Hindi Film Reviews 2007

Brief reviews of current Bollywood films as they appeared in the Independent Weekly.

Hindi Film Reviews 2005 *Hindi Film Reviews 2006

Hindi Film Reviews 2008 * Hindi Film Reviews 2009* Hindi Film Reviews 2010

Screenings at the Galaxy Cinema in Cary, NC * Also, a brief archive of older Hindi films

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Chak De India (Let’s Go India) Shah Rukh Khan, the de facto King of Bollywood, stars in this hybrid of an underdog sports movie and a ecumenical patriotic rabble rouser, released just in time for Indian (and Pakistani) Independence Day on August 15.
The film’s politics are affirming, and complicated. Shah Rukh is Muslim, the biggest movie star in a predominantly Hindu nation. He plays Kabir Khan, a Muslim on the Indian national field hockey team, accused of ceding victory to Pakistan in the World Cup game. Labeled a traitor, he seeks to restore his izzat (honor) by training a raggedy group of female athletes for the Women’s World Cup.

Chak De India also promotes a “sisterhood is powerful” message, with its motley group of girls, representing states and languages across the subcontinent. They all battle against traditional family pressures, to cook and clean and marry, instead of running around immodestly in shorts and miniskirts (all custom made for the film, since it’s difficult to buy sports uniforms for women in India).

A combo of A League of Their Own, Bend It Like Beckham and India’s definitive sports movie (about cricket and colonialism) Lagaan, CDI seems geared to Western expectations, with its lack of songs, except for the usual training montage underscoring. There’s oodles of field hockey on screen--which is the Indian national sport, not cricket--subjectively photographed in midst of play. Shah Rukh doesn’t dance or romance, and his limpid eyes fill with tears for his team’s fate, not the tragedies of the heart. Thankfully, it’s not about fancying the coach, either. His emotions propel the story, as expected, but he’s aided by his unactressy players, especially pint sized Chitrashi Rawat, hulking Tanya Abrol and Sagarika Ghatge, who proves her mettle to her dismissive boyfriend. Feminism, religious and political unity, a dash of humor and a plucky team…it’s hard to be curmudgeonly about Chak De India. (08.21.07)

*

Cheeni Kum (Less Sugar) The arrogant chef of a swank Indian restaurant in London (Amitabh Bachchan) is surprised to find himself entranced by a wry career woman half his age (Tabu). Written and directed by R. Balki, this Western style romance was penned specifically for its stars. They appear to relish playing characters who beg neither the audience, nor each other, for approval. Amitabh plays the good Indian boy, who, even at 64 comes home to his mother (the delightful 92 year old Zohra Sehgal) but proposes by announcing to his beloved that marriage is the price men pay for sex, and sex is the price women pay for marriage. Cheeni Kum rambles a bit, and needs editing. Scenes of more extreme comedy and melodrama seem out of place in this understated character study. The little cancer girl next door is meant to demonstrate that life is short, and one must seize happiness, but the situation seems forced, although Amitabh and the young actress have great rapport. Commercial Hindi cinema has been stretching boundaries, and Amitabh, its #1 star, is at the vanguard, daring his billion fans to follow his experimentation. A May-December romance is quite shocking in this cultural context, and it is to the credit of Cheeni Kum's skilled actors that the audience warms to their love story.

*

Eklavya: The Royal Guard. At a majestic citadel in dusty Rajasthan, a noble heir (Saif Ali Khan) arrives during the apparent twilight of the gods. Palace intrigue has taken its toll: his mother has been murdered by his father, an act witnessed by his dotty sister. The family crumbles under the weight of greed and disdain for legal democracy. Not set in history, the royals instead have firmly rejected modernity, maintaining their feudal power. Only the iconoclastic young prince, the aged retainer (Amitabh Bachchan), whose dharma (duty) requires unquestioning loyalty, and a policeman, raised out of an untouchable caste, and bearing a wry disdain for aristocratic privilege (Sanjay Dutt) can salvage value from the traditional monarchy. Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Eklavya is exquisitely photographed in exisiting palaces, runs under two hours and has only a single song, a nostalgic lullaby. Saif nails the Hamlet vibe, aided by Amitabh’s intense evocation of dharma as a duty born from reason. Eklavya is elegant and suspenseful, another excellent film from the production house of Parineeta and the superb Munnabhai films. (02.28.07)

Sanjay Dutt and director Vidhu Vinod Chopra

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Guru. Abhishek Bachchan stars as a country bumpkin who charms and bullies his way from his village to the helm of a string of textile factories. Director Mani Ratnam’s rags to riches story taps into the national anxiety about Westernization; Guru is a polyester tycoon whose rivals wear Gandhi’s homespun khadi fabric. Abhishek unleashes his inner dork, with unflattering camera angles and extra poundage, convincingly limning an ambivalent character who is both genius and thug. His teasing affection with Aishwayra Rai ups the heat of their stilted pairing in last year’s classic romance Umrao Jaan. Mithun Chakraborthy’s journalist is captivated and then disillusioned by Guru’s shady populist stance, invoking the aura of a 1930s Warner Brothers Edward G. Robinson muckraker. A R. Rahman’s score ranges from the opening rattle of Mallika Sherawat’s belly dancing beads to Guru’s intoxicated crow over his newborn twins, “Ek Lo Ek Muft”--“Buy One Get One Free.” (01.07.07)

*

Heyy Babyy. The Hindi take on Three Men and a Baby finds carefree Sydney, Australia, bachelors, Akshay Kumar, Fardeen Khan and Riteish Deshmukh with an unexpected bundle of joy on their doorstep. The previous French and American versions date from a time (mid 1980s) when the simple notion of a man as a child’s caregiver was uproariously funny, and times have changed…a little.

This version, twenty years on, has repaired major story snafus. Thankfully, the ridiculous heroin subplot has been jettisoned. The confusion between packages (one of illegal drugs, and the other of an infant in a bassinet) never worked, and neither of the earlier versions provided a satisfactory resolution. Importantly, a more plausible explanation for the abandoned baby is provided. The tot’s grandfather (a delightful—as always—Boman Irani) has hidden from his daughter the fact that her baby lived, to spare her the shame of unwed motherhood. Admittedly, this attitude no longer exists in Western culture, and wouldn’t have worked in either France or America. Also, the Heyy Babyy roommates don’t know who the father is (formerly, the father was identified, and the mother signed the note left with the infant) and their callous regifting of the tiny girl on a church doorstep nearly results in her death! This shocking catharsis evokes their symbolic responsibility for all the community’s children, and realization that the hotties they have been debauching are someone’s daughter, too.

Vidya Balan, the thinking man’s ingénue, plays the mother, but her character is so thinly written (room for improvement here) that she spends most of the film tight lipped and disapproving. There are amusing sequences, particularly charming Akshay’s wooing of Vidya at a wedding by falsely painting himself as a “good Indian boy” and an enjoyable parody of the old Chupke Chupke. Fardeen Khan is hilarious (words I can’t believe I’m writing) as Heyy Babyy director Sajid Khan firmly allies himself with classic director Hrishikesh Mukerjee’s unique school of character-based comedy. The title song, with its undulating starlet parade, and "Mast Kalendar" are particularly lively, and the rest of Shankar Eshaan Loy’s score is above average. But, there’s still cinematic flab; too much pointless slapstick, some of it speeded up, silent comedy style (or the cliché of it, this purloined from the Hollywood Leonard Nimoy-directed version) and the second half slackens pace. In all three versions, a steadicam glides through the guys’ fab apartment, but only the Sydney bachelors don’t seem to have salaries large enough to pay the rent. Some scenes and dialogues leapfrog from one country’s version to another, but only in Indian culture is a hapless bachelor properly told that a baby’s food should be mother’s milk. Definitely paisa vasool (worth the money) but, sadly, not quite a classic.

 

*

Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (Sway, Baby, Sway) Amidst the throngs in London’s Waterloo Station, Rikki, (Abhishek Bachchan) smoothly juggling shady deals by cellphone, meets posh Alvira, (Priety Zinta). Waiting in the food court for their fiancés (Lara Dutta and Bobby Deol) they pass the time by trading love stories. A mismatched couple, indeed, but as they rhapsodize about their amours, a mutual attraction kindles.

Director Shaad Ali’s previous film was the awesome Bunty aur Babli, and JBJ can’t help but pale in comparison. The featherweight plot meanders (it's a shaggy dog story, really) although there is a reviving switcheroo after the intermission. Priety excels in romantic comedy, and Bobby and Lara give their best performances, amusing ones at that, under Shaad’s nurture. But, JBJ is purloined by Abhishek, his long oiled hair held back by a child’s headband, wearing flamboyant outfits dripping with bling, embroidery and the ace of spades (courtesy of designer Aki Narula) rattling on in a slangy dialect filled with comic catch phrases. He even dances in character.

Hindi films are densely self referential; Rikki has a Bunty aur Babli ringtone. JBJ’s USP (unique selling point) is the first film pairing of Bobby and Abhishek, whose fathers, Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan, starred in many films together. Inevitably, the sons will end up on a motorbike with a sidecar tooling along to “Yeh Dosti,” the iconic song from their fathers’ classic Sholay. Rattling down a list of wax figures of famous Indians at Madame Tussaud’s Rikki mentions “Amit-ji”--his dad--but Amitabh is also IN the movie, singing the title song at Waterloo Station in a crazy patchwork frock coat, acting as a benevolent deity overseeing the romantic fates of the characters. The songs are extravagantly staged, and “Ticket to Hollywood” thrillingly makes use of the most recognizable Parisian landmarks, for once without the sight of gaping bystanders in the shots.

In an interview posted on IndiaFM, Abhishek described his experience. "One of Shaad's greatest assets that he makes actors very comfortable. It's because he demands a lot. When you see Jhoom Barabar Jhoom it's very unrealistic in terms of what he required of an actor to do for him. It can scare you. When you are standing outside the Louvre-one of the great institutions of art in Paris of which we have all learnt about in school and you are dancing with fifty French dancers who are rather ostentatious and mad-looking and so are you in this very messed up look singing “Ticket to Hollywood” in vulgar movements, you need to have a lot of confidence in your director. More importantly the director has to have a lot of confidence in you and he has to help you forget that there is a world around you and keep you in the world of the film. Shaad always manages to do that."

Abhishek has come a long way from his earliest films, when his acting and dancing was less confident. If movies are about the pleasure of looking at movie stars, than JBJ should be considered a hit, because it is impossible to keep your eyes off him. It is, so far, the best of 2007’s mainstream commercial Hindi films. If it disappoints a bit in comparison to the director’s last film, it’s still a worthwhile diversion.

*

Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (I’ve Fallen From Grace). Two bubbly sisters (Rani Mukerji and Konkona Sen Sharma) live in a crumbling house by the bank of the sacred river Ganges. Desperate financial pressures drive the elder Badki (Rani) to Mumbai, where, after a humiliating episode of sexual harassment in pursuit of a call center job, she begins to support her family secretly as a pricey escort.

LCMD turns the patriarchy upside down, reconfiguring the Hindi film courtesan drama genre, where tragic love must remain unrequited. This is foreshadowed clearly as the girls secretly watch a mujra, danced by an Umrao Jaan style courtesan played by still luscious 70s heroine Hema Malini. She sings a coy song about the loss of her little pearl for her male spectators. But here, just as the Ganges is polluted in an ecological sense, the traditional view of a woman’s virginity as her primary asset is challenged. A girl who has dropped out in her 10th year of school has little to offer the job market in the hustle bustle of the city, unless she can hustle, and has Rani's lovely hazel eyes. Although Badki certainly could have enrolled in a typing class instead of becoming a sex worker, that does not make for good melodrama.

Sheltered younger sister Chutki (Konkona) is heralded as the modern Indian woman, with an MBA and a dreamy ad agency job, a primary beneficiary of her elder’s sacrifice. As if the two sisters moral cleanliness is not clear enough, Chutki oversees the Lux soap account. One eminently desirable suitable suitor per sister appears, Abhishek Bachchan for Rani and Kunal Kapoor for Konkona, but they are stereotype dreamboat boyfriends, because this is unabashedly a woman's film. Director Pradeep Sarkar (Parineeta) proposes to redefine “pavitra” the spiritual purity by which woman are sometimes judged, in this one hanky melodrama. (10.17.07)

*

Life in a Metro. An ambitious drone lends his apartment to his philandering bosses in this riff on Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, the plot smartly shifted to a Mumbai call center. Some of Bollywood’s most intriguing character actors appear in this well acted ensemble piece, including Sharman Joshi, as the flat’s keymaster; his boss, the reptilian Kay Kay Menon; his boss’s wife (Shilpa Shetty of the Richard Gere smooch) and fragile mistress (Kangna Ranaut); and Shilpa’s temptation, sensitive hunk Shiney Ahuja. The most engaging pair is prim Konkona Sen Sharma whose computer date with dorky Irfaan Khan collapses, but later ripens into love. A Greek chorus of rock dudes discovered hither and yon about town supply the music. Characters mingle on busy public transport, reflecting the crushing intimacy and spiritual isolation of the metropolis. Director Anurag Basu sets his film in the monsoon season of passion and rebirth; his characters taking leaps of faith to get wet. (05.18.07)

*

Namastey London (Hello London). Thoroughly Westernized London brat Jazz, for Jasmeet, (Katrina Kaif) is hastily married off during a holiday in India to Arjun, a Punjabi farmer (Akshay Kumar) after her father (Rishi Kapoor) discovers her British boyfriend. Weirdly like a lame Bollywood version of The Namesake, with its tension between immigrant parents and assimilated offspring, Namastey falters with its off-putting characters. Jazz is spoilt and rude, without any winning qualities whatsoever, and noble Arjun’s stubborn pursuit of her is inexplicable. Just because the script says you should care about these people doesn’t mean you can. This is a rom-com breakdown in any language. Katrina is devoid of either talent or charisma, and even the delightful Akshay can’t save this one.

Several reviews have compared Namastey London with the 1970 Manoj Kumar film, Purab aur Pacchim. This puzzling invocation could refer just as well to any film of the last 40 years which explores the relationship between India and the West. In Purab aur Pacchim, the contrast is not merely between decadent urban nightclubs and rural beauty. India is shown as a place of ecumenical spirituality (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian faiths) and booming progress; there is a montage of dams, farming, and other improvements reminescent of a Soviet era socialist film. The appeal of India is not wrapped in a parcel as appealing as Akshay, but rather in the conservative suits and portly aspect of Manoj Kumar, himself, named Bharat (India) in case you should miss the reference. Saira Banu, her hair a shock of frizzy blonde, always nodding over her cigarettes and liquor, learns to love her country, not her man, insuring the success of her marriage to the hero. In Namastey London, disaster surely looms for Jazz and Arjun after the credits roll. (03.28.07)

*

The Namesake. Gogol Ganguli is mortified by his first name, a mark of his Indian parents’ eccentricity. What possessed his father to name him after his favorite author, the Russian Nikoli Gogol? Gogol struggles to decide what’s meaningful to him amidst the masala of his suburban American life and his family’s stubborn Bengali traditions. Director Mira Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala’s richly textured adaptation of Jhumpa Lhari’s novel is unusually faithful to the book’s spirit, a meditation on how the most meaningful personal rebellions sometimes have deeply conservative roots.

The film’s promos highlight Gogol’s coming of age story, that of a weed-smoking suburban slacker with a healthy libido (Kal Penn). He’s irritated by his parents’ clannishness, their ties with other Bengali immigrants in the new world. He feels isolated from their more thoroughly assimilated neighbors and seeks a uniquely American identity in the arms of a WASPy blonde debutante. Rather than being energized by her embrace of his exoticism, Gogol is shocked to find himself reevaluating his Indian-ness.

But, both parents and children in The Namesake step into the unknown. Irrfan Khan as his father, Ashoke, and Tabu as his mother, Ashima are the spiritual heart of the film. Their wedded life begins with their arranged marriage in Calcutta, India. He’s an engineering student in the US, and this union requires his bride to consent to a terrifying relocation to icy, alien New York (on her first morning alone, searching the kitchen for something familiar to eat, Ashima makes a breakfast bowl of Rice Krispies, hot chile powder and peanuts). They care deeply about each other and their children. These two actors are not strictly “Bollywood stars” as some reviews label them, but alternate between popular films and “parallel” or art house cinema. Irrfan Khan’s first role was to be in Mira Nair’s debut, Salaam Bombay, but was cut (because he was too tall standing next to the kids already cast) and she promised him a future role in one of her films. Although he has commented in interviews that his character was difficult to portray because of his largely silent rapport with his wife and children, his performances, even in thrillers and comedies, are often introspective. Tabu has more of commercial cinema career, but even in her fluffiest ingénue roles has communicated a certain gravitas. Here, acting in English with Bengali accents, they devastatingly evoke that universal emotion of parental bafflement over their child’s determination to shed his family ties.

Why does Gogol, sensitively played by Penn, the handsome Indian-American king of gross out comedy, not recognize what is in front of his eyes? In American movies, sympathy always lies with the kids’ revolt against tradition. Parents are a dusty impediment in the quest for freedom, sex and love. When teen-aged concerns hit Hollywood in the 1950s, this cluelessness was epitomized by the scene in Rebel Without a Cause, in which James Dean rails against his weakling father, dressed in a frilly apron, in case you missed the point of Dad’s emasculation. In many other cultures, a focus on youth is balanced with respect for parental struggles. The desire to shatter home ties doesn’t automatically make you a better person. A place in the family includes, not obliterates, the previous generation’s aspirations. Gogol’s emotional journey must encompass both East and West, and the old and new worlds. (03.28.07).

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*

Nehle Pe Dehla (One up on my Opponents) A couple of loveable crooks (Sanjay Dutt and Saif Ali Khan) help Bipasha Basu evade uncle Shakti Kapoor’s skullduggery. At least five years in the making (maybe more) this stale comedy eschews Western continuity expectations as the heroes sport changing haircuts, intermittent stubble and differing degrees of chest waxing from shot to shot. A primer on the piecemeal nature of filmmaking more instructive than any “making of” DVD extra, NDP also startles with a hideous wardrobe (shimmery tiger striped shirt, anyone?). NPD has been disavowed by the stars who have moved on to bigger and better things. Saif couldn’t even be bothered to dub his voice for one scene and current siren Bipasha is here a nervous teenager. This riff on the 1990s Hollywood comedy Weekend at Bernie’s is stitched from motley scraps, but Sanjay and Saif make an amusing team, and after a sorceress brings Shakti’s corpse back to life, you may chuckle in spite of yourself. (03.04.07).

*

Om Shanti Om. The King of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan, earns his moniker because he can pack a theater with gleeful patrons like nobody else can. Paired with choreographer turned director Farah Khan, who harbors a mad movie love both for the conventions of Hindi cinema and for her charismatic leading man, Om Shanti Om delivers the glitter and glamour, the comedy and thrills, religion and the supernatural, mother love, high fashion and eye-popping production numbers in proper masala fashion.

The film begins on the set of Karz, a disco-era reincarnation melodrama, and cinematic touchstone for Farah’s generation. Shah Rukh plays Om, a junior artiste (what we would call an extra, or bit player) in the crowd. He catches the jacket flung away by Karz’ star, Rishi Kapoor, featured in the first of a series of Forrest Gump-ish manifestations. Om grapples for possession with Farah Khan, herself, playing another junior artiste, an immediate clue that the next three hours is going to be a labyrinth of intertextural highjinks.

The first half unspools in the 1970s, with the women in towering hairdos (newcomer Deepika Padukone looks divine in them) and acid bright saris and the men in psychedelic shirts and ghastly plaid pants. After razzing every possible foible of this era, the film shoots forward 30 years to affectionately savage current day Bollywood. Nearly every moment is some kind of a joke; the more you know, the funnier it is. Shah Rukh, also the present day Om, stands in front of a billboard, with Om endorsing Tag Heuer watches, a brand Shah Rukh endorses in real life. There is a fake awards ceremony, with wicked parodies of modern day film genres and the song at the afterparty features cameos by nearly every current star. That the soireé is an homage to a similar scene in a movie a generation ago, in which some of older stars previously appeared, is just another layer of dizzying pleasure.

One character reminisces fondly of a film in which he had four death scenes: he played twins who were killed before the interval, reincarnated in the second half, they were killed again at the end. The ability to adore such an absurdity for itself, and groove on the spoofing, too, is key to relishing every nutty moment of Om Shanti Om. (11.17.07)

*

Partner. The desi version of Will Smith’s amusing Hitch stars Salman Khan as Prem (his name means “love”) as the love guru curing the relationship ills of shy Bhaskar (Govinda). Director David Dhawan’s crowd-pleasing comedy closely mimics the original, while adding an extra hour of frantic subplots and distractions. Partner hit #15 on the US box office charts because of the giddy chemistry between the two stars; they are clearly having a blast. Govinda’s career has been on the wane, but the role of meek financial analyst who cuts loose when he falls for heiress Katrina Kaif clearly inspired him. Lara Dutta plays Salman's romantic interest, and it's her journalist character's fault that there is a pointless track allowing Rajpal Yadev to imitate Shah Rukh Khan as Don. A dance lesson is a comedy highlight, as in the original, as Govinda parodies the moves that made him a 90s comedy icon, meekly letting Salman update his style. The music is infectious and the breakneck script jumbles puns, word play, songs, and Hindi film in-jokes as well as agonizing body function slapstick. Consider yourself cautioned. (08.01.07)

*

RGV ki Aag. (Ram Gopal Varma’s Fire) An uproar ensued when iconoclastic director Ram Gopal Varma announced he was going to remake the most revered of all Hindi films, 1975’s “curry western” Sholay (Flames). Sholay made Amitabh Bachchan a heroic superstar, and he wanted his turn to play Gabbar Singh, the most hated (and loved) Bollywood villain of all time. The plot has been modernized and transposed from a rural to an urban Mumbai landgrab. In spite of the amped up violence and bizarrely subjective camera work (the lens is so intrusively close, it’s splashed, dusted and brushed) But, Varma missed the point that the movie was about friendship, not blood. It doesn’t help that Heero and Raj are played by Ajay Devgan (never plausible as a good guy) and a charisma free newbie, Prashant Raj. Gungroo (Nisha Kothari) the feisty autorickshaw driver is amusing, and Amitabh enjoys his extravagant scenery chewing—I would say too much, but he’s really the only thing worth watching. He’s created an encyclopedia of little tics and gestures, while paying homage to snatches of the original’s still quotable dialogue. The songs are new, except for a remixed “Mehbooba” which is the film’s highlight. One has to see it…or maybe, not really.

*

Saawariya (Beloved). Devdas director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s inert Saawariya charts four nights of passionate longing between Raj and Sakina, Ranbir Kapoor (son of Rishi) and Sonam Kapoor (daughter of Anil). Sadly, Bhansali neglected to include any plot or character in his draggy epic. His überswoony camera simply makes love to a gigantic Moulin Rouge-ish blue green set, bought with Sony/Columbia’s blank check in the (former) hope of cashing in on India’s devotion to home grown cinema. Sony, apparently humiliated, pulled the film after a single week in American theaters.

Ranbir has a dorky charm, invoking both Hrithik Roshan at his puppy-doggiest and Al Jolson with his desperate “please love me!” histrionics. Jolson never coyly dropped a towel for a glimpse of sculpted bottom, though. Someday, Ranbir will play an actual character, and we’ll see what he can do. As for pretty Sonam, since she simpers nonstop, posing and batting her eyelashes, who knows? The numerous homages to Ranbir's grandfather, the legendary Raj Kapoor (the giant RKs and the derby hat, since Raj was famous for channelling Charlie Chaplin's tramp) are intriguing, but go nowhere. Rani Mukherji, as streetwalker Gulabji, and nonagenarian Zohra Segal as Raj’s landlady are welcome interruptions in what could be charitably described as the stately pace of this irritatingly pointless romance. (11.17.07)

*

Salaam-e-Ishq (Salute to Love) Six loosely linked romantic destinies shuffle in this amusing trifle vaguely inspired by Love, Actually. Director Nikhil Advani’s skill with his ensemble cast makes it more engaging than expected at a massive 3 ½ hours. Salman Khan, underplaying for a change, woos Priyanka Chopra, playing an “item queen” (appearing only for a sexy dance) who longs to be taken seriously. She convincingly makes the transformation from tantrum-prone diva to tender hearted woman. Akshaye Khanna, whose slight charisma needs the right script, is amusing as a commitmentphobic bachelor. John Abraham (on his way to the red carpet for Oscar nominated Water) and Vidya Balan, the thinking person’s ingénue, bring honest tears to a sappy amnesia story. Anil Kapoor longs for some extracurricular excitement, and almost loses his devoted wife, the luminous Juhi Chawla. But, why won’t they let Juhi do comedy anymore? Sohail Khan’s unfunny track, in which he attempts to consummate his marriage (hinting at the "porn film innocents" story, which I thoroughly disliked in Love, Actually) should be completely edited out for length and bad taste. Most surprisingly, Govinda, a 90s comedy icon on the comeback trail, is quite soulful as a lovesick cabby helping a gori memsab (white girl) trail her bratty Indian boyfriend. Shannon Esra, a South African actress is by far the best gori memsab ever to appear in a Bollywood film. Amusingly, her Hindi does improve during the course of her lengthy cab ride with Govinda. This film is everything Jaan-e-Mann tried to be, but wasn’t. Poorly reviewed in the Indian press, Salaam-e-Ishq is nevertheless a crowd-pleaser. (01.31.07).

*

Taare Zamin Par (Stars Upon the Earth) Sad eyed 8 year old Ishaan (Darsheel Safary) is an academic disaster. His desperate parents dispatch him to boarding school, a nightmare for his sensitive soul and dyslexic brain. His savior appears just before the interval, in the person of Aamir Khan (Lagaan) a lively and empathetic art teacher. Aamir directs (officially) for the first time, from a screenplay by actor and former teacher Amole Gupte, and puts his significant star power behind a small scale story that without him would be dismissed as an art film, meaning box office poison. Darsheel and his chipped toothed overbite steals the film, his teary eyes pleading for parents to lessen the brutal pressure with which they propel their children through an often rigid Indian school system, and treasure each student’s individual gifts, even if he’s an artist, not an engineer.

*

Ta Ra Rum Pum. After a crack-up, NASCAR driver RV (Saif Ali Khan) struggles to get his nerve back. Broke, he and wife Rani Mukerji migrate the kids from posh digs to ethnic Jackson Heights, Queens. Car racing is an unusual subject for a Bollywood movie, but the track scenes filmed at the NC Speedway in Rockingham crackle, especially the vroomy duels between RV and his nemesis, the Man in Black, Rusty Finkelstein (!)

NASCAR's bid for global product placement is puzzling as racing is not a popular sport in India, and the American love of a cool car, incomprehensible. While Chevrolet, Goodyear and a couple of other brands are on display, most of the autos are painted with fake endorsements like “Talvoline.” Director Siddarth Anand displays a curious view of America, with a Frank Lloyd Wright-ish house by a lake in "Manhattan" a hospital that demands cash up front for surgery (like India) and a ritzy private school with tuition at a bargain price of $3000/year for two. And the Rusty is right, but what’s up with Finkelstein?

Actors all over India yearn for a part in a Yash Raj production, the glamorous equivalent of working at MGM in the 1930s. For Raleigh native Kris Lundberg, a New York based actress, this wish has come true. Spotted by a NYC casting director, she auditioned for what she admits is the most hateful role in the movie, Corporate Executive Woman. She was told, “You’re very natural” as she pitched a hissy fit at one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, an ease which she attributes to her experiences in corporate film work. The scene was no doubt intended to resonate as an echo of Balraj Sahni's beleaguered rickshawalla's humiliation in the 1953 classic, Do Bigha Zamin.

It goes without saying that the two leads are excellent. Saif plays a variation on his romantic comedy hero who won't grow up, and he's both convincing and emotionally affecting. Rani is wasted in a standard weepy wifey part. Introduced as a Columbia University classical piano student who inexplicably dresses like a hooker, her character is not nearly as well developed as her talent deserves.

Droll Jaaved Jaaferi observes “out of every broken dream in New York, a taxi driver is born” and TRRP valorizes South Asian cabbies, in part because of having to tolerate crabby riders like Kris Lundberg, who reduces our hero to tears. Ostensibly a children’s movie with dancing cartoon bears and a loveable Irish setter, it hammers home important morals not found in stateside kiddie films: finish your college degree and always pay cash. (05.02.07)

*

c.moviediva2007