Adam Gopnik has an article in the current New Yorker on the writer G. K. Chesterton. In it he quotes a chapter in Chesterton's autobiography titled "The Man With The Golden Key," in which Chesterton describes how as a child he played with figures (including a prince who carried a golden key) in a puppet theater:
"If this were a ruthless realistic modern story, I should of course give a most heartrending account of how my spirit was broken with disappointment, on discovering that the prince was only a painted figure. But this is not a ruthless realistic modern story. On the contrary, it is a true story. And the truth is that I do not remember that I was in any way deceived or in any way undeceived. The whole point is that I did like the toy theatre even when I knew it was a toy theatre. I did like the cardboard figures, even when I found they were of cardboard. The white light of wonder that shone on the whole business was not any sort of trick..."Fantasy and reality are not opposed to or exclusive of one another, but can coexist simultaneously. And surely this is the way that our imaginations are engaged by books, opera, and movies, among other things. In the spirit of being neither deceived nor undeceived, then, my appreciation of two recent Bollywood films that involve no more reality than Chesterton's toy theater, but nonetheless offer a high degree of enjoyment:
Porn for parents: Vivah (2006)
There's a book called Porn for Women (Cambridge Women's Pornography Cooperative, 2007) which consists of pictures of hunky guys vacuuming, doing the dishes, and offering thick slices of chocolate cake for dessert, with captions like "I don't like to see you looking too thin."
Well, Vivah (Marriage) is pornography for parents. Director Sooraj Barjatya (of Hum Aapke Hain Kaun...! (1994) fame) has created a world where children are obedient, kind, sweet-tempered, solicitous of their parents and siblings, and unfailingly courteous. If they're beautiful young women, they're modest and demure; if they're charming young men, they're shy and reject all vices. Loving parents arrange marriages for their children that lead to deeply affectionate unions and emotionally close extended families where class and caste differences don't matter.
This is not to say that none of this is ever true. For all of it to be true simultaneously, though, we have to be in Barjatyaland.
Vivah is the story of an arranged union between Poonam (Amrita Rao), a small town, middle-class family's gorgeous niece raised as their own daughter, and Prem (Shahid Kapoor), the handsome second son of a fabulously wealthy Dehli industrialist. Amrita and Shahid are very appealing as the young lovers, even if Shahid has a hard time being convincing in those rare moments when he's called on to look sultry. The supporting cast--including Alok Nath and Anupam Kher as Poonam's and Prem's respective fathers and Lata Sabharwal as Prem's sister-in-law--inhabit their roles with a charming ease. And not least, Ravindra Jain's soundtrack has the great Udit Narayan and the brilliantly talented Shreya Ghoshal all over it.
It's the kind of movie where, when discussing their past love affairs, Poonam's had none, and Prem mentions that he once had a crush on a girl sitting in front of him in one of his college classes. Then he discovered that she already had two boyfriends, and lost interest. Almost every character is unrelentingly good, and except for the last few minutes the story is almost entirely lacking in drama. Instead, we're treated to the beautifully photographed three-hour long spectacle of the "journey from engagement to marriage" of two really nice young people from really nice families.
I loved it.
Madhuri Dixit's return: Aaja Nachle (2007)
Aaja Nachle (Come Dance With Me) is a classic "Hey kids, let's put on a show!" musical. Its main feature of interest is that it's the vehicle for the return of Madhuri Dixit to Bollywood after an absence of 5 years (it's her first film since Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas (2002)).
Although she looks great in Aaja Nachle, it's clear in some sequences at least that Madhuri is no longer in top dancing form. Very often she will remain more or less stationary in the center of groups of dancers who swirl around her. It's impossible to escape the feeling that this is intended by director Anil Mehta and choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant to disguise her relative lack of mobility. Still, she remains very expressive as both an actor and dancer, and is always a pleasure to watch.
She plays Dia, a woman who left her village to avoid an arranged marriage, and ran off with her lover to New York to realize her dreams as a dancer. A decade later, divorced and with a young daughter, she returns to the village at the request of her dying teacher. The Ajanta amphitheater will be demolished and replaced by a shopping mall unless she can rally the townspeople to save it. So she recruits a motley assortment of townfolk to perform the ancient love story of Laila and Majnu.
Will Dia be able to whip her fractious cast into a smooth ensemble by opening night? Will sophisticated lighting effects, elaborate sets and costumes, and dozens of backup dancers materialize from nowhere? Will the actors playing Laila and Majnu stop arguing constantly and fall in love offstage as well as on-? Will the evil politicians and businessmen who have forgotten art and their heritage in pursuit of money see the error of their ways? Will dissatisfied wives and husbands, astonished at seeing their partners' onstage transformations, suddenly come to appreciate them? Will the theater be saved...?
If you're unsure about how the movie turns out, you haven't watched 42nd Street (1933) or Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) or Babes in Arms (1939) or Singin' in the Rain (1952) or The Band Wagon (1953) or...I'm sure you catch my drift. But the film is enlivened by Akshaye Khanna's delightful performance as a pro-development politician (he actually says to Dia, "I'm the bad guy"), a terrific ensemble cast, and of course, by Madhuri Dixit's lovely smile--missing from the screen for too long.
Aaja Nachle is not a great work of art. It's clichéd, suspenseless, totally unreal and utterly predictable.
I loved it.
Update 10 July 2011: After rewatching Vivah, I've posted additional thoughts about it in Bollywood Rewatch 2: Vivah and India's missing daughters.