Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bollywood Movie of the Week: SHOLAY

The box claims it's "The greatest story ever told!" Shall we believe it?

Sholay, 1975

Directed by: Ramesh Sippy

Produced by: G.P. Sippy

Starring: Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjeev Kumar, Hema Malini, Jaya Bhaduri, Amjad Khan, Asrani

It's Kinda Like: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid meets The Seven Samurai . . . with hints of Paint Your Wagon (cowboy action heroes singing?) It's heavily influenced by Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, and apparently there are hints of Peckinpah as well. (This is in the genre of films referred to sometimes as "curry westerns." Ha ha.)

I gotta say, sometimes Bollywood film covers are really misleading. I've seen posters for Sholay often, and it looks like a crazy bloodthirsty epic blockbuster action film. I mean, look at it: Guns! Awesome dudes fighting! Grunting! Grimaces! . . . but then it had this song fairly early in it!

A partial translation of this song's lyrics is as follows, according to bollywoodlyrics.com:
We will not break this friendship
I may break my strength, but I will not leave your side.
Oh, my victory is your victory, your loss is my loss
Listen, oh my friend
Your pain is my pain, my life is your life
That is how our love is.


Sholay is a pretty famous-slash-infamous film; released in 1975, its original run lasted for five years (ten? the internet disagrees with itself; confirmation not found in brief search) -- it was the highest-grossing Indian film to date and may still be,* and it was also the longest-running.** (You can see posters for Sholay in the background of Om Shanti Om, which I recognized, even though I'd never seen Sholay at that point. Just one more reason to see it!) It helped launch the career of the uberfamous Amitabh "The Big B" Bachchan (known to western audiences as the movie star idolized by the hero in Slumdog Millionaire), and Amjad Khan, and is generally referred to as a pop culture landmark.

Jai, the serious one (Amitabh) and Veeru, the funny one (Dharmendra) are our heroes, cheerful yet brave outlaws hired by an ex-cop (who had once arrested them) to carry out an important task. Thakur Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar) needs their help to capture a notorious, psychotic bandit chief, Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan), who commmitted a horrible crime against the Thakur and his family. (Sholay means "Embers," referring to the Thakur's slow-burning rage.)

Not knowing quite what to expect, not even the plotline -- I sincerely enjoyed it! It's truly a Western done by Bollywood, with very strong elements from both worlds. Some might argue that that makes it a weird, incongruous film -- but who cares about those people? ;o) Indeed, the film started out as a flop at the box office before its subsequent surge of audience, quite possibly because of its juxtaposed elements.

The Western stuff is really in-genre: the film's first big event is a train robbery, for example. And the film's style feels very modern and "artsy": the editing is creative and effective (and the shots aren't tooooo loooooooong, my big problem with 70s movies), and the stylistic choices of freezeframe and slow motion are taken from Leone and Peckinpah films. The score, too, is inspired by those spaghetti western scores, with non-musical sounds creating an affecting emotional soundscape (like in the flashback scene where Thakur relates what Gabbar Singh did: the creaky swing! Ouughhh, the creaky swing!).

But there's also some good old Bollywood comedy -- Bollywood films are long enough for two movies, after all -- it's a little like a spaghetti western meets a Hope/Crosby Road picture, for all the antics our heroes go through. They spend a very brief time in jail in the charge of a jailer who's doing Charlie Chaplin in The Little Dictator; they flirt with the local sassy chick; they exchange witty repartee; they flip a coin to make important decisions.

Yet the pendulum swings both ways. The comedy made me *actually* laugh, and it's sprinkled throughout the film, not sequestered in the first half. The water tower scene where a thwarted, drunken Veeru threatens to jump off is genuinely funny. (Have you ever heard someone in a movie who's threatening to commit suicide actually *yell* "Suuuuuuiiciiiiiiiiide!") And still, while remaining largely bloodless in that surreal slightly-comic classic film manner (how does one die from a gunshot that results in neither blood nor any visible wound?) the acting, the editing, and the sound design make Gabbar Singh's violent acts truly upsetting. (If you think children and animals are by definition safe, my friend, you are WRONG.) The film aims for both extremes -- and hits both targets.

Though influences from Leone's films are clear, the film felt a lot like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to me, complete with the sense of a smooth surface of comedy covering an ocean of dread. The heroes' interaction is genuinely warm and funny, and even their lazy banter is touching, especially when compared to the stark white widow and the frozen, glaring Thakur. Plus, the culture clash, like in Butch Cassidy, gives the film an extra kick of the surreal. Butch and Sundance travel from the US through New York City to a tiny village in Bolivia; it feels like two modern guys trapped in a nightmare of the past; the film is set in the early 1900s but their costumes (and that rockin' stache) definitely say sixties:

Compare with this photo of Jai and Veeru; similar, eh? Except in their case the culture clash is even more extreme: this movie is set in the PRESENT (1970s). Our heroes are dressed in a white leisure suit and jeans, respectively. They talk about driving cars. Some of the bad guys have machine guns. YET, the train robbery at the beginning is by bandits on horseback with rifles, and the Thakur's village is all dust and tribal clothing. Again, modern guys thrust into a timeless, basal, rural world.

Some Catty Film Criticism: The film looks so much like a Western that my roommate and I, both from Southern California, would have *sworn* it was filmed in the Mojave desert -- exCEPT that it was filmed near Bangalore. We can therefore no longer be cynical about movies filming in "clearly" cheap California locations -- maybe they really ARE in Tunisia! Also, wow, the buildings look so much like all those Spanish mission-style backlot towns where they stage cheesy gunfights -- sloping tiled roofs, low two-story buildings, guys getting shot and toppling off of balconies . . . talk about authentic Western. (And without giving anything away: though the *idea* of the final fight is Noble and Awesome, actually *watching* it is kinda high-larious. Good choice to have him leave the blanket on for most of the movie, I say.)

The Verdict: A classic film that's not just a historical curiosity, but also genuinely enjoyable! The genre blending is fascinating in how the different kinds of stories (revenge western vs. buddy film vs. romance) tie each other up; there's an ending for everyone.

* Apparently now there's a controversy about whether earnings from 3 Idiots have surpassed those of Sholay. Drama!

**(Sholay's record was eclipsed eventually by Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, which opened in 1995 and was still running continuously as of Oct. 2009.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bollywood Movie of the Week: Salaam Namaste

The Mountain View library seems to have someone actually curating their Hindi movie collection . . . at least, all the ones I check out from there seem to have some extra social value . . . support your local library! This movie was not just an adorable comedy, it was also a look at the immigrant experience of community in a foreign country.

Salaam Namaste, 2005

Directed by: Siddharth Anand

Produced by: Aditya Chopra, Yash Chopra

Starring: Saif Ali Khan, Preity Zinta, Arshad Warsi, Tania Zaetta

It's Kinda Like: a brief "secret identity" movie becomes a "getting to know you for REALS" movie becomes a slapstick comedy. (ugh, apparently it's a partial remake of Nine Months? It has more of the flavor of Knocked Up.)

Like I said, this is a cheeky modern comedy -- but it's also a sideways look at the experience of the Indian diaspora. Sassy, huh? The characters are all Indian expats living in Melbourne -- and interestingly, none of the plotline involves coming from India, going to India, or characters who live in India. We don't meet anyone's parents, children, or siblings. Everyone is on their own in Melbourne living a new life. We find out in brief narrated slideshows what brought each character there, and it's different for everyone -- it's also not always brought up again, which is a fun twist. We catch a glimpse into someone's backstory, and then that's all we hear about it; it serves to color our experience of that character rather than to advance the plot. (Color, not advance -- I love it!)

What holds this community together, then, if not families? Why, the radio! The film's title comes from the radio station and morning show where the main character Ambar (Preity Zinta) works. Her show involves interviewing Melbourne's successful Indian businesspeople, in order to inspire the community in general. As the film opens, we see her on the radio, and we see her listeners, too, in their own environments, performing mostly solitary activities: bagging groceries, doing the housework, exercising with headphones, cutting hair in a salon. As she speaks, we see them all react, as though they're together -- even though they're all, separately, alone.

(It was interesting to watch this movie since I sometimes listen to the local Indian AM station, which is lots of fun. The call-in portion of any show is really important, and they have shows for all kinds of things: wanna sell your car? get advice from a dentist? share health tips? discuss your investments? Plus they play Bollywood music new and old. It's a fascinating cultural experience: for interested parties in the Bay Area, it's KLOK 1170AM.)

Against this backdrop of the big-yet-small town, our heroine meets (or rather, doesn't meet) our hero: Nick, aka Nikhil Arora (Saif Ali Khan). While Ambar is precise and exacting--she's studying to be a surgeon, after all--Nick is an easygoing chef. We can tell what he thinks of himself, from the obvious touches -- get your tickets to the freezeframe gun show! -- check those Superman boxers and the bright red car! -- to the slightly-less-obvious: he's listening to a song from Dhoom (often-referenced action-movie franchise) in the car.

They *don't* meet in the sense that, because of his problems with getting up on time, he misses his radio interview, causing her to spew vitriol over the airwaves for days, trying to ruin his reputation. (Of course, the restaurant he cooks for is called "Nick of Time." Ha ha.) They have several entertaining yelling matches over the phone about this, causing apoplexies for both their bosses but hilarity for Nick and his friend -- and glee for radio listeners everywhere.

The tagline for the movie is "Let's get to know each other," which happens in two ways, in the way that many Bollywood movies contain both the film and its own sequel. The first "film" is the type of romantic comedy with "dual identities," a la You've Got Mail (sorry Meg Ryan haters, it's the only one I could think of in the moment): the main characters hate each other in one context, and fall in love as strangers in another.

Like the more modern-y films, lots of Salaam Namaste's songs serve as voiceover instead of dance music -- but here's one number where they actually dance (not genius choreography). Our stars have met for what they *think* is the first time, and you'll also see Nick's comic-relief friend Ron (Arshad Warsi), a guy who's only recently discovered women, and is desperately terrible at figuring them out (the first time we meet him, he's chatting up what we can all see is a hooker -- why a hooker would be in the suburbs is another question altogether). And in this clip they're all at an event featured in lots of Bollywood movies as an excuse to get people together: a wedding. Cause, in Australia, doesn't every wedding end in ripping off your clothes and running into the water?

Their hidden identities are revealed pretty fast, and then we get to the *real* plot of the film, the Racy Part. I'll let the adorable stars themselves explain. This gives you an idea of the film's feel and comedy style (this film even has bloopers in the credits, which seems *totally* American-comedy to me).

Aren't they cute? Yes, that's right -- they said "living together." They've fallen in sort-of love, and Nick urges that they should live together -- in separate rooms, of course. Then the getting-to-know-you proceeds apace. Something I've touted about Bollywood before: they have enough screen and story time to show you the roundness of their characters. Nick may have trouble waking up in the morning, but he's no slouch: he's an exacting cook and a neat freak. Ambar's the messy one, though a good decorator; she does, though, have a tendency to yell at him kind of a lot. We see the good times AND the bad, and they're not just comedy-bad, but upsetting-bad.

Because -- scandal! Not only is there *onscreen kissing* in this movie, BUT what you might expect of the logical results of living together. If it's a movie, at least. See if you can figure out what that is:

Scandal! And no, they are NOT married in the above clip. Scandal!

Because they're miles away from their parents, all the characters have to figure out what's going on, as it were, for themselves. A disparate community, all in Melbourne for different reasons, they have to support themselves and each other. They have to be their own family, or make new ones out of the people around them. That also means they have to get to know each other as individuals; they can't be thrown together by the social family structure, they have to find each other in the city and make the effort. Because the concept of Tradition doesn't really play into this film, on the surface at least; it's a modern story in a modern city, about people figuring out how to be modern.

The reasons for moving to Melbourne, revealed in the lightning-flash narrations (voice -- and cameo slapstick -- provided by Abhishek Bachchan!) are a fascinating range of types, from all places in India, from all walks of life, for all reasons. There are those who came in order to consciously forge a new path, following their dreams. We have Ambar, who came on a one-year student exchange program and decided to stay, escaping any number of arranged marriages. We have Nick, who came to go to architecture school as his dad wanted, and ended up following his dream to be a chef. We have Ambar's fellow med student Jignesh (played by Jugal Hansraj), who's a terrible student but just wanted to escape being a sari salesman all his life.

Then there are those characters who are more swept along by the winds of fate: they've changed locations, but their basic personality continues on. There's Nick's restauranteur boss, who went from being a small-scale glutton in India to a large-scale one in Melbourne: new job, character essentially unchanged. There's Ambar's boss, loud-voiced drama queen and chronic hummer, who just wants someone to ask him to sing on the radio. And my personal comedy-relief favorite: Nick and Ambar's landlord (Jaaved Jaffrey), a once-poor, shiftess nobody who won the lottery and has OVERassimilated into Australian society, while remaining essentially the same dirtbag he ever was. "I WAS Indian. WAS," he says. "NOW I'm Australian." Food for thought, eh? ;o) Here's part of his award-winning comic performance:

(Jeez, he looks like a tan Dave Gardner. Who is probably no one you know. But dude, it totally looks like him. Especially with the sideburns. Just sayin'.)

This movie, I must confess, actually made me laugh to the point that I almost sprayed my laptop with my beverage. The side characters are really well done: sometimes clownishly exaggerated, but with committed acting that doesn't feel too over-the-top "winky." They believe themselves. And they're well-balanced by our heroes' self-determined "normality." We're all just trying to live our lives, right? We're all normal to ourselves . . .

The Verdict: A fresh-feeling comedy, with appealing stars, good acting, hilarious side characters, and a hint of modern social dilemma. Me likee!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

An American Bollywood? The Pirate

SOMEone had to get the Netflix queue moving again, right? So upon returning some sadly languishing Bollywood films (that's what Netflix is FOR, roommates -- you can get it again later if you *actually* want to watch it) I received The Pirate and The Party, both of which I'd forgotten were in the queue. I can't wait to watch The Party again; it's a Peter Sellars mostly-silent comedy gem. Last night I watched The Pirate, though, and it struck me that it feels like one of those films that would have traveled to India and separately evolved into Bollywood, Galapagos-style. So I'll present it here as if it was a Bollywood-style review!

The Pirate, 1948

Directed by: Vincente Minelli

Produced by: Arthur Freed

Starring: Gene Kelly, Judy Garland

Songs by: Cole Porter

I'd seen this movie before, and already knew I liked it; Gene Kelly plays a flamboyant, unabashed womanizer and Judy Garland plays a sassy-yet-practical ingenue, and their relationship is filled with both highfalutin' poetic language and very direct cheeky banter. They have a very egalitarian relationship, where they each antagonize the other, and both are thrown off-balance. Only upon a re-viewing did I realize that their relationship, as well as the film as a whole, shares a lot of characteristics with (at least modern) Bollywood films.

There are some things that are different; this is clearly filmed on one set, two TOPS, and might as well be a play. (Indeed, it was based on a Broadway hit of the same name.) The sets are so similar that frankly, it's really confusing where they are at any given time. BUT, the production design shows great attention to detail, and the costumes and dance numbers are, if not entirely over the top, tightly constructed and designed. (They *might* be period-correct, it's hard to say. But the costumes certainly have *commitment.* Oh, those fabulous hats! Oh, those giant skirts! Anne Shirley would be jealous at the size of the puffed sleeves . . . ) The film has been described as a "cult favorite" and was kind of a box office flop, and that may be because it doesn't feel as expansive and lavish as other Hollywood musicals -- but, in the featurette, they describe this film as the culmination of the MGM musical style.

And because it's purportedly the pinnacle of the genre, it has a lot of elements in one concentrated film that feel a lot like staples that Bollywood has embraced. Romance, comedy, sarcasm, dream ballet, fire -- all in one film! Just like Bollywood! It's at once a romantic swashbuckler AND a parody of itself, both on purpose. It was made in the late 40s, but it feels uncommonly modern in some ways, like it's looking right back at you. Maybe that's why critics say it was ahead of its time . . .

Set sometime in the 1600s in the Caribbean (which is itself hilarious: NO ONE makes any pretense to speak in any way like the Spaniards that they purportedly are), the film opens with Judy Garland as Manuela (which the hilarious Americans consistently pronounce "Man-you-ELL-a"), lamenting to her friends about wanting to travel the world, and waxing romantic about Mack "the Black" Macoco, the legendary pirate. Soon her aunt comes to tell her that she's betrothed to Don Pedro, the rotund, middle-aged mayor of the town. (So in Bollywood scorekeeping we have: Young, smart girl -- check. Gaggle of friends -- check. Meddling matchmaker aunt -- check. Overly comic (he's so tiny!) uncle -- check. Fat, rich guy to marry -- check! Agreeing to marry said rich guy because you're a good girl -- check!)

Because Manuela (or Man-you-ELL-a) is a practical girl, she acquiesces -- BUT she desperately longs to see the rest of the Caribbean before she settles down, since Don Pedro (the only "ethnic" actor in the film, and he's clearly GERMAN) has already seen the world and wants no more of it. They all agree that she can make one trip to the ocean (What? she lives in the Caribbean! What?) and come back.

Enter Our Hero, Serafin (played by Gene Kelly in what I suspect is the only role where we get to see what his hair actually looks like!) -- a devil-may-care actor hopped up on ego-juice. Kelly is playing a real character in this film: cocky to the end; no core of "boy next door" as in his other films. (His entrance, cheekily hopping atop a rising load of cargo to address the crowd, really felt like a Bollywood hero's entrance to me, like Shahrukh Khan in . . . almost every film, like when he rides into town on a motorcycle through fire in Billu Barber.)

During his cocky jaunt about town, he sings a song about how there are too many women to remember their names, so he calls them all "Niña" (interestingly, his explanation of why doesn't include the fact that Niña means "daughter" or "little girl," most likely because No One Involved With This Movie Spoke Spanish). It's a fun dance number, with some amazing acrobatics and even some pole dancing! Kelly, lithe and sassy, is really showing off. (And check out his hilarious Douglas Fairbanks moustache! Sassy!)

The song, like all of them in the film, is by Cole Porter, king of the double entendre and the clever rhyme. And in "Niña" like several of the songs in the film, Porter walks an interesting lyrical line between playful and naughty -- the rhythms and the words are very colloquial, so that somehow they come off as *too* sincere, not hidden enough by poetry -- as in the repetition of "till I make ya mine, till I make ya -- till I make ya mine till I make ya mine till I make ya mine . . . " (They actually had to CUT the number "Voodoo" from this film because it was too sexy! How I'd love to see that . . .) Otherwise, the song *itself* -- like many in the film (sorry, Cole!) is really kind of stupid. (But again! Just like Bollywood! It's become a semi-disposable number that's an excuse to stage a flirty dance!)

Of course, when Serafin sees Manyouuuuelllla for the first time, boom he falls straight in love, and gives her all his swashbucklingly best romantic lines. And delightfully, she gets really annoyed and replies as any really practical girl might. Again, almost *too* direct and colloquial. I love it! She pokes right back! (Improvisors, take note: banter banter banter!)

And then it's the typical story, right? Girl leaves boy, boy follows girl with his acting troupe, boy hypnotizes girl during stage act, girl spontaneously creates song-and-dance number . . .

I think this song epitomizes how fantastically un-seriously this movie actually takes itself.
"Mack the Black! From the CaribBEan,
Mack the Black --
or Car -RIB -bean sea."

From the information gleaned from this hypnotism stunt, Serafin decides to BE the pirate (elaborately comic misrepresentation -- check!) in order to stop the wedding (chick in her wedding outfit really early in the film -- check!). There's even tightrope walking involved! Scandal! Plus, there's a dream ballet (thank you, Oklahoma!) involving lots of cool fire and explosions, implied danger, and Gene Kelly dancing with weapons in piratical hot pants. Whooo! I hope you're sitting down, ladies. (I notice whoever titled this YouTube video likely agrees.)

But of course, the secret won't last, and she gets reeeeely mad when she finds out. Fantastically throwing-plates mad. It's a great scene -- and again, has almost-too-real dialogue. Banter! I love it!

So then what? Will he still be able to pull it off and convince her to go with him? What of the REAL Macoco? Who exactly is in danger now? Will there be more singing and dancing? You will FIND OUT, my friend. You will find OUT.

This movie is also the origin of that famously ripped-off song "Be a Clown," which appears only thinly disguised, though in a MUCH better version of itself, as "Make 'Em Laugh" in that *slightly* more famous Kelly vehicle Singing in the Rain. Which, in turn, is a film paid homage to by Bollywood in the movie Om Shanti Om. Aha! Evolution proooooved!

Verdict: I quite enjoy this film. It's got that double-tone I enjoy that Bollywood does so well: both a swashbuckling romance and a parody of one at the same time. It has great dancing and sassy banter, with two consummate performers showing off their skills and being irreverent with each other. It's a wink through history. What more could you want? Join the club of cult-musical fans and see The Pirate.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Bollywood Movie of the New Year: 3 Idiots

Whew! Fresh off a New Year, a birthday, and a whole lot of things. Happy New Year, everyone!

Here's a brand-new Bollywood film for the new year, as well. I just got home from seeing it (Fun Fact: If you live in the Bay Area, at least, you can see new Bollywood movies at an AMC near you!) and it was both fun and appropriate for the aforementioned occasions, even!

And it's always great to go see a Bollywood film in a packed house (the first showing was soooold out and I had to hang around for a couple hours to buy tickets for the next -- it *just* opened.). It's like going to see the melodrama: people clap when great things happen, and gasp when terrible things happen, and laugh in great waves at all the funny stuff--AND the accidentally funny stuff. Even when you're all by yourself, as I always am at these places, it feels like you're seeing it with a bunch of friends. (And I've never seen more kids at a movie, and that includes you, Disney. And yes, they were mostly Extremely Quiet.)

[eta: Xeni Jardin did a review of this movie as well, on BoingBoing, located here. Interesting to see the similarities!]

3 Idiots, 2009

Directed by: Rajkumar Hirani (who also directed Lage Raho Munna Bhai)

Produced by: Vidhu Vinod Chopra

Starring: Aamir Khan, R. Madhavan, Sharman Joshi, Kareena Kapoor, Boman Irani, Omi Vaidya

It's Kinda Like: a little Dead Poets' Society with a dash of Good Will Hunting -- but WITHOUT Robin Williams -- and a happy ending. (What, it's a comedy! It's not like that's giving anything away.) And there are even MacGyver moments.

I was feeling a little curmudgeonly today, and going to see this movie definitely made me happy. For one, it stars Aamir Khan, whom I enjoy a lot, for a lot of reasons. He produced and starred in Lagaan, a fantastic film. And he's got some clown in his physicality, which means I totally enjoy watching him onscreen. (Plus he kinda reminds me of my Uncle Hessam.) And subject-matter-wise, like I said, 3 Idiots seemed to fit the moment. It's about three friends surviving college and an impromptu 10-year reunion -- and MY 10th is coming up as well; we were born in the same year, awww! (And did I mention I just had a birthday?)

Plus, how can you NOT love a movie that has cameos of both cartoon sperm and the CHICKEN DANCE?

Like Dead Poets' Society, 3 Idiots deals with a repressive educational system, only this one's more immediately practically-oriented: *these* students endure the heckling, the arcane traditions, and the vicious professors in order to graduate and directly get jobs as engineers. The money and the prestige is what they *seek* -- or what their parents seek for them -- not what they already have in order to attend.

The film takes place both in the present-ish, and 10 years from now. Our story opens as a bet is called in: the characters reunite 10 years after graduation. The guy who made the bet in the first place, and initiates the call, is Chatur, a fatuous, self-important asshole (played with slimy fabulousness by Omi Vaidya). He's that guy you love to hate, the school's number-one brownnoser who's mean to his classmates and will do anything to get ahead.

The good guys are the round-faced Farhan (R. Madhavan) and the slightly desperate-looking Raju (Sharman Joshi) -- but our real hero, Rancho (short for Ranchhoddas Shamaldas Chanchad and played of course by Aamir Khan) is nowhere to be found. His best friends haven't seen him in years, in fact -- but Chatur says he knows where Rancho is! is So the road trip begins, while we watch, in flashback, how their story began.

The subject matter is heavy -- the price of repressive education -- but, like Hirani's Munnabhai films, the treatment of that subject is light. Light not because the director *makes* light of serious events (quite the contrary), but because our heroes are funny people. For example, when describing Raju's family, our narrator Farhan says that they're like a 1950s black and white Hindi film: destitute family, mother who loves to complain, chubby unmarried daughter, and father who became paralyzed and had to stop working. As he's describing this, the director switches to black and white for the rest of the scene (and for every scene thereafter in the house). It's funny -- but it's not over-the-top slapstick funny, either; after all, it's a terrible situation! There's gallows humor mixed in, and we all know it's supposed to be there. Hirani stays on the right side of the line.

Similarly, the villain is just ridiculous enough to be funny in that boarding-school "let's all mock the schoolmaster" way, but he still retains enough status to be terrifying. Played by Boman Irani,* who also played the unhinged mobster villain Lucky Singh in Lage Raho Munna Bhai, professor "Virus" has poofy hair and a bushy moustache, a huge gut over which he pulls his white pants, a pronounced lisp, and a permanent snarl. His obsession with competition and efficiency starts out as a hilarious quirk, but quickly proves to have terrible, serious consequences for his students.

There *are* moments of over-the-top filminess, but they're on purpose when the characters are feeling silly, like the big "Bollywood" number here. (This movie is so new there's not much on YouTube -- gasp! -- but here's a preview.) Featuring Our Hero and his love interest Pia (Kareena Kapoor), who turns out to be Virus's daughter -- doh!
You can tell this is silly because during the chorus they're doing -- wait for it -- the chicken dance. THE chicken dance. The CHICKEN DANCE.

There's a love story, as featured in the clip above, but it's a side plot; the real story is the boys' friendship and what happens to them when Rancho, a genuinely curious, creative spirit, meets a system designed to make machines of them all. It's a fascinating glimpse of college in another familiar-yet-strange culture (they have houseboys, like at Oxford -- but the rooms are teensy!) and a continually-unraveling plot that just keeeeeeps twisting -- and pulling you along for the ride.

I really enjoyed this film. The chemistry between the boys is genuine and funny, the acting is good, the message makes me happy as an educator and an artist (be what you WANT when you grow up! be creative and learn for learning's sake!), it's funny and serious without getting too campy OR weepy (or too predictable) and Science Saves the Day! (Aamir Khan also makes a really believable young, awkward college student. Did you know he's like, forty?)

Verdict: Apparently, most critics agree with me: it's a good one! See it in the theater for additional community spirit!

*Interestingly, Boman Irani was also unrecognizeable as Murli/"M," fabulous gay magazine mogul, in Dostana. And not terrifying at all! I love me a good character actor.