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L.A. Indian festival wrap: Bollywood in Hollywood; Khan, Khan, and Khan, inc.

Khan is an extremely popular Islamic family name in India where, for the past twenty years, three Khans --Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan, and Amir Khan -- have ruled the leading-man roost in Bollywood, commanding sky-high rupee guarantees up-front and wielding enough power to dictate the terms of the films they sign up for. Having one of these Khans in your film is close to an ironclad guarantee of box-office returns in the dog-eat-dog competitive world of Bombay filmdom, and the competition for the favors of these three gentlemen is feverish if not frenzied. Up-and-coming actresses are ready to kill for the privilege of being romanced by one them on screen, and their private lives are followed with meticulous zeal in the "fanzines' (wildly popular film fan magazines) of India. In short, they are pedestalised alongside the other gods of the complex Indian pantheon. Two of the three Khans were seen on Arclight screens during the week. (Sorry about that Salman...)

The L.A. Indian film festival normally avoids blockbusters from Bollywood in favor of more serious films from all corners of the sub-continent and abroad, but this years edition, perhaps in the interest of showing the full range of Indian cinema, and/or, to guarantee some full houses to cover the cost of staging the festival, did program three Bombay star vehicles, each with a certain agenda beyond mere box-office. The films in question: "My Name Is Khan" (starring Shahrukh, the "King of Bollywood" or SRK as he is known in the Indian press), "Three Idiots" (starring Amir Khan in the biggest hit ever to come out of Bollywood), and '"Kaminey", starring fast rising young muscular Shahid Kapur and hot leading lady Priyanka Chopra. In addition, an off-the wall Bollywood cult film from 1989, "Raakh" (Ashes) was shown in a restored print, commemorating not only the twentieth anniversary of the original release, but also a very early starring role for Amir Khan when he was a relatively unknown new actor. (it followed on the heels of QSQT which made him an overnight sensation at age 23)

By a propitious quirk of programming "Three Idiots", Amir's latest film, and "Raakh" one of his first, were shown on successive evenings thus affording festival regulars the unique opportunity of seeing the young Amir at 24 and the mature superstar twenty years later at age 44, back to back! "Three Idiots" by hot director Raj Kumar Hirani has become the biggest boxoffice hit of all time in India and it's not hard to see why. Throw two of Bollywood's most popular stars, Amir Khan and the lusciously beautiful Kareena Kapoor, together in a feel-good love story with a disappearing act by the hero and a trio of bungling idiots trying to track him down years later, wind it all up with a twisty ending in the magnificent scenery of the Ladach Himalayas, and how can you lose? -- I personally found "Idiots", if not exactly made for idiots, pretty low-brow comedy with a shaggy-doggish story-line dragged out from here to eternity, however, as they say, "That's Entertainment" --and there's no point in arguing with success. While bored most of the way (except when Kareena was on screen!) I must say that the extended Zoobie-Doobie song and dance sequence in the middle of the picture featuring Amir and Kareena careening through a kaleidoscope of decor changes, was so marvelously staged and picturized that it made the otherwise yawn of a sit-through well worth while. Great music too!

Director Rajkumar Hirani is the same age as his star Amir Khan and scored heavily with the Munnabhai underworld comedies earlier in the decade--especially "Munnabhai MBBS", 2003, which was a trend setter and a huge success worldwide. Hirani obviously has the Midas touch that works with Indian audiences. His next project is said to be "Idiots Four" -- in animation.

"Raakh" (Ashes) directed by Adita Bhattacharya in 1989, makes use of extremely stylized dark photography and is the dark -- one might say "noirish" --story of the collusion between a disturbed middle class youth (Amir Khan) and a disillusioned middle aged cop,"PK" (Pankaj Kapur) who get together to wreak mayhem, sudden death, and vengeance on the local Mafia Boss and his henchman -- the youth to avenge the brutal gang rape of his girlfriend, the cop to get even for being forced into a life of police corruption and then getting fired when he wanted to go straight... Because of its offbeat style and lack of songs this film did not go over with the Indian public at the time of its release, but it has since become an intelligentsia cult film. Amir was noticed but it was Pankaj who got an award -- for best Supporting Actor of the year. Aditya, the son of Basu Bhattacharya, a rather prominent director of the parallel cinema of the sixties and seventies, (Teesra Kasam) has for whatever personal reasons, made only two more films in the two decades since then, and remains a Bollywood outsider in spite of his family pedigree. "Raakh" is however, clearly a Bollywood landmark although far from a typical Bollywood film and it was a real coup for the LA festival to add it to the program.

"My Name Is Khan" (but I am not a terrorist!) which was the most anticipated film of the year as it was the return to the big screen of Shahrukh Khan after a year long absence, plus with his favorite co-star Kajol, plus the USA setting (San Francisco, UCLA, Washington, D.C. etc), plus the touchy theme of anti-Muslim feelings in America following 9/11, plus the fact that Shahrukh is playing a severely handicapped person -- came in for two surprise added screenings and attracted overflow crowds. The version shown here, to be released commercially soon by Twentieth Century Fox Searchlight films, was cut by half an hour for the American public. The cuts are all in the second half of the film, after 9/11 happens and poses a threat to the marriage of SRK and Kajol -- and definitely improve the overall effect.

The full monty 165 minute version shown at the Berlin Film Festival in february was roundly Pee-Yood (P.U.) by most western journalists with "the worst film I've ever seen" being heard as a typical comment. I think this was largely because the second half of the film, which goes overboard to portray the USA as a nation of irrational racist Islam-haters, was far too long and was laid on with a far too heavy hand -- to the point of ad nauseum-borealis. The predominantly Indian audience at Arclight loved it, but it will be interesting to see how Khan, Kajol, and Karan (the director), and co. register with a general American audience.

In any case, we look forward more pleasant surprises next year.

by Alex deleon-Sinha


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