Friday, June 25, 2010

Love, loneliness, and the New India

They are just going to dance all day and not give a damn about what you think. Welcome to the new India.

Unless you have lived in the cave for the past several years and/or have absolutely no knowledge of modern Indian culture, I would assume that you are familiar with Bollywood, India's lively answer to Hollywood.

For those who are unfamiliar with Bollywood conventions, Slumdog Millionaire is sort of like the typical Bollywood movies. It has the fairy tale romance, the semi-admirable hero, and the endearing dance scene in the end. So, still very much inspired by the conventions that has made Bollywood such a crowd-pleasing success, not only in India, but world-wide. Naturally, the Danny Boyle film would go on to win an undeserved Best Picture award at the Academy Awards because unlike the usual Bollywood film, Slumdog Millionaire contains political undertones.

But Bollywood itself seriously caught my attention when I was channel-surfing and a local Indian program was counting down to Aamir Khan's best movies. I've NEVER heard of Aamir Khan before in my life, but I was soon informed that Aamir Khan is one of the most popular, highest-paid actors in India. My Indian and Hindi-speaking friends all happen to be in love with him and his movies. To them, he is not only a mere actor, director, or celebrity--he's a true artist who has brought the nation together through the wonders of great cinematic entertainment. Okay, that may be an exaggeration, but you get what I mean.

One of my friends recommended Dil Chahta Hai (English translation: The Heart Desires). Well, "recommended" is too direct a word. I was going through the films featured on the Khan countdown and Dil Chahta Hai seemed interesting. My friend said she loved it and even offered to watch it with me. (I turned her down.) But she, and many others, raved by Khan's most recent film, 3 Idiots, which is not yet available on DVD. So Dil Chahta Hai had to do. Besides, Dil Chahta Hai, like 3 Idiots, is also about three friends, so it couldn't be that much of a stretch.

So last night, I had my first taste of a real Bollywood movie. Dil Chahta Hai (isn't that kind of fun to say? even though if you have no idea if you're pronouncing it right or not?) about three best friends from middle-class Indian families. They're well-educated, modern, and looking for love. LOOKING FOR LOVE is a big theme, here, because most of the characters fall deeply in love with someone very quickly, even the guy who constantly claims that he doesn't believe in love. Just sayin'.

The film is told in a flashback. There has been some conflict in the friendship between these three friends, but it is not revealed until later. I feel like I am led to believe that the conflict was something very life-changing and terrible, but it is then revealed to be something that's not really a big deal? And the fact that they got into such a major conflict over it is kind of stupid? OOPS.


Sameer (Saif Ali Khan), who works at his father's computer company, falls in and out of love every two weeks. After disastrous break-ups from a total bitch and a conniving Swiss (also a bitch), he reluctantly goes along with his family's plans for a traditional arranged marriage. To his surprise, he falls in love with the candidate, Pooja (Sonali Kulkarni). But Pooja, as a modern Indian woman, is very against the idea of a traditional arranged marriage because she is already in love with another man. Sameer tries to convince her otherwise.

Sid (Akshaye Khanna), an artist, falls hard for an older, divorced woman, Tara (Dimple Kapadia), an interior designer who understands him. This romance creates some tension in Sid's life because of the disapproval from his friends and his mother.

Then there's Akash (Aamir Khan), the spoiled son of a wealthy family. He doesn't believe in love. At his college graduation party, he publicly proposes his love in jest to a very beautiful young woman, Shalini (Preity Zinta), but her finance, Rohit (Ayub Khan) takes offense to that. Months later, Akash, who is on a business assignment, and Shalini, who is meeting her uncle, meet on a flight to Sydney and form a bond. This relationship makes Akash question whether or not love exists.

Set to an energetic, fun soundtrack, with an awesome musical scene near the beginning, Dil Chahta Hai, for the most part, is a decent film, but could have been much better.

Sameer and Sid have the more interesting storylines. While Sameer's happy ending is tied in a nice bow, the ending to Sid's story feels like a cop-out. In fact, it feels that the film sacrificed good storytelling for the two other stories, which are much more interesting, to showcase the obnoxiously bland, predictable romance between Askash and Shalini. That storyline just drags to no end.

The film's attempts to be wise about the elusive subject of love feels shallow, superficial, and silly. A thirteen year old could have made those kind of observations.

But do you know what's the absolute worst thing about this movie? IT IS A THREE-HOUR ROMANTIC COMEDY. OMG. NOT COOL. I told my friend about this and apparently, it's totally natural for a Bollywood romantic comedy to be three hours long because of all the singing and dancing. Come on, really?

There are so many things that could have been cut that aren't musical scenes! They add nothing to the plot! There is the really long vacation montage of the three friends having fun! And it's not fun if I'm not physically there! Then there's that really long montage where Akash is feeling lonely (the lyrics in the song in the scene tells us so) because he realizes that he must confront his new-found beliefs in love!

As charismatic as Aamir Khan is, his co-stars are equally charismatic and deserves equal screen time. Despite the actors look much too old to play recent college graduates, they are quite convincing as the typical clueless, naive youth that exist in pretty much any culture. Saif Ali Khan is very funny as the goofy, lovesick young man and Akshaye Khanna delivers a wonderfully touching performance as a romantic artist who falls into the traps of a socially unacceptable romance.

However, Dil Chahta Hai does present the world with a different image of what the new India is. I'm not an expert on India, so I don't know how many Indians actually live so comfortably and, may I add, carelessly. While it may have been romanticized and commercialized into one marketable cinematic package, there's no doubt that Bollywood is a rising force in the film industry. Director Farhan Akhtar does a fine job weaving the stories together for the most part and cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran gives the film and its various locations (Mumbai, Goa, Sydney) a crisp, fresh look.

But did I mention this film is THREE HOURS LONG? And it's basically a ROMANTIC COMEDY? And its storylines are divided unevenly and some even ends sloppily? And how annoyingly predictable it is? And how its lessons about love are rather idiotic and cliched?

If Dil Chahta Hai ended around the two hours mark, it would have been a fairly enjoyable film about love and friendship in the new, modern India. But since it decided to drag on for another hour, it gave itself an opportunity to be extremely flawed and sloppy, yet its sentimental, feel-good mentality still stands. Fortunately for you, there are other sentimental, feel-good films that doesn't take over three hours of your life. C+


  1. Haaaaaaaaaa. You probably remember I spoke of my former Bollywood obsession back in a meme. I think the industry is the biggest movie industry (including Hollywood) or so I hard. YES, that 3 hour thing is overbearing, sometimes it's like three or three movies in one. Kuch Kuck Hota Hai is sort of like THE stalwart Bollywood film for me (it's not bad actually)...I've never seen this one, not too hot on Khan but Preity is lovely.

  2. Ahh, DCH :)

    Being an Indian (and Mumbaikar), I'll tell you what the fuss here is about: it was refreshingly real, and there is minimal drama. I mean it, honestly, Bollywood mostly makes only Rom-coms but back when this came out, it was unheard of to have real-life, non-dramatic dialogues and a non-stereotypical portrayal of the urban Indian youth. That's why people still think so highly of this film, because everything after that has mostly been trash :-/ I'd BEG you not to watch 3 Idiots because even though it may about 3 friends, it is neither intelligently funny, nor non-judgmental -- it is in fact, didactic, slapstick, and typical, which is really all that you get these days.

    This is not always the case though. Parallel cinema in India is a booming force, and it has the potential to re-define "bollywood". For the real gems, I'd suggest:

    Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (Didn't win a national award for nothing! One of my absolute favourites)
    Black Friday

    These are not run-of-the-mill films, and are mostly ignored by the masses because they're not romantic comedies with big stars. These films are not perfect, but they're certainly something my country can be proud of. If only we'd recognize that.

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  5. From the begging Dil Chahta Hai is a most popular movie. I think its evergreen movie . Amir khan really rockz. Thank U.