CANNES — Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told is very much a mixed blessing. Finally, the Festival de Cannes, which has an historical blind spot when it comes to Indian cinema, has at least acknowledged a certain kind of Indian movie by bringing a documentary to the Croisette about Hindi-language films produced in Mumbai. Yet the very kind of movies the documentary celebrates is swiftly vanishing from Indian screens today.
Worse, the film, produced by festival favorite Shekhar Kapur, provides little context for this 81-minute wallow in Bollywood dance numbers. A tiny bit of commentary from such Bollywood stalwarts as superstar-of-superstars Amitabh Bachchan, daughter-in-law Aishwarya Rai, choreographer Saroj Khan and long-ago heartthrob Dev Anand doesn’t even kick in until about an hour into the film. A non-Indian seeking to get acquainted with Bollywood cinema would be utterly lost.
However, for the non-Indian with a bit of knowledge, Bollywood might be a guilty pleasure. The fast-paced dance blend assembled by directors Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (Rang De Basanti) and Jeffrey Zimbalist (The Two Escobars) dazzles the eyes and ears like a groovy acid trip from the ‘70s.
In its current state, UTV couldn’t screen the movie in India itself. A song from a single movie playing over clips from a half-dozen dance numbers and the paucity of interviews that might connect Indian moviegoers to their almost God-like cinema heroes will drive true Bollywood fans nuts.
Having rushed to complete the film only days before its Cannes debut, Kapur and his fellow producers might want to rethink the whole thing. Right now the movie is a jumble with news clips of Gandhi, Nehru and bloody riots mixed in with song-and-dance numbers. If they want to tell the story of post-Independence India through Bollywood movies, then do so properly. Or if they want to show how the Bollywood film evolved over those years, again do so properly with an acknowledgment that such stereotypical characters as the boy, the girl, the villain and the mother are mostly a thing of the past.
As former superstar actor Shammi Kapoor (strangely unidentified) relates, in his day the formula was boy meets girl, then you have eight songs and a happy ending. But that was in his day. The movie fails to make that distinction.
Also context is needed with movie titles and eras identified somehow rather than simply mixing together wedding scenes, lovers’ laments or rain dances (the better to get the heroine’s sari wet). To throw in a black-and-white clip of Raj Kapoor breaking into what became his theme song, “Mera joota hai Japani” (“My Shoes are Japanese”), gives no idea of the incredible worldwide success of that song in the ‘50s, which cab drivers in Tehran and peasants in Russia knew by heart and in Hindi!
The film buff with a sharp eye will note with interest in these clips how Hong Kong movies (and maybe even The Matrix) have influenced Bollywood gangster movies. And it’s amusing to see how a song and dance can embrace virtually any social situation including numbers build around monetary inflation and political corruption.
Somewhere in this mesh-mash is a really good doc about a joyous cinema that something like two billion people love. The filmmakers need to get back to the editing room.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: UTV Motion Pictures
Directors: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Jeffrey Zimbalist
Producers: Shekhar Kapur, Ronnie Screwvala, Trishya Screwvala
Executive producer: Neha Kaul
Director of photography: Ashok Mehta, Tapan Basu
Editor: Jeffrey Zimbalist
No rating, 81 minutes