After two years struggling to make Water, the third film in her highly acclaimed “elements” trilogy, director Deepa Mehta was tired. Anywhere she’d try to shoot on location would be disrupted by fundamentalist Hindus upset with her previous films — Fire, which dealt with lesbianism, and Earth, a brutal historical epic about the division of India and Pakistan. It’s none too surprising that she’d choose to make a light comedy as a way of taking a break from it all. Unfortunately, as one watches Bollywood/Hollywood, it feels as if the director has remained on vacation. Not without its charms, the movie nonetheless seems more the work of a lightweight helmer-for-hire than the skillful hand of the craftswoman who gave us Earth, which made my Ten Best of 1999 list.
A quick primer for those unfamiliar with Indian cinema: “Bollywood” refers to the film output of Bombay and any other movies like them, generally epic musicals exceeding three hours in length that deal with the forces of tradition versus change (and unlike in much of contemporary American cinema, tradition tends to be favored). “Hollywood,” on the other hand, requires no definition.
Mehta is a fan of both, and has taken on the task of trying to lovingly spoof Indian and American sensibilities in one film, ironically set in Canada, rather than just shot in a part of Canada pretending to be New York, as a real Hollywood film would be. The running time is Hollywood-length, there are songs (mostly in Hindi, all mouthed by the actors but sung by pros, and none subtitled), and while pretty much the entire cast is Indian, the plot combines ’80s gimmick romance with contemporary ethnic nuptial flick — it’s Can’t Buy Me a Big Fat Indian Wedding. The appeal Mehta is shooting for is made explicit here — describing the conservative nature of elderly Indian matriarchs, an Indian character says to a Spaniard, “As a fellow ethnic, I’m sure you understand.”
The movie stumbles badly out of the gate. It begins with a young boy (who will grow up to become our protagonist, Rahul) at the side of his father’s deathbed. Dad, giving out some last-minute fatherly advice with his final breath, starts framing everything as a baseball metaphor, past the point of bad analogy and through to nonsensical incoherence. Most likely this is supposed to be funny, a non-American tweaking America’s sports obsessions through film. It falls flat, too lame to be amusing, and not overplayed enough to parody its own pathos.
From there, we go to the only English-language musical number, a kinda-sorta parody of Madonna’s “Material Girl” video, with Jessica Paré in the role of “the Britney Spears of Canada.” Paré, and whoever’s dubbing her singing voice, lacks any of the come-hither sexiness of your average teen-pop starlet, and the limp, underproduced backup music doesn’t cut it even as a spoof of cookie-cutter major-label studio sound.
Paré’s character is the girlfriend of our lead Rahul (played as an adult by Earth‘s Rahul Seth), and, as an oversized symbol of sellout miscegenation (it’s implied she goes for Indian men because of her fondness for Deepak Chopra), she’s quickly dispatched via a freak levitation accident. This leaves Rahul’s family in a quandary — tradition insists that the children be married in order of their age, and his younger sister Twinky (Rishma Malik) has her wedding already planned. If Rahul cannot find a bride by the time Twinky is scheduled to tie the knot, the younger sibling’s marriage must be called off.
Rahul reacts to this dilemma as any sane man would — by going to a bar and drinking. In the Hollywood tradition, however, he just happens to get hit on by the perfect woman, Sue (Lisa Ray), a Pablo Neruda-quoting Spaniard. Sue’s a professional escort, and tells Rahul she can be anything he wants her to be. Before long, money has changed hands, and Sue has become “Sunita,” Rahul’s new Indian bride-to-be for as long as it takes to get Twinky married.
Fans of cinema both East and West will hardly be surprised when the fake arrangement is threatened by genuine feelings, or when Sue turns out to not have been entirely honest about herself or her past. In fact, there’s nothing in this movie to surprise anybody. The only plot element that comes close to subversion is the fact that the token gay best friend (Ranjit Chowdhry), who gets to perform a drag number entitled “My Heart Is a Pigeon Coop, Come In,” is Rahul’s, not Sue’s.
Not to say that the leads aren’t charming or anything, but Bollywood/Hollywood, like this spring’s slightly better cultural hodgepodge The Guru, simply offers no compelling reason to fork over your movie dollars. Certainly it’s not a movie one feels like hating, but the musical numbers aren’t enough to elevate this over, say, Pretty Woman, or perhaps the other, more official remake of Can’t Buy Me Love that’s opening later this year.