Saturday, March 8, 2008

Bollywood comedy: Heyy Babyy and Om Shanti Om

With comedy, less is often more. But as both of these blockbusters from last year demonstrate, "less" is not a word that exists in Bollywood's vocabulary.

I have to confess that I've never much liked Akshay Kumar's screen presence--his wolfish grin reminds me too much of Tom Cruise (not a good association)--but he almost redeems himself in Heyy Babyy [sic] (2007). I've never seen Three Men and a Baby (1987) or its French original Trois hommes et un couffin (1985), the movies on which Heyy Babyy is based, but the common premise is pretty amusing: three bachelors (Fardeen Khan and the appealing Ritesh Deshmukh are the other two in HB) are suddenly faced with taking care of an infant girl left on their doorstep. A note accompanying the baby says "She's your daughter--you take care of her," only the men have no idea which of them is the father. So they collectively take on that role, and a fair amount of comedy is generated from the contrast between their growing sense of responsibility and their previous fecklessness.

There are a couple of especially enjoyable scenes in the first half. In the first one, the men are trying to identify the potential mothers and start listing all the women they've slept with. The baby's something like 6 months old, which would probably narrow it down pretty quickly. But clearly none of them wants to be outdone, so they start making up names: "Sheena," "Victoria," and so on, until their lists are absurdly long.

Perhaps the funniest scene, though, occurs once they've fully accepted their new roles as the joint fathers of the child they've named "Angel." They overhear a teenage girl arguing with her father about the micro-mini skirt she's wearing. This is instantly sobering to the guys as they contemplate Angel's future adolescence. One says, "We will choose her boyfriends"; another, "She won't have any boyfriends--we will choose her husband"; the third, "Let's hope she never meets any guys like us."

There are a couple of fun songs, too (music by Shankar Eshan Loy with lyrics by Sameer): the title number featuring cameos by a baker's dozen of Bollywood starlets (who are distressingly indistinguishable--was that part of the joke?), and the later "Meri Duniya Tu Hi Re" which is simultaneously a lullaby and a paean to the joys of group fatherhood.

Of course, just before the interval the mother (Vidya Balan) shows up to reclaim her child; just afterwards, we see the backstory and understand why she's justifiably angry at the baby's father (Akshay, of course). Alas, the first half is marred by a disturbing sequence where the baby nearly dies, while the second half becomes more and more tedious as the movie draws out the inevitable reunion of the biological parents with an hour of increasingly unfunny schtick. What would have been a charming 90-minute story becomes bloated and overdone, and can't even be rescued by a Shah Rukh Khan cameo.

Speaking of SRK, we missed Om Shanti Om (2007) when it was in our regional Hindi movie theaters last fall, and of course comedies are more fun when you see them with an audience. OSO is packed full of parodies of 1970s Bollywood, contemporary Bollywood, and movie awards ceremonies; it's got cameos by Bollywood greats past and present and homages to classic American musicals like Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Pirate (1947) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). The 70s hair and fashions are lovingly and hilariously recreated, and much fun is poked at modern-day superhero movies, action movies and their endless sequels. SRK himself doesn't escape unscathed: in the second half he appears as Om Kapoor, an arrogant superstar who is chronically late on set, will only do one take of a scene, and leaves early so he can film product endorsements. At the awards ceremony we see him in two virtually identical "best actor" clips where he's romancing a heroine against Yash Chopra-esque mountain backdrops (a parody more to the point when it was first done by Saif Ali Khan in Dil Chahta Hai (2001), perhaps).

It's all great fun, especially the song "Dhoom Taana" in which the stunning newcomer Deepika Padukone dances with the images of Bollywood heroes of the late 60s and 70s such as Sunil Dutt, Rajesh Khanna, and Jeetendra.

But for all its knowingness about Bollywood, OSO's parodies are hung on a hackneyed masala plot--involving impossible romance, reincarnation, revenge, and the unquiet spirits of the restless dead--which could itself have come straight out of the 70s. Good performances by Deepika, SRK and a cast of assured veterans don't quite rescue this film from its own conventional impulses, or keep the second half from seeming overlong. Perhaps someday Bollywood will realize that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.


  1. Yes, less is usually more but sometimes more can be more too (I don't know about post-1980 films though)...

    I liked Om Shanti Om but don't consider it a classic of any sort. Haven't seen Heyy Baby yet since I hate the numerology ridiculousness and it puts me off seeing something right away :-)

  2. I'm a bit puzzled by Om Shanti Om's rapturous reception, too. Although I'm sure there are many details in the Bollywood parodies that I missed because I'm less familiar with 1970s films.

    And yes, more can be more. We just finished watching Mughal-e-Azam, which is a prime example in a very different genre. But it seemed to me that OSO and especially Heyy Babyy could have benefitted from some significant editing.