On a recent day-trip to New York, we picked up two DVDs of what might be termed "anti-Bollywood" Hindi films that might get us back in the habit, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, and Luck By Chance.
By anti-Bollywood, I mean films that try to be "realistic" rather than sentimental, and that have limited use of songs to accompany, rather than interrupt, the plot of the film (the "diegesis," for you film geeks). Many conventional Bollywood films don't have written scripts, and star-power, branding, and memorable songs often have more to do with the success of those films than acting skill, or good, believable stories. In the old days, the emphasis on realism in Indian cinema was mainly the province of art-house directors, and mainly involved glum themes and a certain ponderousness (Mira Nair is a prominent exception, though she is really better thought of as a diaspora filmmaker).
Happily, in the past few years, with the rise of Indian multiplexes, a realist sensibility has started to take hold on the margins of Bollywood itself. To my eye, the movement started with gangster films, and directors like R.G. Varma. But now it seems like we're increasingly seeing a broader range of themes and styles of filmmaking in this space: an anti-Bollywood Bollywood. (Meanwhile, the same-old same-old of Hindi commercial cinema sputters along, effectively unchanged.)
Below are my brief reviews of Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Luck by Chance.
I almost don't need to say anything about Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, since Jabberwock/Jai Arjun Singh has already said most of what I would want to say in his own review:
Dibakar Banerjee’s delightful Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! is a Delhi movie that doesn’t much linger on the city’s physical landmarks but captures many vital aspects of its mood and character. At a basic level, this film is about the (improbably) charmed life of Lucky Singh, a Sikh lad from a middle-class West Delhi household, who grows up to become a master thief and gets away with one audacious theft after another – often doing nothing more strenuous than sauntering into a house and sauntering out again with a TV set tucked under his arm. This makes for a lightheartedly amoral story, anchored by a superb Punjabi-rap soundtrack and by that earsplitting old song “Chahiye Thoda Pyaar”, but Oye Lucky! is also a film that understands the spiraling nature of class aspiration and upward mobility. It knows a thing or two about surviving in a dog-eat-dog world where the kindly, “God-fearing family man” who befriends you and encourages his little son to call you “maama” might well have a dagger ready to plunge into your back. (link)
Jai also goes on in his comments on the film to note some parallels with the upward-mobility plot and the "eat the rich" attitude of The White Tiger, which I think seem quite apt. (I have no idea whether Dibaker Bannerjee had read Adiga before making his film.) I also agreed with Jai on one of the best lines in the film: "Yeh Gentry log angrezi bolte hain par karte hain desi" (These elite people may speak English, but they act all too desi.) It's a brilliant reversal of the usual way of thinking -- the idea that wealthier, English-speaking Indians are somehow deracinated within their own society. In Oye Lucky, English-medium privilege, and the luxurious commodities associated with it, are part of a class struggle played entirely within the Indian frame.
As with The White Tiger, I do disagree slightly with Jai. With Adiga, I felt there was an element of fakeness in the construction of the character Balram Halwai, which I couldn't overlook. Here, I was a bit frustrated with how Oye Lucky! ends. The filmmaker really had two intelligent choices for this character -- go up, and actually join the wealthy Delhi society he has heretofore been preying on -- or go down, and end up in jail, or dead. I won't say how the film ends, but let me just say that I think Bannerjee makes a less interesting choice than either of those options. This film verges on being a hard-hitting satire of the Delhi bourgeoisie from a lower-middle class perspective, but it isn't fully committed.
Incidentally, the director of Oye Lucky!, Dibaker Banerjee, also made a terrific film called Khosla ka Ghosla, about the Delhi obsession with acquiring real estate and property. I would strongly recommend that film too...
Next up, Luck by Chance. Like Oye Lucky, it's not quite accurate to say that this film is really outside Bollywood. (Oye Lucky's star, Abhay Deol, is a nephew of retired Bollywood great Dharmendra -- hardly an outsider, though he has apparently made the choice to stay mainly with edgier, more marginal films.) For its part, Luck by Chance is a self-reflexive satire of the Bollywood system, which manages to have its cake and critique it too. The film satirizes the fakeness of the Bollywood star system and the romance/melodrama formula, but even as it does that, the filmmaker decides to enjoy some of the cheese too, by including, for instance, full romantic songs from the film-within-the-film. Also, the leading man, Farhan Akhtar, is in fact an established Bollywood insider, though he has generally worked behind the camera (as director) rather than in front of it.
Luck by Chance has dozens of cameos from big bollywood stars, many of whom show up to play against type, though Shah Rukh Khan does figure as an ultra-glamorous superstar who has managed to keep it real. It also has Dimple Kapadia, as the pushy and demanding mother of an emerging Bollywood starlet (Isha Sharvani).
People who liked Page 3 (2005) a few years ago will likely like this film as well, though I think, on the whole, Page 3 was a more provocative, riskier film. (Interestingly, Konkona Sen Sharma played a similar role in both films, though here she gets to glam it up in a few scenes.)