Thursday, February 19, 2009

Jhoom Barabar Jhoom: Once the Inertia Takes Hold, It's Hard to Stop Swaying to the Rythm



2007's Jhoom Barabar Jhoom was a financial flop in India. The film cost Rs 25-crore (250 million rupies -- slightly more than $5 million) to produce and was unable to reach the bar necessary to stay in release after its first week in Indian theaters. It had made around Rs 6-crore after its first weekend -- including international sales -- a figure close to $1.2 million and less than a quarter of the film's production costs. The film's lack of financial success, in India at least, didn't stop those critics who reviewed the film from raving over the entertainment value of the film. It's Tomato Meter rating is 83% fresh (with only 6 reviews), and the two critics who have rated it for Metacritic give it a 70 (not great, but good). The users on Metacritic haven't been as kind as the reviewers -- though none of the users have commented regarding why they rated the film as they did.

So we are given two distinct representations regarding JBJ's entertainment value. American critics giving one opinion and the domestic Indian reaction providing evidence of a disconnect between the American critical reception and popular opinion. What's going on here? Cinerati's trusted source on all things Bollywood David Chute thought highly of the film and his opinion was the primary reason that cinerati viewed the film in the security of our Sanctum Sanctorum recently. The film was a pleasurable combination of romantic comedy, physical comedy, and musical. As Chute puts it, "Jhoom Barabar Jhoom is light entertainment so gratifyingly well crafted that it’s uplifting."

He's right, but then why the disconnect between certain audiences? What is it about Jhoom Barabar Jhoom that critics, and cinerati, found so engrossing that many viewers missed? Or is about "missing" something at all? What are the roots of the differing viewpoints? There seem to be three where the critic would find a film (especially a foreign one) enjoyable, while native and mainstream audiences might find the film wanting. These include, a slow first act, a passing engagement with the conflict between Pakistan and India, and a "Western" feel.

Jhoom Barabar Jhoom opens with Bollywood veteran Amitabh Bachchan as a kind of Gypsy Storyteller/Greek Chorus fusion. As he sings and dances, in his vibrant costume, he sets the stage and stakes of the narrative. The setting is nothing less than a classic lovers introduction, straight out of Shakespeare, where the destined lovers from vastly divergent backgrounds encounter one another in what begins as a mildly antagonistic situation. Nothing new about this setting, we've seen it a hundred times or more. It works when the characters are charming and it fails miserably when the characters are flat.

In this case, our fated couple are Rikki (Abishek Bachchan) and Alvira (Preity Zinta) and they meet at London's Waterloo Station. He's a borderline con-man from India, she's a born Brit from the middle-class with Pakistani heritage. On a typical day class and racial issues would prevent them from even greeting each other pleasantly, but today is different. Today the train station is so crowded that the only place Rikki can find to sit is next to the lovely Alvira. At first, she is uncomfortable tells Rikki that she is waiting for her fiancé to arrive on the Birmingham train. After he reveals that he too is engaged, the stage is set for conversation and romance...But wait, they're engaged right...or are they?

To pass the hours, Rikki and Alvira share stories about how they met their respective fiancés. Rikki's story comes first, and so does the films first and third problems.

It takes almost 15 minutes to get through the story's set up, and it seems to take forever for Rikki to tell the story about how he and his fiancé Anaida (Lara Dutta) met in Paris. There are several attempts at slapstick comedy during his tale, but most of them fall flat and one begins to wonder how Abishek Bachchan was cast in this film in the first place. The written jokes are dull and the narrative drags until the act ends with a spectacular dance number on the streets of Paris that incorporates the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, and the Louvre.

The dance number recaptures any waning audience interest. Jhoom Barabar Jhoom seems to have approached the introduction of the first full dance number with baby steps, as if it were educating an unfamiliar audience to a new form of entertainment. It is during Rikki's story, and the build up to it, that one begins to think that Jhoom Barabar Jhoom is attempting to introduce "Western" eyes to Bollywood storytelling. It doesn't work. All it does is make the first act take far too long. Like the more Western parts of Bride and Prejudice, the attempts at making the storytelling style less dramatic only make the story less entertaining. Thankfully, once the film begins to "dance" the enjoyment begins to rise.

Alvira's tale about her fiancé Steve (Bobby Deol) is hilarious, but it is also the tale where the underlying cultural and racial conflicts come most to the fore of the narrative. In her tale, we find out that Alvira has made a promise to God to never marry a dark-skinned man. It is a promise she modified when she "fell in love" with Steve, but the scene where she makes the promise is simultaneously amusing and disturbing. Imagine a similar scene in an American film where race is one of the underlying relationship barriers and you can begin to see the problem. One can imagine that Indian viewers might not appreciate the lighthearted way that this subject was treated. They might not have found it disturbing at all, but it isn't hard to imagine it rubbing the audience at least slightly the wrong way.

Aside from this glitch, Alvira's story is wonderful -- especially for those who are comic book fans. Steve, you see, has saved Alvira from being crushed by a wax dummy of Superman. Her rescue is followed by a wonderful magical number which features wax caricatures of several members of the Justice League and Bobby Deol's physical presence and charisma is undeniable. One finds oneself visually drawn to him during the number, even though one of the most beautiful women in the world is standing right next to him.

Continuing on the roll of engaging narrative, following Alvira's tale Rikki tells his second tale. This tale is an imagining of what Rikki and Alvira's future would be if only they weren't each already engaged. There is little dialogue, though much song, in this sequence and it is one of the most romantic examples of visual storytelling ever to be filmed. The "what if" Rikki and Alvira live an entire lifetime in the tale, and the segment ends with a soft touch of romantic pathos as this romance suffers the inevitable fate of all romances.

While one can imagine that the attempts to appeal to Western viewers, the cursory addressing of cultural/racial tensions, and a slow first act could make some view the film as less enjoyable, one finds it almost incredible that anyone who has watched the last half-hour of the film could do anything other than rave about Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

The final half-hour is one long dance number during which our secondary couple "Anaida" and "Steve" are introduced to one another and also when all the plans of our fated lovers completely fall apart. The music, the dancing, and the costume changes are fantastically enjoyable leaving the audience with the desire to dance. Bobby Deol's presence once more steals the scene as he dances with power and conviction. The only flaw in the act is that the dance number fails to fully simulate the "bed trick" during the number. There should be, and sadly isn't, a discreet section of the number where the dancers change partners only to find they are more comfortable with their new partners than with the partner they arrived with. This is a small quibble, but it is significant. This number should be an allegory for the entire film's narrative, and it is but for the one flaw.

Overall, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom is an engaging romantic comedy that stumbles a little, but gets its audience to a fulfilling ending.
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