Heroine: Film Review

Glorified soap opera is punctuated by two hours of Bollywood in-jokes.

A beautiful, but troubled, Indian movie star searches for love and respect in the celluloid jungle of Bollywood in Heroine, the latest “issue-based” effort from National Award-winning filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar.

Although the film doesn’t offer the emotional reward of his early Chandni Bar (2001) or the thought-provoking realism of Jail (2009), Heroine is packed with film industry follies enough to provide two hours of soapy entertainment for the hardcore Hindi film geek.

Make that a film geek with low-to-middling standards -- Heroine’s satirical barbs hit home a few times, but Bhandarkar overlooks some of the most glaring faults of Bollywood, not the least of which is the scourge of nepotism.

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Faced with competition from Anurag Basu’s hugely popular and family-friendly romantic comedy Barfi, Heroine -- with its R-rated language, nonstop cigarette and booze abuse and depiction of freewheeling sexual escapades -- may boast the widest distribution of any female-centric Indian film to date (2,400 screens in India), but it will still have a tough sell at the box office despite Bhandarkar’s pedigree and the draw of its star, Kareena Kapoor.

Kapoor plays Mahi Arora, a moody actress so insecure about men and fame that she constantly sabotages her relationships and career. Without any real friends to speak of, Mahi can only rely on a cold, unloving mother (Lillete Dubey), a wise shrink and a capable entourage of stylists, assistants and costumers who keep her afloat.

The first half of the film isn’t much more engaging than a TV soap, though with spicier language. It’s in the second half of the film, when Mahi discovers a talent for treachery and dirty politics, that it gets interesting.

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Thank goodness the supporting actors are strong throughout, especially the smart Divya Dutta as a wily PR maven and Shahana Goswami in a small, but memorable, turn as a bohemian Bengali actress who takes Mahi on a whirlwind tour of the city’s brothels as research for a film. Ranvir Shorey is disarmingly funny as the award-winning art-house director, while yesteryear star Helen, a saucy ‘60s sex kitten, makes a dignified appearance as an aged star consigned to obscurity.

Ultimately, the film is unsatisfying for several reasons. The dialogue, a mishmash of Hindi and English, aims for cynicism but often ends up silly: “Hey, babes, what happened? You seem to be tensed.”  “Either you manipulate, or you get manipulated. The choice is yours, babes.”

At the center of it all lies Kapoor, whose characterization and performance end up being the most disappointing aspects of the film. Bhandarkar chooses not to reveal why Mahi is so damaged (beyond a throwaway line about a rough childhood), and, perplexingly, never shows us what talents made Mahi such a supernova in the first place. Perhaps he’s taking the viewers for granted, assuming we’d automatically accept Kapoor as a superstar -- but Kapoor’s performance is artificial all the way through, marked by mannerisms and seemingly delivered into a mirror.

There are two infuriating aspects of the Hindi film industry that could have provided rich fodder for satire here: nepotism and sexism. Yet neither is addressed with any depth in Bhandarkar’s film.

Mahi may have worked her way up from obscurity, but Kapoor herself is from the same legendary extended film family that brought us Raj Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, Ranbir Kapoor (Barfi!) and Rishi Kapoor.

And sexism (and its ugly companion, ageism) continues to be a curse for Indian actresses, who until very recently were expected to throw away their careers upon marriage. Ironically, actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who Bhandarkar announced for the role of Mahi in 2011, abruptly dropped out of the project -- to have a baby -- and Kapoor stepped into the role.

Despite the film’s faults, Bhandarkar has assembled an entertaining laundry list of Bollywood in-jokes, and squeezed as many of them as he could into the film. Some of them are spot-on: there’s the producers’ penchant for safely remaking South Indian hit films; the gorgeous lothario of a costar (model turned actor Arjun Rampal); the hunky cricketer with a weakness for actresses (the justifiably busy art house actor Randeep Hooda); and the airtight gay/bisexual closet.

One scene finds Shorey’s temperamental Bengali director railing at India’s dreaded movie conglomerates, who limit his artistic vision. Heroine is produced and distributed by UTV Disney, one of India’s largest film conglomerates. Yes, we get the joke.

Opened: Sept. 21, 2012
Cast: Kareena Kapoor, Arjun Rampal, Randeep Hooda, Divya Dutta, Sanjay Suri
Director: Madhur Bhandarkar
Screenwriters:Anuradha Tewari, Manoj Tiyagi
Story: Madhur Bhandarkar
Producers: Ronnie Screwvala, Madhur Bhandarkar
Director of photography: Mahesh Limaye
Costume designers: Aki Narula and Shefalina, Manish Malhotra
Sound designer: Shajith Koyeri
Editor: Deven Murudeshwar
Choreographer: Ganesh Acharya
Music: Salim Merchant, Suleiman Merchant
Not rated, 140 minutes