|Rahul Khanna||Rahul Seth|
|Sarah Jessica Parker||Kimberly|
|Directed by||Deepa Mehta|
There is a calculated cuteness to Deepa Mehta's Bollywood, Hollywood, a satirical marriage of the conventions of the movie industry's biggest company towns, Bombay (known as "Bollywood" in film circles) and Los Angeles. It does not feel like the work of a natural comic sensibility; and indeed, Mehta's previous work (Earth and Fire) has been on the heavier side of social commentary. The freshness flags badly in places. But for good chunks of the running time she manages to keep things light, entertaining, and even funny.
Mehta has chosen that universal theme of Indian movies made in the West: cross-cultural romance. From hits like "Bend it Like Beckham" and "East Is East" we know that Indian families are happy to move to places like England or the U.S. or Canada, but they're damned if they want their children marrying the locals. That same impulse is played out wherever racial, religious and cultural chauvinism runs high : Christians, Jews, Blacks, Whites, Italians, Poles, even Big Fat Greeks - the aversion to cross-pollenization runs deep and wide. Meet Rahul Seth (Rahul Khanna), a handsome young dot-com millionaire and the scion of an Indian family in Toronto. As the movie opens, Rahul's dying father (Jolly Bader) is giving him some deathbed instructions that indicate a thoroughgoing assimilation to their adopted country.
"You hold the baseball bat of destiny in your hands," he tells his son, and then mixes his Toronto sports franchise metaphors by adding "Do not get distracted by the cheerleaders in their short skirts." In other words, don't go sniffing around those White girls. But it's too late. Rahul already has a girlfriend he's crazy about: Kimberly (Jessica Par?), a pop singer known as "the Canadian Brittney Spears."
This is about as bad as bad news gets for Mummyji (Moushumi Chatterjee) and Grannyji (the late Dina Pathak), his mother and grandmother, who take few pains to hide their satisfaction when Kimberly loses her concentration while levitating and meets a terrible end. The pressure is renewed on Rahul to find a nice Indian girl, and the stick used is the threat to not allow his sister Twinky (Rishma Malik) to have her wedding until he's found himself a bride. But Rahul didn't get to be a young millionaire without a few cleverness resources of his own. He meets Sue (Lisa Ray) in a bar, and though he takes her to be Spanish when she quotes him Pablo Neruda, she looks ethnically ambiguous to pass for Indian. He pays her generously to play the role of his Indian fianc?e until Twinky, who is not in a position to wait indefinitely, is safely married.
If you are looking for surprises, this is not the place to look. The boy-meets-girl plot is as old as they come, and the hired-imposter-turned-romantic-interest shenanigans recall Pygmalion and a hundred others ; so when things go badly, there's no need to let your spirits get too dashed. There are complications, there is mistaken and hidden identity of the sort you can trace back to the comedies of Shakespeare (whom Grannyji is constantly quoting) and beyond. There are more recent antecedents as well - the discerning eye will note broad similarities to the Julia Roberts comedy "Pretty Woman", and one senses that the runaway success of Nia Vardalos's "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" did not go unnoticed in the Mehta household in Toronto. There's even a little brother constantly recording family slice-of-life with his video camera in a way that might call to mind Capturing the Friedmans.
But that's the fun of this story. Mehta is giving us Bollywood layered onto Hollywood, or vice versa, and the Indian cinema tradition of gaudy musical numbers and bright colorful costumes gives this movie its look and feel, and rescues it from its well-worn plotting and ill-worn dialogue. I would guess that the more one knows about the Bollywood scene the more fun its allusions are, and there are cultural references from Deepak Chopra to Hinduism that keep the pot bubbling. But just on the surface level the movie is easy to take as it keeps bursting into song and cavorting through the twists and turns of romantic trials and triumphs The politics of identity is at the bottom of it all. "I'll be anything you want," Sue tells Rahul when they meet in the bar. There's Rahul's chauffeur, Rocky (Ranjit Chowdhry), who moonlights as a drag queen in a nightclub, reminding us that "nobody is what they appear to be," and warning us not to judge a book by its cover. And with this advice in mind, we sift through the opposed complexities of Indian or Anglo or Spanish, good girl or bad girl, dead or alive, love or money, Bollywood or Hollywood. In the end, we're all more alike than we are different. As a character says, "Holly, Bolly - different wood, same tree."
© Text 2003 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be