It’s Thursday night at a Jackson movie theater, and I’ve never seen so many Indians in one place in my life. Older women sashay in brilliantly colored saris and jewelry. Teenage girls with their shiny, perfect jet-black hair and tight jeans strut on the scene, and giggle in clusters at the boys. The men have entirely assimilated the Southern white-boy dress code—wrinkled khakis, polo shirts, badly worn baseball caps, untucked button-down shirts—but there’s a grace and ease in their strides that I don’t see amongst the frat boys. The lobby looks like one of the international terminals of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, where the few bewildered faces of white people are overwhelmed by a sea of brown and black. Fluty, melodic voices ring out in Hindi and Punjabi and maybe Tamil—I speak none of the above—but there’s little English to be heard. We’re all here to see the hot new Bollywood flick, Bunty and Babli.
Bollywood—named so because it is (or was originally) based in Bombay/Mumbai—is the largest film industry in the world, churning out thousands of movies each year. Its biggest stars are more recognized throughout the world than Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jackson. Bollywood movies are a specific genre of Indian film, roiling collages of multiple genres—action, romance, buddy comedy, music video, sometimes all in the same scene. They almost always feature at least five explosive song-and-dance routines. They’re all long enough to deserve intermissions. Satyajit Ray and now Mira Nair are perhaps the best-known Indian filmmakers in the West, but they ain’t Bollywood. (Nair, however, used several Bollywood stars in her magnificently romantic Monsoon Wedding.)
Despite being known as “the film guy” at work, Bollywood has always been jut off my radar. I own a collection of remixed Bollywood film scores, but I’ve never actually seen a Bollywood movie on the big screen. (I saw a pirated movie once on VHS, with blotchy colors and slurred sound.) Every time I’ve eaten a lunch buffet at India Palace, I’ve noticed a poster advertising the latest Bollywood hit for a one-time performance at a local movie theater. C.’s been trying to get me to go to one with her for a year. I always make some excuse not to attend.
But now I’m here, standing in line for popcorn, listening to people around me yakking on their cellphones in thick accents, using words I can’t understand. C. heard an argument in the bathroom between three girls, wavering in and out of English as they saw fit, about whether this one was going to be any good. The potbellied man who takes my ticket asked me twice if I was sure I was at the right movie. Yes, sir, I am. I pray that there’s subtitles.
After a brief, nonsensical preview for the upcoming Salaam Namasté, Bunty and Babli begins with a bang. Two star-crossed lovers, Rakesh (Abhishek Bachchan) and Vimmi (Rani Mukherjee), sing about how they plan to escape from their small towns and become big stars. Okay, so it’s a musical; that’s not that worthy of note. But, good lord, I’ve never seen a sequence like this. As the song begins, Rakesh begins dancing and singing (well, lip-synching) in his hovel of a town. A second later, he’s bellowing on top of a moving train. Then he’s doing his energetic thing on a mountaintop, then in a flower-strewn meadow, then in a vibrant city, all to the thunderous beat of the song. Then Vimmi emerges (who Rakesh has not yet met), grinding amidst a trio of sweaty, shirtless hunks. Her scene and fashion changes are even more drastic. But the editing is so fluid that we accept the monumental shifts in locale, dress, and time. The song’s that good. The dancing’s that awesome. The actors are that good.
I’m slackjawed in awe—whenever Americans create music videos that are full-length features, they turn out to be incoherent messes like Charlie’s Angels and Jerry Bruckheimer productions. But Bunty and Babli makes sense emotionally, even though it’s so kinetic that it threatens to singe the screen. By the end of this first sequence, I’m noticing that there’s a fundamental difference between how I’m watching this and how the audience is viewing this. I’m a little shellshocked. Everyone else treats this as an occasion for responding directly to the screen. The men next to me are making catcalls—later on, they’ll be imitating the key musical phrases. Women are woo-wooing the sexy, big-nosed Bachchan, who looks so much like an Indian Alfred Molina that I’m almost convincing it’s a blackface performance.
This reminds me more of the circus or a baseball game than a movie. Audience participation is encouraged; cheering is expected. The movie changes format once every twenty minutes. My boss, an Indian woman, asked me the next day if the movie had no plot, and then immediately corrected herself. “No,” she said, “it probably had about six different plots, all equally predictable.” We both laughed. Somehow, the tone remains the same throughout: light, whimsical, slyly funny. Director Shaad Ali keeps this material coherent, even lyrical, while making the setpieces and plots more elaborate with every step.
Summarizing Bunty and Babli doesn’t do it justice, but it might help. Rakesh and Vimmi meet at a train station after they fail dismally—one to pursue a nebulous housing scheme, the other to become Miss India—and decide to become Bonnie and Clyde. Or, rather, Bunty and Babli. They steal from the rich and (sometimes) give to the poor. Their schemes are so unbelievable that I guffawed at Ali’s audacity—he wants to see how much we’ll swallow. At one point, they rip off a multi-millionaire by pretending to sell (well, lease) the Taj Mahal. Even I know that’s not for sale. But so does everyone in the audience, and this doesn’t change our reaction. We laugh uproariously at the plot, and even more at the fact that it actually works. (It goes without saying that the dupe is an American.)
For all this outrageousness, the film has a sweetness and subtlety that I don’t expect. Bunty and Babli don’t fall immediately in love, but fall for each other gradually and convincingly. Bachchan and Mukherjee have terrific chemistry, and are nimble in both pratfalls and the first flushes of love. Mukherjee’s small, curvy body goes completely and hilariously at odds with her husky voice. Bachchan glides onto the screen effortlessly, so it’s a surprise when he decides to move in antic fits and starts.
Of course they get chased—how could they not? But they get chased by Dashrath Singh (Amitabh Bachchan, Abhishek’s father), who is either a policeman or a complete psychopath. He’s introduced right before intermission, and we’re not entirely sure he’s sane until the second half starts. The movie trusts us to follow its every odd turn, so Singh turns out to have a heart of gold and even becomes a reluctant father figure to the criminal couple. He even does a drunken, fall-down-funny dance sequence with Rakesh/Bunty and Aishwarya Rai.
About that sequence: What’s impressive here is the restraint. Ali confines this scene to a nightclub, and keeps the number of major players down to a manageable three. We’ve seen that the director can wield the opposite impulse. This is the only sequence in which the locale doesn’t change at all. Ali probably figured that Rai was enough scenery, and that mountaintops and desert winds couldn’t compete with her. He’s right. The song is the most melodic and catchy, and all three—Rai, Bachchan and Bachchan—dance with abandon. The father and son stumble over each other in time, keeping the beat. Rai is graceful, but she shakes, struts, and shimmies as well as everyone. I try to imagine a major Western star—Catherine Zeta-Jones or George Clooney or Julia Roberts—pulling off a sustained, ten-minute-long song-and-dance sequence without irony or self-consciousness.
I leave the movie elated, dumbstruck by possibilities in cinema that I’d never even imagined three hours before. Of course, Bunty and Babli is standard entertainment for the Indian contingent of Jackson. A world that’s completely normal to one segment of the population is entirely new to me. It’s not often that I get reminded of how true this is. So I don’t pretend to have any reference for judgment—maybe those girls in the restroom were right, and this movie was middling. But I love this movie more than anything I’ve seen this year.
As the crowd streams out of the theater, humming its songs, C. asks me if the movie could have been half as long without the dance sequences. Well, yeah, we say, but who’d want to see that?