It’s been a long while that I’ve been curious about Bollywood movies. I have enough friends from India that their constant chatter about them has started to make a dent, and I’ve been quite bored with standard Hollywood fare. I think part of it is that Netflix continues suggesting crappy movies from the 80s (Ladyhawke, Labyrinth and Working Girl amongst the latest).
Regardless: when the Internation section of my recommendations contained a Bollywood title with great rating, I added it to my queue, not hoping much, but assuming it would be better than the other stuff I’d seen these days.
To make it short, I loved Om Shanti Om. I found the cinematography outstanding, the musical numbers catchy, and the plot sufficiently strong to carry it all. I can’t speak to the acting, as I don’t know much about the conventions in Bollywood, but the outlandish beauty of supermodel Deepika Padukone speaks for itself, especially when she is playing the furious angel of revenge.
The plot features a few devices that Hollywood for the most avoids: there is a reincarnation that is taken very literally and includes identification of the two souls. A man is killed and then reborn, and after he’s become an adult he remembers who he was and starts thinking in terms of his former self.
Otherwise, there is a lot of Bollywood "Nabelschau" (a German term that refers to a work that has extensive references to the internal environment, like Stephen King’s Misery). The whole movie is about making movies and the lives of movie stars and starlets, about producers and backers.
I’ll spare you the exact plot, but will focus on the features that differentiate a Bollywood movie from its Southern California counterpart.
First and foremostly jarring, the movie features a series of musical numbers that have become quite unusual in current Western cinema. What’s different is that the movie transitions easily from textual speech to song and dance – like in an operetta, one might say. One second two lovers are fighting with each other, the next one they are joined at the hip, singing a catchy tune that will lead the Top of the Pops next week.
Secondly, the use of color throughout the movie is very strong. We might think of it as garish or outlandish, but it’s indeed rather festive and miraculous; more Chartres than Harlequin, I’d say. Somehow it reminds one, too, of the days when black-and-white had to give way to color (TV and movies), and suddenly everything donned a fresh coat of paints, the more the merrier.
Thirdly, the plot devices are in general more crude, the plot continuity and logic less stringent than in Western movies. Frequently I thought to myself, "that doesn’t make any sense at all!" I admit, though, that Hollywood has the same bad habit, and at least the suspension of disbelief in a Bollywood movie must be carried farther, anyway (I mean, seriously, villains starting to hip-hop in the middle of a contract murder???).
A single example of this crudeness: in the grand finale, the murderer is supposed to repeat the great finale of act I by burning down a stage. The first time he does so, he has evidently put some flammable material on the floor (that the heroine is dumb enough not to smell that is another mystery best left alone). The second time, he’s got no clue of what’s going on – and still, the stage merrily starts burning as if it’s made of gasoline.
Still, the scenes are grand, musical number or not. The crystal chandelier that will be used to drive the plot home crashes down in a wonderful line of glitter, manifest destinity at work. Perhaps the best moment in the movie is the irony of having the same actress (aforementioned Deepika) perform two different roles, in one of which she is selected because she looks like in her first role, only to have to play her former self, and still look different enough that we instantly know she’s not her. Complicated enough?
Another thought that came to mind watching the movie is that it brought to mind another movie I have seen a few years ago: Moulin Rouge. Everything that stood out about that movie was Bollywood convention at its best, including the irony of the plot revolving around a musical show about an Indian theme.
One could easily say that Moulin Rouge is what happens when La Traviata hit Bollywood, in the same sense as Ran is King Lear meets The Seven Samurai.