Dir. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, India, 2006
Vinod Chopra Films

Dir. Rakesh Roshan, India, 2006

by Sean Cunningham

Perhaps no nation generates movies as unselfconsciously and recognizably “foreign” to Western moviegoers as India. Something like France’s The Dinner Game may be no different than any clumsy American attempt at black comedy, while the only thing that sets assorted Brit gangster flicks apart from their U.S. counterparts is the presence of football thug Vinnie Jones (who, naturally, was promptly imported here for Jerry Bruckheimer films to eliminate even that slight variation). India, however, remains oddly unique. The three-plus hour films with a designated intermission, massive musical numbers at clockwork intervals and schizophrenic tonal shifts to ensure every possible demographic can enjoy something are unlike anything available at either the multiplex or the art house here in the States. When Hollywood panders, they inevitably create work watered down enough not to offend anyone, whereas a Bollywood film might offer a moment so saccharine Meg Ryan would gag and follow it with a fight sequence brutal enough to make Tony Jaa uncomfortable. As a result, India long failed to win American viewers while remaining virtually the only market Hollywood couldn’t crack. Recently there’s been a thaw on both sides. Casino Royale proved a hit in India (the charms of Daniel Craig acknowledge no borders) while an increasing number of Bollywood films are finding limited but genuine success in American theaters, typically pulling in a million or two before making their way to DVD. Indeed, a friend who just returned from India told me about seeing a bizarre Bollywood offering in India that turned out to be playing five blocks from my apartment (for those curious, it was Ram Gopal Varma’s Lolita re-telling Nishabd; succinctly summed up as “a piece of shit”).

A great place to experience these movies before they make the journey to netflix (where all the films discussed below are available) is Manhattan’s ImaginAsian theater (theimaginasian.com). I started frequenting it largely out of lethargy, merely because it’s one of the closest cinemas to my home. One film recently exhibited is Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Eklavya—The Royal Guard. Long regarded highly in India, Chopra recently achieved some Western notoriety thanks to his prominent role in Suketu Mehta’s book Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (a wonderful portrait of the lives of everyone from thieves to transvestites to acclaimed film directors in Mumbai). Set in contemporary India, Eklavya is the tale of an aging bodyguard still trying to uphold the family tradition of defending the “royal dynasty” (who, of course, technically no longer are a royal dynasty). It’s a very good, at times great film with virtuoso set pieces (such as a gorgeous sequence when a blindfolded Eklavya demonstrates his knife-throwing prowess on an in-flight bird), sly critiques of Indian society past and present (an impressively dishonest police officer from the Untouchable caste points out a palace wall where one of his ancestors was buried alive by the builders for “good luck”), and a wonderful knack for keeping scenes from becoming too sentimental by briefly leaping into the past or momentarily surging back to the present, so that a tender exchange between Eklavya and the prince he protects is interspersed with a similar moment between them when the future monarch was a boy. It’s also only two hours long and the limited music actually makes sense in the context of the story (e.g. the prince’s return home triggers a tune from childhood called “The Moon Song”). A plot that seems like a morphing of King Lear and a particularly eventful episode of Dallas untangles the family’s countless betrayals before reaching what can only be described as an unexpectedly happy ending (not to give too much away, but government corruption saves the day).

With the reductions in musical numbers and overall length, Eklayva and other films like this year’s Guru are far more palatable to Western audiences than the traditional Bollywood fare. As Hollywood finally makes real headway in the Indian market, it’s worth wondering if the Indian film business is at last facing Americanization. If so, one day we will look back fondly on Asian blockbuster Krrish, which takes a most American of film genres (the super hero flick) and makes it completely its own. This collaboration between Hrithik Roshan (who starred in Chopra’s 2000 “terrorist musical” Mission Kashmir—let’s see you remake that one, Hollywood) and his father/ director Rakesh is the tale of a son whose apparently deceased dad inherited supernatural abilities from aliens, which he in turn passed on to his boy. The first two and a half hours blend equal parts PG-rated teen comedy and the Rex Harrison Doctor Dolittle, as an orphaned country boy with a mysterious ability to communicate with animals sets off into the world to court an Indian girl in Singapore (Priyanka Chopra). Once in the metropolis, our lad adopts the secret identity of Krrish so he can anonymously use his gifts to protect the innocent while at the same time winning Priya’s heart. Priyanka is gorgeous and her character is astoundingly gullible (it would be as if Lois Lane couldn’t realize that Clark Kent is Superman…even after learning that Clark Kent has superpowers), while Hrithik is endlessly upbeat and in creepily muscular shape, although, less sexily, the actor also has a sixth finger that he believes to be good luck—during slow sections I found myself trying to spot it. And of course every so often during his quest, the movie erupts into song, which usually seem to occur just because it’s about damn time we had another musical number already (there hasn’t been so much frolicking in fields since The Sound of Music).

Then the last thirty minutes arrive and Krrish turns into The Street Fighter, minus the ripped off wieners. It’s discovered that our hero’s father isn’t dead—he’s only been tortured for the last twenty years (which is good news, sort of). To avenge his father (also played by Hrithik), Krrish must pound the hell out of numerous bad guys in scenes choreographed by Hong Kong’s Ching Siu-tung (Hero). On an oddly coincidental note, in real life, papa Rakesh was once shot by gangsters who allegedly forced Hrithik to perform in a touring musical review in exchange for sparing his father’s life. Is there a personal component at work in the film? One can only speculate, though I will note in many cultures the definitive form of revenge is a lavish action musical.

From a purely filmic standpoint, Krrish can’t compare to Eklavya. While Eklavya, particularly in terms of acting and cinematography, often achieves the sublime, Krrish generally aims for competence and sometimes misses that (Hrithik aside, the performances tend to be at a level I can only describe as “Jessica Alba in Honey-esque”). Krrish has its share of enthrallingly excessive moments (the couple meet after Priya hang glides into a tree, where Krrish, dangling from a branch, catches her; her helmet flies off and her flowing hair swirls around and they gaze into each other’s eyes), but in many ways it would have been twice as good at half the length. Still, watching Krrish I felt like I was observing something I’d never before witnessed. That’s a sensation too rare to dismiss, and any movie that ends with a man paying tribute to an extraterrestrial for giving him superpowers (a brief “Thanks, Jadoo”) deserves my money. There’s no denying that many Bollywood films are as terrible as Hollywood offerings, but at least they supply a whole different kind of awful. May we treasure it.