'Bollywood': Infectious Excess
Friday, October 3, 2003
The Indian director Deepa Mehta tosses off a frothy, giddily self-referential bagatelle with "Bollywood/Hollywood," a parody of and paean to the movies created by both those venerable studio systems.
Even many filmgoers who have never been to Bombay or seen one of the lurid, hyperbolic melodramas for which the city is famous know that the term "Bollywood" has come to signify Indian films that are outsize, outlandish, highly pitched and lavishly produced, usually with moralizing undertones and titillating sexual overtones. Hollywood, of course, is known as the home of the classical three-act structure, where movies, whether romantic comedies, westerns or crime thrillers, are successful to the degree to which they balance innovation and fealty to their genres' strict narrative rules.
Mehta melds both these traditions in an airy romantic comedy that faithfully toes the Hollywood line even as it throws in all manner of Hindi musical numbers and Indian family values. Rahul Khanna plays Rahul Seth, a wealthy young man living in Toronto who promised his late father to make sure his younger sister is safely married off. When his own fiancee is rejected by his mother (Moushumi Chatterjee) because she isn't Indian (she then happens to die in a freak New Age accident), Rahul must quickly find another bride. His mother has announced that Rahul's sister Twinky (Rishma Malik) won't be able to marry until he himself is betrothed -- to an appropriately Indian young woman.
While Rahul is nursing his troubles at a bar, he meets Sue (Lisa Ray), an escort he decides to pay to pose as his new -- Indian -- girlfriend. The requisite number of plot twists, reversals and second-act revelations ensue, punctuated by notes scrawled across the screen explaining or underscoring the dialogue.
Mehta has made a film that will likely appeal to fans of Bollywood's most laughable excesses, whether in the form of over-the-top dramatics (Rahul's self-centered mother is forever breaking into loud sobs and wailing, "Why am I so unlucky?") or corny song-and-dance numbers. In a characteristic tweak of Bollywood conventions, Mehta choreographs one of those numbers entirely with drag queens.
"Bollywood/Hollywood" is trivial and, with all its nods to cutting-edge editing, even trite. But Mehta's delight with her own in-joke, as well as her attractive, energetic cast, will prove infectious to those audiences who find themselves sharing the director's frivolous frame of mind. The best way to enjoy "Bollywood/Hollywood" fully is, to paraphrase one of Mehta's own subtitles, "Please now to be lightening up."