A quartet of stars gets down to singing and dancing and loving in a wonderfully mad musical.
JUNE 17, 2007 – AFTER ENDURING, in successive weeks, the trashy incompetence of Fool N Final and The Train, it’s easy to forget that Bollywood is, in fact, going through a terrific phase, with a number of brave, new directors plunging headlong into a number of brave, new directions. And Shaad Ali, this week, reminds us of the fact. His first film was Saathiya, where he was so obsessed about being faithful to the original (Mani Ratnam’s Alaipaayuthey) that he forgot to make his own movie. Bunty Aur Babli, which came next, was much better. It was stylish and earthy and very much a piece with a voice — even if it didn’t quite hold up entirely. But neither of these films prepares you for Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, where Ali joins the ranks of Shirish Kunder and Farah Khan as a movie-mad crafter of meta-musicals. (Translation: if you didn’t care for Jaan-e-Mann, stay far away from this movie.)
The bold, brassy pitch that Ali maintained throughout Bunty Aur Babli is cranked up a couple of notches here, and it’s layered onto so many instances of self-referencing (and, yes, self-indulgence) that you’re no longer sure if you’re watching a film or winking at it or watching a film winking at itself. It isn’t just that Ali is unashamed of the whole song-and-dance routine; it’s that he positively revels in the glorious absurdities of the musical genre, as when a courtroom sequence with a lawyer arguing for the plaintiff suddenly morphs into the glitzy, high-octane Kiss of love number (sensationally choreographed by Vaibhavi Merchant, and brilliantly shot by Ayananka Bose). There’s no pretence about the song situation building from where the previous scene left off and tapering into where the next scene begins, nor is there an attempt to ground these song situations in a recognisable reality. What we’re seeing in these films is the Bollywood format taken to its most logical end: surrealism. It’s as if these filmmakers are taking their cues from Lolita, where Nabokov described the musical as a ‘grief-proof sphere of existence wherefrom death and truth were banned.’?
You can sense the joy that went into the making of Jhoom Barabar Jhoom right from the time the title makes its appearance, in spectrawide lettering surrounded by line drawings of sonic waves, as if the only purpose of the film lay in the space between the right speaker and the left one. This is a musical in the truest sense of the term. When I first heard Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s score, I wasn’t instantly hooked (though the songs stayed with me) — but the numbers fit beautifully into the overall design. The reason Ticket to Hollywood sounds so eccentric is that it’s sung by Rikki (Abhishek Bachchan) in front of the Eiffel Tower as he tries to retrieve a lottery ticket that could send him to the world’s movie capital. The situation itself is incredibly eccentric, said ticket having practically nothing to do with the rest of the film. It’s a little quirk blown up into a big production number for no apparent reason other than… well, why the hell not! Amitabh Bachchan plays some kind of pied piper of love haunting England’s train stations because… well, why the hell not! Alvira (Preity Zinta) has a flashback where she talks to the camera because… well, why the hell not! Jhoom Barabar Jhoom is so cheerfully — and so refreshingly — removed from reality that by the time we see Alvira sporting a butterfly tattoo on the left side of her chest, and a few scenes later it appears to have migrated to the right side, and in a song sequence later it’s transformed itself into a mole, we don’t file it away as a continuity glitch; we just think… well, why the hell not!
It takes some guts to fashion an entire movie about nothing in particular — what we’re more used to are movies that merely add up to nothing — and the reason Jhoom Barabar Jhoom works so spectacularly is possibly tucked away in a piece of lyric from Gulzar that’s (as is so typical of him) at once bizarre and just right: Yeh chand ka chikna sabun kuch der mein gal jayega, he writes, likening the moon (and therefore, the night) to a smooth bar of soap that’s going to dissolve very soon. The writing here has a similarly slippery quality. Just when you’ve thought you’ve gotten a grip on the kind of film this is going to be, it shape-shifts and surprises you and moves on — from French farce to a Before Sunrise-style talkathon to the Usual Suspects-type plot mechanics (unfortunately, the silliest and most redundant conceit of the screenplay) to the big, fat Bollywood musical.
The completely incidental story has something to do with the love-games between two couples — Rikki and Anaida (Lara Dutta), and Steve (Bobby Deol) and Alvira. (There are game performances from everyone, though the very sexy Lara and the very funny Bobby stand out simply because the movies we usually see them in are strictly Z-grade, where it’s hard to tell them apart from the furniture.) But the devil is in the details, which is exactly what Alvira tells Rikki when he accuses her of taking far too much time to outline her story. (The way she puts it, ‘Chhoti chhoti details mein bada lutf hota hai.’?) This film simply wouldn’t be what it is if it didn’t have the hilarious asides from Piyush Mishra, or the outlandishly detailed costumes by Aki Narula, or the annoying little sitar riff that sounds like the bit in the Seinfeld episode where Jerry and the gang visit India, or the delightful nods to a now-extinct moviemaking era (the targets include Qurbani, Sholay, Aradhana, Zamaane Ko Dikhana Hai and Coolie)… Even the offhand, off-screen action of a toilet being flushed adds a bit of colour to the mood of a moment.
And Shaad Ali stages these incidents with rhythms that are refreshingly different. With another director, the split-screen action of Alvira and Rikki branching off to receive Steve and Anaida respectively would have marked the interval point. (Alvira and Rikki are strangers who end up chatting at the train station because the train bringing in the people they are waiting for is late.) But here, we’re well into the second half when this happens, with the result that the first half feels somewhat incomplete. It’s left dangling, without that pat sense of mid-way closure — and the film is all the better for it. Jhoom Barabar Jhoom never really plays it safe. Even the mandatory love duet (the lovely Dhaage tod laao) is presented in a way that’s completely unexpected, though its one of the few instances of poignancy in a film that’s otherwise bracingly free of sentiment. Our love stories are usually’ (and perhaps rightly) emotional, glycerine-soaked affairs, but there are also times where love makes people do nutty things — and this charmingly nutty musical is an ode to that.
Copyright ‘©2007 The New Sunday Express