been sitting in a radioactive warehouse for twenty-five years before being developed in a vat of equally-ancient Kingfisher beer. The songs sound shoddy and unfinished, and the dance numbers are under-populated and lame. In fact, one of the women who dances with Govinda looks like a particularly unpleasant Cuban drag queen I used to know...she had a crack habit and a tendency to steal boots. In short: "Ramba Radha Rani" is not a multi-million dollar venture, and if they actually hired that drag queen I'm talking about then they probably lost more money through theft than they'll ever make in DVD sales.
I've just invented the First Law Of Moviedynamics, which is as follows: Money cannot be created, it can only be shuffled around or destroyed. Anybody who's seen "Armageddon" knows all about the DESTRUCTION of money, but the SHUFFLING of money in a film is a more subtle subject. There is only so much capital that the Mafia can extort from local businesses before a moviemaker needs to make some critical decisions on the set. Should they fire the special guest artiste so that the villain can have a more extensive set, preferably one with a giant crocodile in it? Should they get rid of the love interest altogether for the sake of FEEDING the giant crocodile? Should they cut down on the number of stuntmen so they can have some cool CGI effects at the end? Who keeps stealing Rambha's boots? Should the director just scrap this movie altogether and get a job writing computer software in his parent's attic?
In "Ramba Radha Rani" they don't give the villain a giant crocodile. They don't even give him a vat of bubbling acid. In keeping with the budgetary constraints, the only prop the villain gets is a small toy globe, which he must use to both intimidate and kill people. The producers DID splurge on some wire-work fight scenes in which the actresses often look like graceless chickens who just want to land as soon as possible. They also got a bundle of money from gratuitous product placement throughout the film, but much of what they earned was probably spent on the three unnecessary guest stars: Mumtaz, Abbas, and "very very special" guest Govinda.
They might have been able to shuffle the money around a little better -- giving the villain something scarier than a globe to play with would have been cool -- but I think the point is moot: whatever money they DID have wasn't nearly enough to make the sort of movie they wanted. The filmmakers had a few pennies in their pockets. They tried to by a new car, found out how much it would cost, and ended up building a pretend car out of cardboard boxes in their garage instead.
But don't cry! Most kids know that pretend cars can be fun! And this one certainly is. Heck, children don't need expensive toys to play around in...give a kid a milk bag and he'll entertain himself for hours (if he doesn't suffocate first). So even though the movie is cheap, that doesn't stop it from being worth watching (and suffocating in).
FACT #2: This isn't just one movie. It's actually two-and-a-half DIFFERENT movies, each with different plotlines and -- in some cases -- totally different characters.
First of all it's a movie about three women with really good résumés: they're models, they're musicians, and they also fight crime. In between writing really bland hit songs (which they never seem to actually RECORD...they just dance to them), they try to avoid getting married and try to avoid running over dead people with their car. They appear to be stuck in a scriptwriting limbo-world that is one-half "Charley's Angels," one-quarter "I Know What You Did Last Summer," and one-quarter Indian propaganda film-strip.
To somebody (me!) who doesn't live in India and doesn't have any money invested in Union Carbide, the propaganda is pretty cloying. For the most part it's sort of rational and good-natured -- it has some positive messages about everybody IN India actually getting along together, and supposedly planning a moon-landing so that Rambha can sing the national anthem on the lunar surface -- but after a while I got a bit skeptical: is India REALLY the best country in the world? Does it have NOTHING to answer for? Could this movie -- for all its talk about unity and love -- actually be slyly encouraging HATRED for Some Nonspecific Muslim Country Which Might Be Pakistan Or Saudi Arabia?
Now, I'm not the kind of person to stand up and say that stoning a woman to death is a progressive law to have on the books, but this movie does its best to contrast the most POSITIVE parts of Indian culture -- the Taj Mahal and...ummm, well, the Taj Mahal -- with the most REPRESSIVE aspects of orthodox Muslim law. You begin to wonder if the deck isn't stacked in this comparison, especially when a SPECIFIC evil country isn't named. This movie -- part of it, anyway -- keeps saying "India's the best country in the world, especially compared to SOME countries I know! They stone women in some of those places! Here in India we've just been known to...ahem...burn a woman or two."
Later on, when one of the characters actually claims that India is the "only country that respects humanity" my level of skepticism hit the roof, made a moon-landing, and did a really spectacular Rambha impersonation up there. I mean...can ANY country claim to be the only place that respects humanity? What makes me even MORE skeptical is the fact that "humanity" does not seem to include "fat people" in this film. I counted sixteen fat jokes throughout the movie, and an additional four that SEEMED like fat jokes but probably require a basic knowledge about elephants to really understand.
The constantly-degraded fat person in the movie is Rama, assistant to Detective Shankar (played by Vivek, the aforementioned King Of Humour). The two of them are part ANOTHER movie, one where Shankar drags Rama around and constantly makes fun of her. Seriously, one half of this film is about Shankar's bumbling adventures, punctuated by jokes about how heavy Rama is, how much she eats, how fat her legs are and how you can rest a Coke can on her butt (which serves a dual purpose of degrading a human being AND getting some much-needed money from the Coca-Cola Company).
Rama, of course, cheerfully endures this treatment in the same way that circus dwarves did in old Hollywood films. Perhaps the actress felt that a viciously insulting role was preferable to no role at all...or maybe she was just waiting for the day that she could cut off Vivek's legs, cover him with feathers, and exhibit him as the circus Chicken Man, which is no less than he deserves...except that he'd probably find some way to turn it into an Amitabh impersonation and make a lot of money out of it.
They don't call Vivek "The King Of Humour" for nothing, though! He has a sort of manic, referential, non-sequitir style that...well, reminds me of every other Indian comic I've ever seen, though Vivek is significantly more restrained and he manages to completely avoid anything to do with Michael Jackson. I have to admit that I laughed at every one of Vivek's awful jokes, especially the ones that made no sense due to a lack of cultural reference. I will even admit that I laughed at the jokes about fat people. It's true.
Sometimes Vivek (as Detective Shankar) is loosely involved in the lives of Ramba, Radha and Rani (remember them?). He tries to get them married to some nice young men who make up some funny fat jokes of their own. He pretends to be a music video director, "Subhash Kumar Bhansali," who is apparently the brother of Detective Shankar. He doesn't do this because it's an important thing to do, but simply because Govinda wouldn't fit into the plot otherwise. Vivek playing his own brother also provides the opportunity for a typical bit of Vivek humour (which I paraphrase here):
"Detective Shankar is my No. 1 brother. He used to wet the bed as a child, and ever since then he has become brother No. 1".
When Rama -- the Fat Woman -- isn't being insulted by Vivek, she's wearing a veil and pretending to be Mumtaz in order to bilk him out of his money (so she can buy huge amounts of food, naturally). This ruse takes up a large proportion of the film -- or at least it seems to when you're sitting through it -- and has nothing to do with the other one and a half movies in "Ramba Radha Rani." It's an excuse for Vivek to introduce -- you guessed it -- another guest artiste...Mumtaz herself, who reminds me of a sort of baffled guinea-pig in a reality TV show.
(Note to self: must see more Mumtaz)
The other special guest -- Abbas -- has an even more ridiculous reason for being there. While Rambha was off doing her best Matrix routine (complete with CGI bullets and punches that ALMOST hit their targets), Abbas took pictures of her beating the hell out of men and decided that she was his "Sweetie-Sweetie Lollipop Babe." This leads to an imaginary dance number in Malaysia where Abbas is merely an excuse to get some money from Coca-Cola, United Overseas Bank, Nokia, McDonalds and Exim Bank. That said, though, it's also a chance for Rambha to show how well she can dance in six-inch platforms...and she really can, believe me.
Yes, I admit it! I think Rambha is great. She's not a good actress by any means but she has a spectacular nose, a certain infectious, happy energy and she's a TERRIFIC dancer...she's the only actress I've seen who can eclipse Govinda without even appearing to try. For these reasons I dub her "India's Answer To Ann Miller." Hey Rambha, have you ever tried tap-dancing?
While Rambha is the spunky tough girl, Radha (Jyothika) is...well, the OTHER spunky tough girl. She doesn't do anything that stands out in my mind. In fact, she didn't even get a song of her own, for which she's probably grateful considering the way the others turned out. Whenever the songs start to drag (which tends to happen around the beginnings, middles and ends), the director of photography quickly zooms in and out to make the scene more exciting. It doesn't work but it does make you feel like you're in hyperspace.
The third girl is Rani, played by Laila, an actress I'm unfamiliar with. All I can say is that when it comes to being cute and silly, Laila can deliver and I'd love to see her in a more straight-forward comedy. Rani -- unlike her friends -- has a boyfriend named Akash who she shares long-distance fantasies with over the internet. In one of these fantasies he carries her across the beach and then drops her, which is sweet thing to do but bad for a person's tailbone. In another fantasy he sings lines so poignant that they may rival Meera's own bhajans:
"That black mole of yours steals my heart, Your pink lips drive me berserk."
You go, Akash! Nothing like pointing out a blemish to make a girl feel pretty. Sadly, Akash never gets to actually MEET Rani, due to either budgetary restraints or the peculiar pact that the three girls have made: they will not experience love until they have finished their mission.
Aha, you didn't know there was a mission, did you? Let me skip right over the "I Know What You Did Last Summer" part of the movie and get right to the heart of it (or at least, as best as I can find the heart when it's surrounded by the flabby viscera of Vivek): Ramba, Radha and Rani have a friend named Asha. Asha lives in That Unnamed Muslim Country and she sends ominous letters to her pals, attached to snapshots of herself on the verge of tears.
Why's Asha such a downer? It turns out she's fallen in love with an Indian man against the wishes of her cruel and unseen parents. Not having a passport, she has attempted to enter India wearing a great big burka, a technique that might have worked in a pre-9/11 Marx Brothers movie but is quickly thwarted by paranoid airport security guards who don't fall for that sort of shtick anymore.
So Asha ends up in jail and the only people who can save her -- by convincing India that "love" is more important than "national security" -- are Ramba, Radha and Rani. They go on a hunger strike that lasts at least five minutes, and Asha shows her own iron resolve by refusing to eat her prison sponge cake. A legion of police officers with identical moustaches cannot stand up to such a public appeal and Asha goes free, no doubt leaving a judge somewhere screaming "so what the hell am I supposed to do with the rest of these laws...just throw them out too?"
As if Asha didn't have enough problems, the government of her Hideous Unnamed Muslim Country has put a bounty on her head...somebody in India simply MUST capture her and stone her to death! I'm serious: simply killing her won't do, she must be STONED to death. Only one kind of man can accomplish this horrible deed: a man with a plastic globe.
To his credit, this villain is really quite evil: he teaches his enemies how to tell right from left by twisting their heads off in different directions. He has a band of thugs at his command, one of whom wears a shirt with "Basket" written on the front, no doubt some form of cruel punishment for a past mistake. What's more, this bad guy isn't motivated by hate or passion or any sort of chemical imbalance whatsoever: he's simply greedy. And that, my friends, is the lesson of "Ramba, Radha, Rani": people do bad things in India only when they're foreigners, when they've spent too much time in other countries, or when they put money above love.
Will our three heroines rescue Asha and her lover? Will Vivek get to marry Mumtaz? Why do so many South Indian men have identical moustaches? I don't want to spoil the movie by answering any of these questions other than to say that the ending is so anti-climactic that it might cause neurological damage in people with weak constitutions. But I do have a more important question...one that I don't know HOW to answer: is "Ramba, Radha, Rani" an EMPOWERING film? When the three actresses warn the viewers during the prologue that they're not going to see any weak, hero-hungry females in the next two hours, are they actually introducing a movie that is in any way progressive or -- dare I dream -- FEMINIST?
Well, sort of. Ramba and Radha come across as relatively no-nonsense chicks -- they stand up for themselves, fight off tall men with long swords and beat the hell out of any prospective suitors (not to mention Vivek). Rani is a complete weenie, but that's part of the fun. Really, though, when you're watching a movie like this...does any of that matter? I don't think so. Like I said, cheap toys can be as fun as expensive ones, and -- when it comes right down to it -- educational toys aren't much fun at all. Most little girls get more of a kick out of playing with Barbie than they do with clay-and-hemp goddess figurines any day.
When it came right down to it I was GLAD that "Ramba, Radha, Rani" was mindless fluff. Would I want or expect anything more from a night's entertainment? NO!