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Bollywood, the Hindi-language film industry in Mumbai that grinds out movies almost as fast as McDonald’s makes hamburgers, has entertained Indian families for generation. Surprisingly though, there is no Bollywood equivalent of a Walt Disney movie. Well, now there is — Zokkomon, a cheerful, silly and playful live-action feature from, yes, Walt Disney Studios India.
Of course, Indian children have no lack of superheroes from the west to watch, but Zokkomon gives them not only the first Indiansuper hero but, even more tantalizing, Zokkomon is a young boy “terrorizing” highly susceptible adults in a small village to the increasingly delight of the town’s children.
The film, which premiered at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles April 17, opens in India and other markets including North America via UTV Communications on April 22. Since the film is being released in Hindi with English subtitles in North America that pretty much limits a children’s audience to Hindi speakers.
The story is outfitted with the usual Bollywood tropes such as musical interludes, easily recognized character types and strong action sequences. A screenplay from director Satyajit Bhatkal, Lancy Fernandes and Svati Chakravarty Bhatkal sets an orphan boy on collision course with his heartless uncle, a conniving school master who holds sway over a village of mostly ignorant and highly superstitious adults.
After this uncle deliberately abandons his nephew Kunal (Darsheel Safary) at a far-away amusement park, he declares the adolescent dead in order to steal the boy’s inheritance. But the resilient lad makes his way back to the village where its residents believe he must be his own “ghost.”
This misunderstanding gives an idea to a mysterious recluse and, seemingly, the only educated adult in the town, a scientist banished by town elders who distrust all science. The scientist, whom Kunal calls “Magic Uncle,” uses lasers, optical equipment, costumes, megaphones and all sorts of other “magic” tricks to transform Kunal into Zokkomon, an avenging spirit who takes on his villainous uncle and the corrupt charlatans and swamis running the village.
Its children, long under the tyrannical rule of abusive teachers and frightened parents, cheer on this flying spirit as it scares the whole village straight. Talk about child empowerment!
Veteran actor Anapam Kher lets himself go in two roles. As the evil uncle, he sports the worse hairpiece in cinema history — it looks like a small animal crawled up on the man’s head and then died — and an evil demeanor that all but makes the scenery shrivel. As “Magic Uncle,” he dons the beard, scowl and raggedy clothes of a mad scientist as he uses the young boy to wreck vengeance against a community that ostracized him.
Manjari Fadnis plays a beautiful street artist who befriends the abandoned orphan in the big city (which actually is Mumbai). Her good cheer and mischievousness nicely balances the other adult roles that veer toward skullduggery and fright.
If much of this feels drawn out to American audiences, that’s because it is. Bollywood cinema, through lengthy running times and an intermission, is meant to keep a family entertained in air-conditioned comfort for an entire afternoon of film, samosas and chai.
Nevertheless, director Bhatkal keeps the pace lively especially when things pick up following the boy’s return to the town with an unpronounceable name.
Tech credits are fine if a little ragged here and there. An American Disney movie would have probably looked slicker but then that’s not necessarily a good thing in this jokey context.
Opens: Friday, April 22 (UTV Communications)
Production company: Walt Disney Studios India
Cast: Darsheel Safary, Anapam Kher, Manjari Fadnis, Gargi Datar, Jai Vyas
Director: Satyajit Bhatkal
Screenwriters: Satyajit Bhatkal, Lancy Fernandes, Svati Bhatkal
Producer: Srila Chatterjee
Director of photography: Keshay Prakash
Production designer: Fali Unwalla
Music: Shankar Mahadevan, Loy Mendonsa, Ehsaan Noorani
Choreography: Raju Sundaram, Shiamak Davar
Visual effects supervisor: Samir Hoon
Costume designer: Himani, Dehlvi
Editor: Suresh Pai
Rated PG, 109 minutes
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