Three martial artists, called “the daughters of Bruce Lee,” spin across the screen toward the hero, Shah Rukh Khan, wailing with blades drawn. A few sword slashes later, Khan defeats them all. Around me the theater hoots at the screen. Wide-eyed, I glance over at my guide, Daily TV/New Media Editor Proma Khosla.
“Their names are Iski Lee, Uski Lee and Sabki Lee,” she whispers as the audience laughs loudly at a new character’s arrival. “They mean, ‘for him,’ ‘for her’ and ‘for everyone’ in Hindi.”
I don’t get the joke, but I realize I probably wasn’t the audience the film’s writers had in mind, so I nod anyway.
“Who is this guy?” I motion toward the man on screen whose entrance caused such a stir.
“He a big, tough-guy actor in India,” Proma responds (I would later find out he’s the “T.I” of the Indian film industry, in that he was big, was arrested for gun possession, went to jail and then came back bigger and better). I nod again, laughing more at the situation than at the jokes.
Proma leans in one last time, “You have to understand — they know this is cheesy, they are joking right now.”
So why was I here, watching a Bollywood blockbuster? My experience with Indian film extends just about to “Slumdog Millionaire,” a movie as Western as McDonald’s. My knowledge of Indian culture comes from “Siddhartha,” but that was written by a German. In this theater I fit in about as well as a Pitchfork writer at a Justin Bieber concert. So why?
The answer is that I wanted to see what Bollywood was all about, to learn about a film culture completely different from anything I’ve seen before. In hindsight, “different” was too small a word.
“A Bollywood movie is every genre,” Proma explained on the car ride home. “Ra.One” was action, comedy, drama, car commercial, music video, slapstick, romantic comedy, anti-smoking PSA and martial arts. I probably missed more than a few. It was “Transformers,” but instead of Shia LaBeouf staring grimly at Optimus Prime, he looks straight into the camera and winks at the audience.
It was “The Matrix” with five times as many front flips. It created an aura similar to the midnight showing of a bad horror film, where the audience yells at the screen, swoons at the sexy actresses and actors, dances and responds to jokes with sarcastic “oh”s and jokes of their own.
The fourth wall doesn’t exist in the Bollywood world. Shah Rukh, the hero of the film and an actor of God-like status in India, is a notorious chain smoker in real life. So what do they do? They have scenes where he literally pulls out a cigarette, glances at the audience and says, “Terrible for you, no nutritional value.” The world comes to a standstill for a shot of the lead actress. She stands smiling at the audience, wind fluttering her hair, lighting perfect. Suddenly, she has a guitar and they are singing about love. People in the audience know the words, and sing along. The actress isn’t singing to someone onscreen — she’s singing to us, the people in the dark. It’s a moment with more cheese than a plate of nachos, but somehow, in the peculiar way movies work, it’s genius.
The film ends two-and-a-half hours later. It seemed like 60 minutes. Somehow, I’m smiling — a little bewildered, a little shocked, but really, honestly happy.
“Ra.One” was bad, or good-bad, or maybe just good. It was an almost three-hour declaration that movies don’t have to be so serious. They don’t need the writing, the acting and the special effects. They just need the fun. That’s something that can be lacking in Hollywood films nowadays, the sense of fun. Maybe Terrence Malick should watch some Bollywood.