Chris Kattan valiantly tackles Mumbai cinema in IFC’s new miniseries, Bollywood Hero. But Anupama Chopra says the show lacks the color, music, or masala to rival Slumdog Millionaire.
3.6 billion. This is the estimated audience for Bollywood movies every year—many more eyeballs than Hollywood. Indians, even non-residents several generations removed from India, voraciously consume Bollywood spectaculars, and now the musicals have also found an avid non-Indian audience in countries as diverse as Germany, Malaysia, and South Africa.
Bollywood Hero is an opportunity lost—and it is a true shame, because Bollywood is the lone surviving global David against America’s Hollywood Goliath.
The mainstream U.S. market is Bollywood’s final frontier. Despite Slumdog Millionaire, two Oscars for composer A.R. Rahman, and flourishing Bollywood dance classes in every major American gym, the traditional taste for subtitles and songs seems to have yet to really penetrate the U.S. market. Even A-list Hindi films release in the U.S. only with 100-odd prints and the viewers are predominantly South Asian. Bollywood stars, who, in sheer numbers are bigger than Brad Pitt and inspire a reverential devotion globally, remain unknown in America. The names Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan cut no ice with mainstream American audiences.
Bollywood Hero, airing on IFC on August 6-8, and described as a “Bollywood musical mini-series event,” is hoping to change that.
The series features comedian Chris Kattan (formerly of Saturday Night Live) essentially playing an exaggerated version of himself. Tired of being rejected for leading-man roles in Hollywood (his last part is that of a space goat in a sci-fi cable-television show), Chris takes the long flight to Mumbai to play the hero in Nachata Deewana, loosely translated as "Peculiar Dancing Boy." The film’s director pitches it as "a serious critique of the caste system and imperialism told through the medium of dance," but Chris goes through with it because he gets to "fight the bad guys and win the girl."
What follows is culture shock, heartache, romance, rejection and even a Richard Gere-inspired twist. Like Gere, who in 2007 kissed actress Shilpa Shetty at a function in New Delhi and promptly found himself facing lawsuits for the "obscene act," Chris spontaneously kisses his leading lady in a club and wakes up to find angry protesters burning his effigy for his boorish public display of affection.
Several key crew members from Slumdog Millionaire collaborated on the series, including the line producer, first and second assistant directors, choreographer Longinus Fernandes, who created the rousing Jai Ho dance sequence, and Riyaz Ali Merchant, "the Oscar-winning costume designer of Slumdog." (This is according to the show’s press releases. The actual Oscar for Best Costume this year went to The Duchess). However hiring crew from Slumdog does not a Slumdog make.
Bollywood Hero, despite being conceived by Monsoon Wedding writer Sabrina Dhawan, is ultimately awkward and clichéd. The tone lurches drunkenly from realistic to farcical to spoof. But the makers don’t know the industry and milieu well enough to successfully spoof it. The series imbibes the tropes of Hindi cinema—song-and-dance, over-the-top scenarios, melodrama—but it also makes them a source of fun. It’s a tightrope walk that required more skill, craft, and affection than is on display here.
Like in most Bollywood films, the narrative aims to be both larger than life and yet believable. But there simply isn’t enough masala (spice) and masti (mischief) here to make it a fun romp. The characters, including Kattan’s whining wannabe-star, are limp and there is little sense of the gaudy, maddening chaos of the Mumbai film industry. Lalima Lakhani (played by Indian actress Neha Duphia), ostensibly India’s biggest star, is all attitude and no entourage. In one scene, she does a few dance moves. A fey choreographer watches. He claps his hands at her brilliance and says, "so yummy." Really?
Soon after this, Chris gets thrown out of the movie for not being a good-enough dancer. Bereft of job and a working credit card, he is also thrown out of his luxurious hotel and mopes around Mumbai, eventually landing up in a slum, where he breaks into a curious song called “Untouchable.” But since we’ve been sniggering at the dancing so far, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or feel sorry for Chris as he goes through the moves with some decidedly dangerous looking characters.
Kattan’s bewildered but stoic I-will-survive expression provides the few genuinely funny moments in the series. At one point, he remarks to his hosts—the brother-sister/director-producer team—how wonderful it is that they let their servants eat with them. To which the producer replies, deliciously deadpan, "she’s our grandmother." Bollywood Hero needed more laugh-out-loud scenes like this. It also needed more texture, color, and much, much better music. This is watered-down Bollywood. It’s anemic and not much fun.
Bollywood Hero is an opportunity lost—and it is a true shame, because Bollywood itself is the lone surviving global David against America’s Hollywood Goliath. It deserves more traction in the U.S. And U.S. audiences deserve the sheer delight of spectacle and song, without Kattan’s lowbrow gimmicks.
Bollywood Hero airs on the Independent Film Channel at 10 p.m., August 6-8
Anupama Chopra is a film critic with New Delhi Television (NDTV 24/7). She is the author of King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema and also writes about Hindi films for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Vogue India.