Bollywood 2.0

27 08 2009

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Like most Western cinema-goers, I suppose, I have only the sketchiest of ideas as to what Bollywood cinema is all about. It involves singing – I’m pretty sure of that – and there’s normally a bit of dancing too. A leering moustachioed villain will make an appearance at some stage in order to menace a beautiful and demure heroine, before being repelled by a handsome and equally moustachioed hero. This much I’ve been able to pick up from the occasional Indian film that I’ve stumbled across on late-night TV.

On a recent visit to Delhi, I decided that it was time to do something about this ignorance of mine. Accordingly, on our last night in town, my girlfriend and I picked a cinema and a film pretty much at random and went along for the show.

The film in question was Love Aaj Kal, a Hindi-language blockbuster that has done brisk business at the box office both in India and in countries with big Indian communities like the U.K. and U.S. This being central Delhi, our efforts to find the kind of spit-and-sawdust fleapit that might give us the most authentic Indian cinema-going experience came to nothing, and we repaired instead to the comfortable, air-conditioned Plaza Cinema in Connaught Place.    

Love Aaj Kal tells the story of a London-based Indian civil engineer, played by big-nosed barrel-chested actor Saif Ali Khan, who meets and falls in love with a fellow young professional played by Deepika Padukone. When their careers start to pull them apart, the couple decide to split up, ignoring the path of true love. As you might imagine, this turns out to be a huge mistake. The rest of the film is taken up with the young lovers realising that they still have feelings for one another and struggling to overcome various obstacles – living on different sides of the world, being married to other people – to be together again.

Khan’s character receives advice from an older, avuncular Sikh friend, played by Rishi Kapoor, who helps him to see the error of his ways. He does this by telling his own story of unrequited, star-crossed love. This story, set in 1965, plays out alongside the main narrative, with Khan playing a younger, bigger-nosed version of Kapoor as he travels from Delhi to Calcutta to win the heart of the woman he loves.

Surprisingly, the film reminded more than anything else of Richard Curtis. This was partly because it was a rom-com set in London, but it was also something to do with the tone of the piece. The Hindi dialogue was, as far as I could make out – and it was surprisingly easy to follow what was being said – of the light, awkward, comic variety that Curtis specialises in, and many of the set pieces were decidedly Curtisian (if I can coin a new adjective) too. For instance when our hero attends the wedding of his sweetheart, he starts out by telling her how happy he is for her and how it’s best that she’s married someone else. Then, his tongue running away faster than his brain can follow, he talks himself through a range of emotions, at first comic then maudlin, ending in a final, useless declaration of love. It’s a scene that could have been written for Hugh Grant.

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There were other things too that showed that this was a new kind of Bollywood blockbuster. For a start, the running time of the film was two hours. Classic Bollywood films were always over three, allowing for plenty of intervals to stock up on chana and popcorn. There wasn’t that much singing either. The first musical / fantasy sequence didn’t take place until almost half-an-hour in, and there were only two others like it.

Then there was the fact that the film took place in such an international setting: the main characters meet in London and spend time in San Francisco as well as Delhi. The casting is international too, with the female romantic lead in the 1965 story played by a Brazilian actress. (Incidentally this might explain why she isn’t given very much to say or do.)

Most shockingly of all, the romantic leads kiss, something that I’d always been led to believe was a huge taboo in Indian cinema. No-one in the audience fainted or screamed or so much as batted and eyelid when, in an early scene, Khan and Padukone enjoyed a protracted snog in the front seat of a car.

Bollywood cinema, it seems, is certainly changing. Just as Slumdog Millionaire blended elements of Indian and Western storytelling, so a new generation of Bollywood films is self-consciously setting out to do the same thing, in the process redefining what commercial Indian cinema is all about. This is partly a commercial decision of course. Movie-goers in the big cities and in the Indian diaspora have long been exposed to Western cinema. This audience, while not exactly demanding realism from its film-makers, is receptive to a kind of cinema with broader horizons than the old masala melodramas and with aspirational settings that, even a generation ago, would have seemed out-of-place.

That’s all very well in Delhi or Mumbai or Calcutta, but one wonders how a film like Love Aaj Kal plays in smalltown Rajasthan.

That’s a question I can’t answer right now so, like the worst kind of coward, I’ll leave it hanging in the air, and hope to find out on my next trip to India.

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