Baz Luhrmann’s Australia will probably be filed away in the so-silly-it’s-almost-enjoyable category, but it did get me thinking. Not about Hugh Jackman’s torso—I’m more of a Tony Leung person—or about signing up for a tour of Down Under—can’t afford it—but about our very own spectacle cases.
Grand dame: Kidman in Australia, a Bollywood-esque saga.
Australia, which is being released on DVD next week by Excel Home Video, is the kind of movie that could have been made in Hindi. It’s a grandiloquent film full of widescreen gestures about humanity. In Luhrmann’s notion of the country of his birth, leading men must not only be handsome (and hirsute), but they must also fight for the greater common good. Leading women must be beautiful (and skinny) and cradle half-caste Aboriginal children to their bosoms. Wrong will ultimately be righted and our lovers will ride into a horizon that hasn’t been affected by global warming.
We’re well placed to understand Luhrmann’s pursuit. We’ve been drinking in celebrations of the grandness of life for decades. Think of Aan, Naya Daur, Mughal-e-Azam, Mother India, Upkar, Sholay and almost every one of V. Shantaram’s technicoloured escapades. These are movies too big to shrink into a DVD. Their only destiny is to play on a 35mm screen and remind us of cinema’s ability to overwhelm.
These days, however, size is defined mostly in relation to money. How much has a movie been sold for? How much has it earned in the first few hours of its release? The bigger question is, how memorable are these movies? Will they survive in public memory the way Mehboob Khan’s Mother India has?
However, all is not lost. There remain a few men and women in the industry who can be entrusted with old-school yarns. Rakesh Roshan’s Karan Arjun (1995) is one of the last great masala movies about the triumph of common folk against the powerful. It’s got Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan. It’s got Rakhee, the last great movie mother. It’s got Amrish Puri, the last great kohl-eyed and moustache-twirling personification of evil. Roshan retains a canny ability to make unselfconscious entertainers with something for every member of the family, such as Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai, Koi...Mil Gaya and Krrish.
Farah Khan and Raju Hirani have innovated with big-hearted Bollywood-style storytelling. Khan’s Main Hoon Na packs together a family drama, a celebration of good over evil and a plea for Indo-Pak peace. Contained in Om Shanti Om is a movie about the movies, with elaborate song sequences and Bollywood character types such as weeping mothers, pitch-black villains, faithful sidekicks and ultra-feminine heroines. Hirani’s Munnabhai movies feature modern avatars of the simple and good-natured characters seen in the works of Frank Capra and Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali shares Farah Khan’s love for the Bollywoodian emotional arc, but his less-than-sunny disposition prevents him from enjoying his own excesses. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas held out the promise that old stories could survive with new costumes and sets and improved lighting. Black and Saawariya banished sunlight and respect for audiences and replaced them with darkness and contempt.
Karan Johar also loves bigness, but he equally adores froth. Now froth evaporates. Johar is fine as long as he makes Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, but his sole attempt to get adult about life resulted in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. He’s far better off than poor Subhash Ghai, whose Yaadein and Yuvvraaj compare badly to his gloriously kitschy romps Ram Lakhan and Khal Nayak.
If there’s one director we can always rely on to expose several feet of film in pursuit of the spectacle, it’s Ashutosh Gowariker. Gowariker’s Lagaan (2001) took us back to Naya Daur days and reminded us that once upon a time in Hindi cinema, it was all about sinking your differences for the good of your country. Gowariker followed it up with the patriotic Swades and the costume drama Jodhaa Akbar. He’s wrapped up a romantic comedy, What’s Your Raashee?, which opens later this year. However, we can safely predict that Gowariker will soon return to make a movie that lumbers on for over 3 hours and tests the audience’s ability to reconnect with a kind of storytelling that’s all but vanishing.
Nandini Ramnath is film editor, Time Out Mumbai. (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org