Saturday June 2, 8:30pm
Dhoom 2 (2006)
Director: Sanjay Gadhvi
Starring: Abhishek Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan
Saturday June 9, 8:30pm
Rab ne Bana Di Jodi (2008)
Director: Aditya Chopra
Starring: Shah Rukh Khan, Anushka Sharma, Vinay Pathak
Saturday June 16, 8:30pm
Love Aaj Kal (2009)
Director: Imtiaz Ali
Starring: Saif Ali Khan, Deepika Padukone, Rishi Kapoor
Saturday June 23, 8:30pm
Jodhaa Akbar (2008)
Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
Starring: Hrithik Roshan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Sonu Sood
“You can take Hollywood for granted like I did, or you can dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for that we don’t understand,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was worn down and reduced by the Los Angeles life. “It can be understood too, but only dimly and in flashes. Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their head.”
As Hollywood once was, Bollywood is now; who can keep the whole equation of India’s pictures in their head when there are simply so many of them? Hindi-language cinema, based out of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), was already producing 200 films a year in the 1930s, and over the last few decades the figure would appear to have grown in leaps and bounds. With a vast audience hungry for film, one that is augmented by expatriate communities around the world, Bollywood has become a cinematic powerhouse.
Yet it is not easily defined, let alone explained (although you can at least get a state of play update via the forthcoming Indian Film Festival of Melbourne), but a season of Bollywood films screening on Saturday nights on SBS One in June will at least let you experience the vivid contours and sharp extremes of a film industry that tries to put all that is possible on the screen. Bollywood films are never underplayed.
Dhoom 2 (Saturday 2 June, 8.30pm) is a reminder of how commercialism has long been a Bollywood imperative. This 2006 sequel to the 2004 hit about a pair of crime-fighting police detectives is a slick heist flick, dance movie, an international romance, and a flagrant reminder that the movies are a form of suggestion for sex; Sanjay Gadhvi’s blockbuster makes Michael Bay’s Bad Boys look like a dour police procedural, as a master thief, Mr. A (Hrithik Roshan) begins by stealing the Queen of England’s crown and then gets creative.
The returning law enforcers, Jai Davit (Abhishek Bachchan) and the blithe Ali Khan (Uday Chopra), pursue the technologically savvy mastermind, assisted by a no-nonsense policewoman (Bipashu Basu) who may be from the Major Hair Flicking Squad. Mr. A is joined by an understudy who he becomes romantically involved with, played by Aishwarya Rai. “I’m so hot in all this,” the former Miss World declares after a heist, peeling off a black jumpsuit to reveal just enough clothes to satisfy India’s ratings board. The movie is full of slow-motion adoration, crazy stunts, and Jai taking out bad guys while jumping a jet ski above a boat. In slow motion. Dhoom 2 is unhinged fun.
The star system is crucial to Bollywood, which builds and maintains movie deities who bestow glamour on their projects. Atop this large pyramid sits 46-year-old Shahrukh Khan, a married father of two with an economics degree who has been a leading drawcard for the last two decades. He is a classic square-jawed leading man, which may be partially why Indian audiences took to him (initially) playing a nebbish newlywed in the 2008 romantic comedy Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (Saturday 9 June, 8.30pm). In circumstances too ludicrous to explain here (there’s a bus crash and a heart attack), Khan’s shy bachelor Surinder must unexpectedly marry Taani (Anushka Gupta), the freewheeling daughter of his late mentor.
Surinder loves his wife, but to satisfy her he secretly gets a makeover and becomes her strutting dance competition partner Raj. This is Shahrukh Khan’s film, whether he’s falling into slapstick scrapes as the kindly Surinder or sending up the Bollywood-inspired machismo of Raj. He has a feel for light, physical comedy – in the same way he’s assured in action movies scenes – and the film liberally allows the couple to break into song, a Bollywood convention that newcomers to the sub-continent’s movies sometimes struggle with. Taani probably should have noticed his double act earlier, especially since the movie runs for 167 minutes.
Love Aaj Kal (Saturday 16 June, 8.30pm) also uses stylised musical sequences to illustrate a romance that begins in London before returning to India. In Imtiaz Ali’s 2009 film, Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone respectively play Jai and Meera, a supposedly modern day couple who put careers before relationships and break up when job opportunities divide them. This, naturally, is an affront to the Bollywood gods, and Jai is soon visited by the elderly Veer Singh (Rishi Kapoor), who in flashbacks where Saif Ali Khan plays him a young man, recalls how he pursued the love of his life despite the objections of her family.
The movie is episodic, and veers heavily into melodrama, but like many Bollywood productions, just when it is at its most sentimental it will allow an unexpected facet of Indian life to intrude – in this case, the violence angry relatives visited upon Veer and the way he has to fight against an arranged marriage. By combining the present and the past, Love Aaj Kal suggests a spiritual connection between the ages.
Western filmmakers have long used India’s history as a backdrop, but the focus has been India’s British colonial era; Bollywood filmmakers tend to set their historical epics in an earlier age. With Jodhaa Akbar (Saturday 23 June, 8.30pm) the focus is the 16th century, when the Mughal Empire consolidated its hold over what was then Hindustan under the leadership of Emperor Akbar (Hrithik Roshan). Conquests and diplomacy extended his domain, and the latter required marriage to the Rajput princess Jodhabai (Aishwarya Rai).
Ashutsh Gowariker’s movie is an old-fashioned historical romance, as the proud young ruler and the wary servant of her father’s wishes find themselves falling in love despite the wishes of the Mughal court. The film is a plea for religious tolerance – Akbar is a Muslim, Jodhabai is Hindu – but if there’s anything to worship it’s the detailed, expansive production design and costumes. The movie mixes panoramic landscapes with luxurious palace sets. Like so much Bollywood does, it’s quite over the top, but difficult to resist.