There is a particular style of courtship presented in Bollywood movies that can be a bit of a tough go-around for Western viewers trying to dabble in that cinema. This courtship begins, predictably, with boy meeting girl. But while boy is immediately smitten by girl, girl loathes boy - because she is either A) a stuck-up rich girl who cannot see beyond boy's modest circumstances, or B) a virtuous village girl who cannot see past boy's frivolous and free-spending ways. In either case, boy does not give up, and instead strives to make himself a near constant presence in girl's life, popping up with a new, even more spirited attempt to ingratiate himself whenever she least expects it. Finally, by dint of boy's persistence and omnipresence, girl's resistance is worn down and she has no choice but to look past her prejudices and see the kind, tender and - above all - mother worshipping heart that beats within boy. Love blossoms.
Now, many of us would call this particular type of courtship "stalking". And not only is it widely illegal, but it also proves to have markedly less real-world effectiveness in winning the affections of one's object of desire than these movies might have you think. At the same time, however, the process of winning hearts through attrition that it represents is also, in my experience, the way that Bollywood movies themselves work. For, unlike your typical Hollywood crowd-pleasers - which attempt to "suck you in" immediately by way of brute narrative drive - Bollywood films often seem to throw obstacle in your path, greeting you with a host of elements that are certain Kryptonite to self-considered persons of taste, and then go on, by way of sheer duration and an unflagging eagerness to please, to slowly and subtly chip away at the defenses, until to not fully embrace what's being presented seems like it could only be the result of some dire character flaw. Indeed, many of the Bollywood films that have ended up being my favorites found their initial volleys of goofy artifice and over-obvious appeals to sentiment bouncing right off of the hard, frozen shell of my cynical heart. But at some point - usually right near the end of their second hour - I found that that same resistant heart, without my knowing it, had gradually begun to beat along with the movie's persistent rhythm, and was now being played by it like a well-strung Stradivarius. It is this slow process of seduction, I believe, that makes watching Bollywood films so addictive, the reason that anyone who makes it past the initial hurdles presented by the experience will find themselves irretrievably hooked.
Take, 1987's Mr. India, for instance. The film boasts alternately maudlin and jingoistic appeals to patriotism, a small army of aggressively cute children who are shamelessly exploited for cheap pathos whenever the script requires, broad physical comedy of the slide-whistle and bass drum variety, and a corny super hero plot that doesn't even get going until halfway through the film's three hour running time; all elements that would seem lab-tested to make Mr. India hard to love by anyone with a sensible thought in their head. Nonetheless, as much as I tried to distance myself by taking in Mr. India as an inept freak show loaded with overheated propaganda, there came that fateful moment during the second hour, right after one of those child-fueled moments of cheap pathos, when I felt a familiar lump growing in my throat. And with that lump came a strangled, tear-choked voice, urging the hero on to avenge the terrible wrong that had been done: "You get those bastards, Mr. India!" And that voice, as if I needed to tell you, was my own. Mr. India had totally made me its bitch.
Mr. India begins with a visit to the vast secret island fortress of Mogambo, a super villain played by the fearsomely-browed Amrish Puri, a frequent Bollywood movie super villain who - as any American reviewer of his movies is required by law to state - is known in the West for his turn as the bad guy in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Mogambo, for seemingly no particular reason, really hates India, and he expresses that hatred by loading the country with illegal drugs, adulterating the grain supply with stones, and generally making life crappy for the average Indian. Judging from the somewhat paranoid tone of Mr. India's nationalistic drum-beating, I'm guessing that Mogambo represents pretty much every country that's not India - but especially that country that's not India whose name rhymes with "Snack-i-stan". At Mogambo's command is an army of foot soldiers so devoted that they will throw themselves into a pit of acid at his bidding just because he thinks it would be funny. He also has in his employ the one and only Doctor Fu Manchu, who is just as risible a stereotype when portrayed by Asians. Mogambo is clearly an object of worship to these various minions, and each greets his every move and utterance with a Hitler salute and a cry of "Hail Mogambo!" In reply - and with a frequency intended to insure you never forget that This Is The Catch Phrase - Mogambo invariably purrs, "Mogambo is pleased".
It turns out that Mogambo needs a new base of operations on India's coast to facilitate his import of horror into the country, and it just so happens that the ideal spot is the home of Arun, played by Anil Kapoor (Taal, 1942: A Love Story). Arun is a gentle soul of modest means whose generous spirit makes him apparently unable to resist any orphan, which has lead to his home being filled with an assortment of cloyingly adorable urchins. Arun is also the son of a late scientist who, unknown to Arun, created an invisibility device that Mogambo has unsuccessfully been trying to get his hands on for years. Of course, this fact will not become relevant until much later in Mr. India, since the film's first half is largely taken up by a "save the orphanage" plot arising from Mogambo's repeated attempts - using Arun's unscrupulous landlord as a proxy - to oust Arun and the kids from their home. Amid this business we are introduced to Seema (Sridevi), a reporter whose resonant pluckiness and girly-ness reminds us that the Christopher Reeve/Margot Kidder Superman movies were still being made in 1987. Through a typically convoluted set of circumstances, Seema becomes a boarder in Arun's home - and, as such, comes to be something of an audience surrogate, as Arun and the children's monotonous toothsome-ness and good cheer will come to slowly wear her down from a state of unqualified revulsion to one of exhausted acceptance and ultimately, actual fondness (though the rest of us probably won't go quite that far).
It is not until Mogambo's goons resort to actual strong-arm tactics against Arun and his toddler army that the hyperactive machinations of Mr. India's plot see fit to put in Arun's hands his father's invisibility bracelet. It is with this newfound power that Arun becomes Mr. India, a symbol (though, interestingly, an invisible one) of the Indian common man, bent on wiping out all those who would undermine his beloved mother country. In the course of what follows, some of the more memorable examples of Arun's pro-Indian payback include him forcing one of Mogambo's goons to eat a mouthful of the stones used to adulterate the country's grain, followed by him taking the goon's feast laden table from the posh restaurant in which he'd been seated and placing it down in front of a starving family huddled on the street outside. In another instance, Mr. India terrorizes one of Mogambo's associates, a decadent Englishman seeking to trade arms and drugs for Indian national treasures (Bob Christo, a familiar face in Bollywood thanks to his go-to-guy for evil whitey roles status), into kneeling in trembling worship before the Hindu god Hanuman. All of this makes Mr. India quite popular with the public, and it's not long before Mogambo is raising a gloved fist and uttering his name through tightly clenched teeth. Seema, on the other hand, is in love with Mr. India, and lets the world know by way of song (see the number "Karte Hain Hum Pyar Mr. India Se", aka "I'm In love With Mr. India").
Though its plot may sound predictable, Mr. India as a viewing experience is anything but. In fact, if you were looking for an example of classic masala film style, you couldn't do much better. So many disparate elements are thrown out in its eagerness to appeal that it's impossible to tell which way Mr. India will veer next. The experience might lead the uninitiated to wonder exactly who the film was intended for; and its a valid question. For instance, it seems to a large extent to be a children's film, except for when it really isn't. Mogambo, for one - thanks to his ridiculous name and exaggerated bluster, in combination with the cartoonish caricature of military pomp that surrounds him - at first almost comes across like some kind of Doctor Seuss character - something along the lines of The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T's cranky, monomaniacal Dr. Terwilliker. But then, in the film's final third, when Mogambo resorts to some all-too-real-world terrorist tactics - taking countless civilian lives by means of bombs concealed in public spaces - we are starkly reminded that the film has more on its agenda than poking gentle, whimsical fun at authoritarian delusions. Likewise, while Mr. India uses a bunch of cute kids as sentimental window dressing, it's more than eager to put those kids in harm's way when it serves to pump up the outraged sense of injury that energizes it's violent, pyrotechnically-enhanced conclusion.
These radical shifts in tone apply just as much to Mr. India's musical numbers, which were composed by the prolific team of Laxmikant-Pyarelal. These, unfortunately, are mostly pretty dreadful, consisting for the most part of Arun's orphans singing about sunshine, rainbows and a brighter tomorrow. Family friendly stuff, to be sure. Less so, but still skirting the borderline, is a mid-film number in which Sridevi is accompanied by male dancers who, at first, sport multi-colored afros and metallic face paint and then, later - and inexplicably - black face. But the real standout is the later number "Kaate Nahin Katte Ye Din", which is steamy in the way that only Bollywood musical numbers featuring two people with all of their clothes on can be. Or, I should say, featuring one person, because Sridevi's partner in this number is the mostly invisible Arun - a situation that is enthusiastically mined for it's erotic possibilities (at one point, the effect of Mr. India's invisible embrace is achieved by Sridevi pressing her ample boobs up against a sheet of glass). As the pumping, tango-like beat of the song turns up the heat, we watch Sridevi chill and tremble to her lover's unseen caresses, punctuated by brief, spectral glimpses of Arun delivering them. It's a real show stopper, one that ably delivers us into the "anything goes" tone of the film's final third - and it's so deftly handled that it suddenly awakens you to the possibility that Mr. India's construction might have involved more than a dartboard and scraps of cocktail napkin with plot points written on them.
Despite making Mr. India probably an unsuitable choice for a video babysitter, the movie's dramatic shifts have, for me, one inarguable upside. And that is that they once again accomplish that wonderful Bollywood magic trick by which a film that begins as the story of a humble man trying to save an orphanage can end as a giant, James Bond-style conflagration inside a crazy sci fi lair. For all the many Bollywood films I've seen, I can count on one hand the ones whose outset allowed me to accurately predict what type of film they would be at their conclusion. Broad comedy crumbles into tragedy, family melodrama escalates into high octane action spectacle, and, in the present case, an affably goofy super hero yarn suddenly becomes infused with a blood lusting thirst for national vengeance. It's often a head spinning ride - one that, in the best cases, leaves you with no memory of the longeurs and treacle you had to suffer through at the beginning. Which is exactly what makes you get back on again.
Mr. India was only director Shekhar Kapur's second film and, surprisingly, he did not choose to parlay its considerable success into a career making cartoonish kiddie sci fi movies loaded with violence and suggestive dancing. Rather--in what I see as a clear failure of creative nerve--he would go on to direct the controversial and critically acclaimed film Bandit Queen, and later such high-profile/middle-brow English language films as Elizabeth, The Four Feathers, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. For the blockbuster writing team of Javed Akhtar and Salim Khan, however, Mr. India was much more par for the course. The pair had, after all, taken Amitabh Bachchan into similar territory back in 1980 with Shaan. Still, their gift for churning out mind bogglingly weird masala movies might belie the team's importance to the history of their national cinema--for just a few years previous they had been a revolutionary force in Bollywood, virtually creating Amitabh's "Angry Young Man" persona single (or, uh, double) handedly with their masterful scripts for such unparalleled 1970s classics as Deewar, Sholay and Don.
Despite this pedigree--not to mention its commercial success--Mr. India still comes down on the slightly wilder and trashier side of Bollywood cinema (though far from the wildest or the trashiest). Still, just as one needs to seek balance in their overall cinematic diet, one's experience of Bollywood can't be all Guru Dutt and Mother India. For, while those more esteemed films can elicit an emotional response with their more nuanced depictions of the human condition, for a movie as silly as Mr. India to sweep you up in its enthusiasms--getting you to root for an invisible Indian everyman against a jackbooted cartoon straw man called Mogambo--is pretty impressive in its own right. Hail Mogambo!
- Todd Stadtman 12/12/07
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