Friday, April 10, 2009

The King of Bollywood

(Originally published 4/10/2009)

When "Slumdog Millionaire" won the Golden Globe for best drama, the two presenters were "Slumdog" co-star Freida Pintoand the "King of Bollywood" himself, Shahrukh Khan. In fact, Khan was slated to play the game show host in the movie but scheudling conflicts kept himfrom doing so. He even hosted the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

They call him “King Khan,” and for good reason. At 43, Shahrukh Khan remains quite possibly the biggest name in Indian cinema with a Beatle-like fame of international proportions. Crowds camp outside his house to catch a glimpse of him; he needs bodyguards around him when he goes out in public. There are even tours of his ancestral home in Pakistan.

Khan rose to stardom in the 1990s and has remained a phenomenon when the stars of many of his contemporaries have either dimmed or gone out. This is due in large part to a workaholic’s stamina and a willingness to take risks, as well as the enthusiasm he brings to all his roles. He truly loves making movies and because of this Khan imbues his roles, even the overwrought or ridiculous ones, with a sincerity and enthusiasm that is infectious. You may not like the plot but you can’t help but like the character.

The curious thing about Khan’s amazing and enduring popularity is that, while quite handsome in his own right, he didn’t have the look of most Bollywood heroes who at the time he started out were taller, with more anglicized features. Many also came from families that had been in the business for decades whereas he was a kid from New Delhi trying to break in. This could have been a drawback in but his determination and infectious energy helped audiences look past that.

It was a risk that helped launch his career to superstar status in the beginning when he agreed to take not one, but two roles that had been turned down by larger names for fear that the characters might tarnish their images. In the movie “Darr” he played a psychotic man whose obsessive love for a woman (Juhi Chawla) leads him to stalk her and her new husband (Sunny Doel) on their honeymoon. He inserts himself into their lives to the point where they lower their guard, enabling him to subdue the husband and kidnap the wife. Doel was the star of the movie, but Khan’s charisma stole the focus from him and Doel has never really forgiven him for that.

In “Baazigar,” which was remake of the Matt Dillon film “A Kiss Before Dying,” Khan plays a young man whose family was destroyed by the greed of a businessman and he utilizes the man’s daughters to get his revenge, killing one and romancing the other to gain the man’s confidence so that he can steal the family fortune back.

These were hardly heroic roles and, in the tradition of most Bollywood films, could have been played as pure villains. Both characters were obviously psychologically unbalanced, however, not pure evil and recognizing this, Khan was able to make them sympathetic characters despite their heinous deeds.

The Indian cinema industry is the largest producer of movies in the world, releasing approximately 900 per year. The term “Bollywood,” believed to have been coined in by H.R.F. Keating, a fiction writer who first used it in 1976, is a combination of “Bombay” (now known as Mumbai) where a quarter of the movies are produced, and “Hollywood.” Many people in the industry eschew the term considering it condescending, as if the best Indian cinema can be is a little sibling to Hollywood. After all, Indian cinema has been around almost as long as Western cinema. But the Indian press latched onto the term and it’s now popular in India and worldwide, even finding its way into the Oxford English Dictionary.

In some ways, the industry suffers from the country’s insatiable hunger for movies. Nine hundred movies is a tremendous amount of film to spit out each year and many of those movies suffer from rushed schedules and poor production values. Some productions have even been halted only to start up years later when funding has been scraped together to finish the project. Khan himself, while giving the performances his all, has been involved with some clunkers in his career. Plots can become cookie cutter with little room for creativity. Boy meets girl; girl is betrothed to another man; boy has to convince girl’s father, usually after some fierce battle or near death experience, that he’s worthy; boy and girl live happily ever after.

Indian cinema has been criticized by the west for its over the top themes and acting. And indeed, some of the actors chew the scenery so badly that it’s a wonder they’re not tossing it all up by the last scene. When watching a Bollywood production, however it’s good to remember that, very frequently the movies aren’t so much about real life but about what life should be. Love and life not only idealized but, one could argue, mythologized. Fathers are wise and always to be obeyed, mothers are compassionate and sacrificing and children are dutiful. The plots are usually epic morality plays where audiences want to root for the hero and hiss the bad guy and hopefully be transported from the more difficult reality of their own lives for three hours of glorious spectacle.

I first experienced Shahrukh Khan in the movie “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” better known to fans as “DDLJ.” I have to admit I was a bit concerned when I read the back of the case and saw that it was the longest running movie in Indian cinema. These are long movies. Sometimes you have to set up base camp just to watch these extravaganzas. How much longer could this movie be? It was only later that I discovered that “longest running” meant it was so popular it ran in theaters for over 11 years. No mean feat. It might be running somewhere in India as I write this. “Dilwale” remains a favorite among Khan fans even though the plot and at times the direction seem a bit dated. The great affection afforded this movie is probably due to the enthusiasm and chemistry of Khan and his co-star Kajol. One of the most popular screen couplings in Indian cinema, the couple made a number of successful movies together including “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” and “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham” which was the first Indian movie ever played theatrically in Germany.

The plot resembles the 1934 Clark Gable/Claudette Colbert film “It Happened One Night,” in which Gable and Colbert become unexpected companions on a road trip and find romance by the end of it. As in the Hollywood film, the romance of Raj (Khan) and Simran (Kajol) occurs when they’re unexpectedly stranded on a road trip to Europe and their initial aversion to each other slowly turns to love. Complicating matters is the fact that after she returns to England from the European trip, Simran must accompany her family to India where she’s to marry the son of her father’s (Amrish Puri) good friend. Raj finds himself following after in an effort to ingratiate himself with Simran’s family in the hopes that the father will allow the couple to wed. He refuses Simran’s desire to elope for he feels it would be morally wrong to go against the father’s wishes. He thus shows that, despite his modern sensibility, he holds the father’s treasured old customs close to his heart.

An interesting note: The late Amrish Puri menaced Khan in a number of films such as “Karan Arjun” (one of my favorites) and “Koyla” and played Mola Ram in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” His role in “Dilwale” is a much gentler role as he plays a man seeing the traditions of his beloved India slowly eroding in the modern world who stubbornly insists that his family adhere to them, even at the risk of his daughter’s happiness. At times he seems cruel, but his actions are spurred by the belief that what he’s doing is best for his family. It’s a very sweet performance from a man who so frequently played villains during his career.

Khan has appeared in other movies that borrowed heavily from Hollywood of the past. “Ram Jaane” uses the street orphans of India (a decade before “Slumdog”) the way the The Dead-end Kids (later to be known as The East-Side Gang and the Bower Boys) were utilized in the 1938 film “Angels with Dirty Faces” starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien. Khan plays the Cagney role right up to the scene where he loses his cockiness and pleads not to be executed; but where “Angels” left Cagney’s reasons for this sudden burst of “cowardice” ambiguous (was he doing it to influence the boys away from a life of crime or was he truly afraid of the electric chair?); after the display, when the boys have left, Ram Jaane drops the act and practically swaggers to the noose waiting for him. Ram Jaane, by the way, was the name given to the character as a child. Found in a dumpster as a baby, as he grew he would often go to the village priest who found him and ask what his name was to which the old man would answer, “Ram Jaane” or “God knows.”

“Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani” has shades of the 1940 Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell film “His Girl Friday” which in itself was a remake of the 1931 film “The Front Page” based on a play by Chicago reporters Charles McArthur and Ben Hecht. In “Phir Bhi,” however, the love interest is between news stars of two rival television stations who must join forces against corrupt politicians and their own stations to help save from execution a man accused of murder. Unfortunately, the film, produced by Khan’s own production company Dreamz Unlimited, was a flop, perhaps due partly to the political intrigue that might have been denser then the film could handle (though time has been kinder to the movie and it’s been gaining more favor with people who’ve seen it on DVD). Still it’s one of my favorite of his films. The musical numbers are great fun (Take a look) as is the comedy, and the chemistry between Khan and Juhi Chawla (a partner in the production company) is spot on. Chawla is a very talented comedienne in her own right and it’s apparent the two have great fun working together.

“Don” is a remake of a very popular 1978 Amitabh Bachchan movie. Bachchan, who’s been in the business since the 1960s, is one of the most respected names in the industry, was a huge influence on Khan when Shahrukh was growing up. The two have made a number of movies together (including “Mohabbatein,” “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham,” “Veer-Zaara,” and the more recent “Bhoothnath” in which Bachchan plays a ghost and Khan’s appearances as the family’s father is more a cameo). To redo a Bachchan movie took guts by all involved but “Don” is one of the best Indian movies to be released in the past few years. Filmed primarily in Malaysia, the movie is a very stylized action/thriller where Khan plays the brutal lieutenant of a mob boss…or is he? The confusion begins when Vijay (also Khan), a look-a-like for Don, is brought in by Deputy Commissioner of Police De Silva (Boman Irani) to impersonate the criminal who was captured after a chase that resulted in Don’s severe injury. It’s hoped that Vijay can infiltrate the organization and gain valuable information to use for prosecution. But when both Don and later De Silva both die, Vijay, hunted by both the authorities and members of the organization, must find evidence proving that he isn’t Don. The overall production is top notch, the direction is crisp and the musical numbers are riveting, ranging from the traditional “Mourya Re” (Take a look) to the more techno pop “Main Hoon Don” (Take a look).

Music is a vital component to a Bollywood movie possibly because music plays so very much an important role in Indian culture. In many respects, one could argue that Bollywood has kept the musical alive. Before the 1950s it wasn’t unusual for an Indian movie to have 40 musical numbers in it. One, “Indrasahba,” had 71. Over time the amount decreased until now there’s typically six numbers within the movie. Considering the length of a Bollywood flick, and the amount of musical numbers contained within, a poorly done number, whether because of the music or the setting, can distract from even the strongest of plots. Unfortunately, in some movies, musical numbers seem inserted simply for the sake of fulfilling a call for a musical number. “Elaan,” for example, was a good thriller, but the musical numbers seemed desperate, even in the case of one, slightly ridiculous number where five people, bent on the destruction of an evil crime figure, go for romp in the wilderness the night before the attack, to get to know each other better.

While the actors all perform their own dance numbers, most lip-synch to songs sung by playback singers, many of which have gone on to find fame themselves. The wrong voice for the wrong actor can be equally distracting. For a man with a deep speaking voice to suddenly burst into song with a soaring tenor can strain an already taught suspension of disbelief. Khan, especially in the last decade, has had the good fortune of finding projects where the playback singer’s voice is believable when it comes from Khan’s lips in the movie.

For a good portion of the 1990s, Khan cashed in on roles similar to the one he played in “DDLJ”: The young scallywag romeo who ends up having to fight either the family or society to win the girl. Perhaps he could pull this role off so well because he’s had experience: As a Muslim man, it took some effort on his part to convince his future wife Gauri’s Hindu parents to accept a mixed marriage for their daughter. While romeo roles helped him become famous they didn’t exactly stretch him as an actor.

In 2001, still stinging from the flop of “Phi Bhi,” he decided to take a risk again and agreed to play the role of “Devdas” in the movie version of the novel written by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. Devdas is a complicated yet petulant character who unable to bring himself to go against his family and commit to Paro (Ashwarya Rai), the girl he’s loved since childhood, finds himself on a path to self destruction after she’s married off to another man. He hangs out in the establishment of a prostitute (Madhuri Dixit) who is herself in love with him, and drinks himself into oblivion. It was a story filmed several times since 1928, one of the most popular versions starring an actor named Dilip Kumar who many felt did the best job with the character. If Khan was taking a chance in playing this character the director was taking a chance on the whole production which seemed to be plagued by one disaster after another. Two technicians died on set and the financial backer, Bharat Shah was arrested and held in Mumbai under suspicion of having dealings with the Indian underworld. With Shah in jail, the cash flow became a trickle and technicians threatened to stop working until they were paid, thus slowing production even more helping to make it the most expensive Indian film at that time. The end result, however, is a lavish spectacle notable as much for the elaborate sets and costumes (one costume Dixit wore for a dance number that wasn’t used weighed over 60 pounds) as for the fine acting, especially Khan’s who took what could have been a rather pathetic character and again, managed to make him sympathetic. The film was a rousing success and reminded audiences that Khan could tackle roles more complicated than the scallywag romeos he’d played so frequently.

This growth in acting is seen in roles that followed. Even the boy meets girl stories (still a favorite with audiences) acquired a certain edge to them.

“Veer-Zaara” is a love story that touches upon the prickly relations between Pakistan and India. Pakistan became a state in 1947 in an attempt to create a territory for Indian Muslims who felt underrepresented and repressed by the mostly Hindu Indian government. Relations between India and Pakistan have been rocky at best every since. In the film, a young lawyer Saamiya (Rani Mukherji), fighting for respect in the misogynistic culture of Pakistan, is given the case of an ex-Indian soldier named Veer (Khan) who has been in a Pakistani jail for the past twenty-two years (she is not expected to win the case). The soldier has not spoken a word during his entire time of incarceration but when the lawyer explains to him how important this case is to both of them, he relents and tells his story. As a rescue pilot in the India Air Force, he rescued Zaara (Preity Zinta), a young Pakistani woman who came to Indian to spread the ashes of her recently deceased child-hood nanny. He agreed to help fulfill this wish, and on the journey back to the border, they fell in love. Zaara, however, is engaged to be married in a politically advantageous union for her father and family, so running away to be with Veer is out of the question. Still, as the wedding day approaches, she realizes that she can’t go through with it and through a servant, begs Veer to come and get her. Veer goes to Pakistan, willing to give up his career because soldiers who visit Pakistan are no longer allowed to serve in the Indian military. Their love is revealed in a dramatically public and embarrassing (for the father) fashion, but after they realize their union would bring too much disgrace on Zaara’s family, Veer agrees to go back to Indian. On his way back, however, he’s detained by the police and accused of being a terrorist, a charge trumped up by Zaara’s fiancé who offers him a terrible deal. If he were to prove who he actually was, it would soil the reputations of Zaara and her family. If Veer remains in prison, silent to his true identity, Zaara will continue to have a good life and blemish free reputation. His love for Zaara forces him to choose prison. While I wasn’t overly impressed by the music, this movie, written by Aditya Chopra (who directed “DDLJ”) and directed by Yash Chopra is beautifully filmed and extremely touching. Especially when it concerns Saamiya’s fight to be taken seriously as a lawyer in a male dominated society and the prosecuting attorney chosen to go against her ends up being an old mentor. Acting that could have been overwrought and melodramatic instead hits just the right note as two people are held prisoner by societal conventions and a young woman trying to overcome her own societal restrictions helps them reunite.

The musical numbers in Dil Se have a more avante garde style that I found intriguing. While the plot is still “boy meets girl/boy woos girl” a dangerous element is added to the romance as the main character Amarkanth (Khan) becomes embroiled in the political intrigue surrounding his love interest Meghna (Manisha Koirala) who is a member of a terrorist organization. This movie shows Khan’s willingness to take risks, even physical ones, as the first musical number involves Khan and a group of dancers dancing on a moving train (Take a look). The song “Chal Chaiyya Chaiyya, composed by A.R. Rahman, has been used over the beginning and ending credits of the Spike Lee film “Inside Man” starring Denzel Washington and Clive Owen

“Asoka” is a love story on an epic scale loosely based on the story of Emperor Asoka, who ascended the throne of Magadha in the 3rd Century BCE and conquered portions of India before suddenly giving up the throne to spread the faith of Bhuddism. In the film, Prince Asoka (Khan) is encouraged to leave the kingdom by his mother who fears his half brothers will try to assassinate him. Asoka adopts the guise of an ordinary soldier and during his journey saves the lives of Princess Kaurwaki (Kareena Kapoor) and Prince Aryan (Sooraj Balaji) of Kalinga who are on the run from assassins after their parents were killed. Asoka and Kaurwaki fall in love, but after he is recalled by his father to put down some rebellions, he returns to find that Kaurwaki and her brother have been killed. Grief stricken, he reverts back to the dark nature that made him so feared in battle. With the death of his father, and after dealing with his treacherous brothers, Asoka goes on a rampage across India. It’s as he’s just lain waste to Kalinga that he finds Kaurwaki and Aryan are still alive. Horrified by the violence committed by his own hand, he throws down his sword and devotes the rest of his life to spreading the peaceful doctrine of Bhuddism. The film is beautiful to look at and the political intrigue and grand battle sequences don’t detract from the more intimate scenes of this troubled prince trying to live the life of an ordinary man. The musical numbers in this movie are not as spectacular as they are in others and that’s to their credit. There’s an intimacy to them that helps underscore the sort of dual life Asoka is leading. And the number “Roshni Se” where Asoka thinks of Kaurwaki after he’s been told that she died, is hauntingly romantic (Take a look).

“Kal Ho Na Ho,” set in New York, has a liberal serving of syrup but it’s one of my favorite of Khan’s movies. It co-stars Preity Zinta as Naina as a fiercely independent young woman in a troubled family whose cynicism on love is tested when she meets Aman a man who tries to convince her that life is full of joy if she’d only look. When Aman discovers that he can never be with her, he encourages a romance between Naina and Rohit (Saif Ali Khan), a man who her own distrust of love has kept her from seeing in any other light but as a good friend. One reason I like this movie so much is because the women in it are so strong without the melodrama often seen in Indian films. This is a romance, so the idea is to get Naina to fall in love, yet you don’t get the sense that only marriage can bring her any sense of worth where as in other movies, the message seems to be that the only thing a woman can aspire to his marriage. Naina’s mother in particular is an impressive role wonderfully played by Jaya Bachchan (wife of Amitabh). She is not a perfect mother, merely a woman who is trying to raise a family and run a restaurant after being a left alone by her husband’s suicide; a trauma from which the family is still trying to recover. The musical numbers are a lot of fun, ranging from traditional, to disco, to the multicultural “Pretty Woman” (Take a look)

The inspiration for the movie “Pahelli” was a Rajasthani folktale. I’m not a huge fan of the music in this one (though I love the musical number during the credit sequence at the end), but the story is very sweet. A recent bride Laachi (Rani Mukherji) travels back to her new home with husband Kishan Lal (Khan), a distant man, more concerned with his business concerns than his new wife. Along the way they pass a tree haunted by ghosts and one of the ghosts falls in love with her. The husband passes that way again the next day, called away on unexpected business that will take him away from his new bride for a few years. Seeing his chance, the ghost takes on the form of the husband and goes back to Kishan’s home, insinuating himself with the family and Laachi. Revealing his secret to her, the couple remains committed to each other, trying not to think of the time when the real Kishan will return and the façade will come crashing down. It’s another dual role for Khan and one of his best performances as he manages to make the husband more sympathetic than he might have been played. Kishan isn’t a bad man, just a very dispassionate man, whose need to please his father and succeed at business supersedes any duty he might feel to his wife. It’s also beautifully filmed, the locations are gorgeous, and the chemistry between Khan and Mukherji, is wonderful. Mukherji’s ability to add a bit of bite to her role helps keep Laachi from becoming a stereotype. It was the same “spunk” that made her characters so engaging in “Veer-Zaara.”

When I tell people about “Main Hoon Na” I tell them that it has everything in it. In fact it’s referred to as a masala mix. Comedy, drama, action, adventure, pathos, political statement and great musical numbers all blended wonderfully together to make a really fun movie to watch. The action and fight sequences are particularly impressive when one considers that it was only a year before that Khan had surgery on his spine (the movies seem to take their toll on him; recently he had surgery on shoulder after aggravating a previous injury on the set of “Dulha Mil Gaya”). In the film, Major Ram (Khan) is part of Project Milhap, an effort on the part of the Indian military to exchange with Pakistan prisoners who have been caught crossing the border in the contested area known as Kashmir and held in respective prisons for years. General Bakshi (Kabir Bedi), the man in charge of the project sends Ram to a college to protect his estranged daughter Sanjana (Amrita Rao) whose life has been threatened by the terrorist Rahgavan (Sunil Shetty), an ex-Indian soldier who wants to stop Project Milhap at all costs. To do so, Ram goes under cover as a man returning to finish his education. While there, he tries to fulfill the dying wish of his father Brigadier Shekhar Sharma (Naseeruddin Shah) who was killed in a raid by Raghaven. It turns out that Ram is the child of an affair and was sent to live with his father after his mother died. At the time, his father had a wife Madhu (Kiron Kher), who, unable to live with the evidence of this affair under their roof, took the couple’s toddler and left. His father wants both sons to scatter his ashes. Ram’s half brother Lucky (Zayed Khan) happens to be going to that college, so while working to protect Sanjana, Ram must also try to forge a relationship with Lucky and his mother, who have no idea who he really is, that is strong enough to withstand the truth when it finally comes out.

There’s plenty of romance in this movie too, between Lucky and Sanjana, and Ram and the chemistry teacher Chandini (Sushmita Sen) who he falls so deeply in love with that an orchestra plays every time he sees her. Having been raised in a military environment, Ram is out of his element when it comes to college and romance, but he bravely soldiers on and wins the day.

It is considered morally unacceptable by Indian standards for a couple to be seen kissing in public which is why intimate kissing is such a rarity in Bollywood movies (though it isn’t unheard). Passion is generally implied in song and dance. Khan is one of the actors who still refuses to kiss on the lips on screen, mainly, he says, because he is shy about it. Yet, some of the musical numbers in Bollywood can be steamier than love scenes found in Hollywood, possibly because people aren’t slobbering all over each other. In “Tum Bhi Ho, Main Bhi Hum” Major Ram fantasizes about what it would be like if he could reveal to Chandini how he feels (Take a look).

“Main Hoon Na” has some of the best musical numbers in a Bollywood movie including the opening number much of which was done in one continuous take, and one of the most enthusiastic credit sequences at the end where Farah Khan gives her crew a chance at screen time (Take a look).

Farah Khan brings her talent for choreography to her directing style in her second movie “Om Shanti Om” which also starred Shahrukh Khan in a sort of dual role only in this one, the duality comes from reincarnation. Om Prakash Makhija (Khan) is a junior artist (an extra) at a Bollywood movie studio in the late 70s who dreams of becoming a film hero like his idol Rajesh Kapoor. He’s madly in love with a big name in the movies Shanti Priya (Deepika Podukone) who he ends up saving when a stunt goes dangerously wrong. They become friends but while there’s obviously chemistry there, a secret about Shanti keeps them from becoming more. Still, when Shanti’s life is threatened by her producer Mukesh (Arjun Rampal), Om dies trying unsuccessfully to save her. He’s reincarnated as the son of Kapoor and thirty years later is celebrating his birthday as Super Star Om Kapoor, a top name in Bollywood. When the mystery of Shanti Priya enters his life again, leading him to remember the terrible night they both died, he tries to seek justice against the producer who caused their deaths.

This is a big, splashy, fun movie that pays homage and yet has a bit of fun with Bollywood and Bollywood stars of the past and present. The mock “Filmfare” awards (the Indian Oscars) where names such as Akshay Kumar and Abishek Bachchan (son of Amitabh) spoof themselves is very funny. As with “Main Hoon Na,” there’s a good of amount of pathos, drama, and action that manages to mix well with the humor and romance. And as with “Main Hoon Na,” the musical numbers are fabulous, both musically and visually, including a number where the current stars of Bollywood make cameos, and the end number where Om Kapoor, at a record release for the movie he’s making with the murderous producer, basically sings the story of the events of the night he was killed in a past life (Take a look).

These are some of Shahrukh Khan’s best movies, available on the shelves of the Park Ridge Library or through inter-library loan. I had the pleasure of seeing my first Bollywood movie on the big screen last December when his film “Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi” had a limited release in the Chicago area. It was a wonderful experience and a great movie. After that he made a guest appearance in the movie “Billu” and is currently working on three other movies. It doesn’t seem like’s he’s ready to slow down anytime soon. Not bad for a kid from New Dehli who took a few chances and became a star.