Not long ago I began a sort of cultural exchange with a friend of mine who loves Broadway musicals as much as I love Hindi movies. In the first Broadway-Bollywood Exchange, "Bhoot meets Phantom," we watched Paheli and a staging of Phantom of the Opera. The event was a success, in that we both had a good enough time to do it again. And so, for round two, my friend brought over Rent (not a staging, but the 2005 film adaptation that featured much of the original Broadway cast), and I hauled out Lagaan. And this post has now languished unfinished for long enough that we had time to get together again and watch The Dirty Picture.
First, Lagaan and Rent.
We didn't plan it this way, but both of these films feature ensembles of rag-tag folks who band together to face down oppressive forces of rich and powerful folks who try to collect dues from them. Just as Lagaan's crew presents a microcosm of Indian diversity, the Rent crowd condenses the Bohemian Lower East Side into a handful of vivid totems.
But that is really where the similarities end. While Lagaan is a single story driven by a charismatic, confident leader in the form of Aamir Khan, Rent is more truly an ensemble, with several parallel threads woven loosely together by a group dynamic. And by the way, Rent is a superb show. It is dated, in all the best and most positive senses of the term - it perfectly captures a place and time that have since evolved and no longer can be found the way they were when the show was written, in the late 1980s - early 1990s. At the show's core are three love stories - one between two men, one between two women, and one heterosexual. This skirts the edge of tokenism, but the beauty of these stories is that each arc is driven by the personalities involved in each couple, not their sex or their sexuality. (Contrast Lagaan, in which all of the three women in the film naturally adore the hero - one is his mother.)
The highlight of Rent is the magnificent ensemble number, "La Vie Boheme." This song is masterful - it walks a delicate line perfectly, simultaneously glorifying and poking fun at the free-spirit Bohemians and everything they value. (Forgive the dig at Calcutta - they obviously hadn't seen Kahaani.)
This is great stuff - affectionate, self-deprecating, clever. And also really, really different from anything I've ever seen in a Hindi movie. This gets to the core question I've had since the Broadway-Bollywood exchange began - the apparent lack of crossover appeal between these two art forms. I think the answer is that while they are superficially similar in the ways I discussed in my previous post, the style and overall aesthetic senses are quite different. In Hindi songs, singers rarely harmonize - even with the widespread adaptation of western musical styles, the kind of harmonious counterpoint common in Broadway shows hasn't really entered the filmi musical lexicon. Moreover, song production in Hindi films remains somewhat sloppy about picturizing the same voice on different actors - my friend commented on this while we were watching Paheli, and it grated on me even more recently in The Dirty Picture, where a rivalry dance-off, "Honeymoon ki raat," would have been a much stronger scene if they'd bothered to use different voices for the two women.
This is not a well-developed theory, but it's leading me to think that the musical and performance aspects are so strong in Broadway as to be the principal reason people watch the shows. In Hindi films, in contrast, songs are beloved, and movies are also beloved, but somewhat independently of one another. For example, one could not reasonably say of Rent, the way I have of Devdas, that the movie is atrocious but the songs are wonderful. And conversely you couldn't have an excellent Broadway show with forgettable songs, the way you can have a fantastic Hindi movie whose songs fall flat (say, Khamoshi). (No, I didn't intentionally choose two Bhansali movies for those comparisons - I noticed that they were while proofreading this post. How did that happen? I suppose I unconsciously remembered the Broadway-inspired aspects of Bhansali's own style, on display most notably in the solidly mediocre Saawariya.)
I still think there is room for overlap, or at least appreciation, of one form by fans of the other. I am ready to watch more Broadway shows and appreciate them for what they are, even if they don't occupy the same brainspace for me that Hindi movies do. And there is still room for shared delight in the way songs are picturized and staged. It might just be the weird way my brain works, but watching Angel and Collins romp through the streets of New York in Rent's "I'll cover you" put me in mind of Madhuri Dixit and Akshaye Khanna dancing through Vancouver in Mohabbat. (Watching the songs back to back now, I realize this makes no sense at all, but come on folks, work with me here.)
At any rate, the point is that despite some obvious differences we are still enjoying one another's respective enthusiasms. About Lagaan, C. said simply, "I liked it," followed by, "it was long." As we watched, she anticipated nearly every turn - Lagaan is not really complex. She was a little confused by the cricket, though - I forgot how hard that aspect of the movie is when you are totally unfamiliar with the game. And she asked a question about the climax that I could not answer: on the final no-ball, why does the village side get to switch batters? I know someone out there can help us with this.
And now, on to Part 2.5 of this exchange: The Dirty Picture.
Two main takeaways from the experience of sharing this with C.: (1) Vidya Balan does not light C.'s fire the way she does mine. (This is fine and only fair; Sierra Boggess doesn't turn my crank the way she does C.'s.) (2) If Vidya Balan does not light your fire, some of The Dirty Picture's scenes that I find so, er, stimulating, come across as cheap and rather cheesy. C. actually laughed through the bow-chicka-wow-wow red negligee scene that (I am increasingly embarrassed to admit) melts my shorts. The best moment of the night came during that scene, though, when C.'s wife shouted in from the other room, "That sounds like a porno! Are you two watching a porno in there?"
I blushed a little. Okay, a lot.
C. liked the movie overall, though. She found the ending "somehwat Marilyn Monroe-esque" and was surprised to learn that the film was based on the life of a real person other than Marilyn Monroe. And, she was very impressed with Vidya's performance. "You don't realize just how much she has transformed," C. said, "until you see the flashbacks at the end." Toward the end of the movie, a bloated, exhausted, broken Silk stumbles through the streets of Madras and sees scenes from her rise to fame reflected in various bits of glass and mirrors. The contrast is startling - there is a freshness in those early scenes that gives a palpable sense of them as a very, very long time ago. So: still more praise for Vidya's excellent work.
There will be more in the Broadway-Bollywood Exchange series - C. and I seem to enjoy watching movies together. Up next, Chicago ...