SHADES OF GAY
Bollywood comes out of the closet in a bright comedy that quickly congeals into tedious drama. Plus, “Anand” for the multiplex set.
NOV 16, 2008 – ONE WAY TO LOOK AT TARUN MANSUKHANI’S DOSTANA is as a bona fide pop-culture phenomenon. This is a bold, brave film that doesn’t just treat its heroes as the equivalent of comic sidekicks, but as the equivalent of heroines. The item girl in the song that plays over the opening credits is Shilpa Shetty, who’s got the best body in the business today, but the camera elects to feast on John Abraham’s near-naked curves instead. And in a subsequent sequence – a romantic “flashback” in Venice – Abhishek Bachchan adopts the swishiest set of mannerisms to portray the feminine half of a gay couple. Dostana has got to be the first Bollywood movie in which a macho hero (Abhishek) is inspired to pose as gay a second before wrapping his lips around a suggestively shaped hot dog, and where another equally macho hero (John) goes to sleep with an eye mask emblazoned with the come-hither advertisement, “Well Hung.” Even if, compared to something like Brokeback Mountain, the extent of edge-pushing here is merely a matter of, uh, inches (the gayness aspect is mainly comic filler), this is truly some sort of milestone, if only because the heroes aren’t saddled with compensatory scenes – with guest-starring heroines, say – calculated to demonstrate their heterosexuality. They gamely play gay, and that’s all there is to it.
The problem, unfortunately, is that all of this is fascinating fodder for a sociocultural thesis, while as a movie-watching experience, Dostana is disappointingly flat – not merely wobbly in its intentions about just how far to take its gay angle without alienating a wide audience, but boring and bland as a romantic melodrama as well. It begins as a nicely giddy farce, with Abhishek Bachchan (playing Sameer) and John Abraham (as Kunal) hatching a scheme to pose as a gay couple in order to secure a swank Miami apartment. These portions spill over with slapstick, some of which works, a lot of which doesn’t – but at least the novelty of the situation, along with the off-the-wall energy of the actors, keeps us watching. (Frankly, though, Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan were twice as funny with their gay routine in Kal Ho Naa Ho, which is an obvious inspiration, and which lasted just half as long as it does here.) But soon, Sameer and Kunal fall for Neha (a blisteringly good-looking Priyanka Chopra), and Abhimanyu (Bobby Deol) jumps into the fray to compete for her hand, and the film quickly becomes unrecognisable from the bouncy comedy we started out with. Where there once was fun and gay frolic, there’s now tears and recriminations and a surprising amount of meanspiritedness.
Mansukhani apprenticed with Karan Johar, and the only creditable trait he appears to have imbibed from his mentor is how to put on a heck of a song-and-dance show. The staging of Vishal-Shekhar’s insanely addictive Desi girl is everything we go to Hindi movies for – a big, rousing celebration of booty-shaking choreography. Otherwise, Mansukhani has inherited every single one of Johar’s bad habits – like the endless self-referencing (to Johar’s films, including three nods to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai) and the intolerably broad humour that even a talent like Boman Irani cannot redeem to any extent. (Remember the dreadful “black beast” episode in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna? This is worse.) Johar displayed a significantly more sophisticated funny-side in Kal Ho Naa Ho, and Mansukhani attempts to mine that vein by going for a Tarantinoesque riff about why Gabbar Singh was gay, but the gag isn’t allowed to build. Like many scenes in Dostana, this riff has no rhythm, no momentum. And where Johar usually makes up for his other failings with his handling of the big-bang emotional stretches, the dramatic moments here are so synthetic and underdeveloped, you barely care about the outcome of the romantic rectangle. When Sameer and Kunal, themselves, seem more interested in playing gay than in winning over Neha, why should we care?
Is this a failing of the screenplay – that Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham appear more of a couple with each other than either of them does with Priyanka Chopra – or is it a deliberately subversive subtext in a story that handles homosexuality to an extent unprecedented in a Hindi film? It’s hard to say – because the scenes that do address homosexuality in an explicit fashion come across as hasty afterthoughts, added on because the gay angle, so far, was simply gravy. Kirron Kher (who plays Sameer’s mother) is used mainly as a hammy comic element – she’s distraught that her son isn’t likely to bring home a daughter-in-law – and, out of nowhere, we’re asked to stifle our sniffles at her acceptance of Kunal as a son-in-law. As for Kunal, he gets a moment that’s far more bogus, when he confesses, at the end, that the family he’s built over the course of the film is because he chose to be gay. If this is a message of acceptance and tolerance being beamed across to a country that can barely bring itself to discuss heterosexual issues without sniggering, it doesn’t quite come across that way. The suddenness of the sentiment, instead, makes it seem merely like business as usual in Bollywood, where even a setup this unconventional is incomplete without a payoff that makes an unapologetic bid for easy tears.
IMAGINE ANAND WITH A STEELIER SPINE (namely, without the crinkly-eyed sunshiney optimism of Rajesh Khanna), and cross it with the scene from It’s a Wonderful Life where a despondent James Stewart is about to throw himself off a bridge (except that the guardian angel that saves him is now a hooker), and then work in the Jimmy Shergill subplot from Munnabhai MBBS, and add to this mix the man-dying-from-stomach-cancer device from Ikuru – and you’ve barely scratched the surface of the weird, whimsical, wonderful Dasvidaniya. The ironically named Amar (an excellent Vinay Pathak) discovers that he’s not immortal after all, and having just a few months to live, he makes a bucket list, a list of things to do before he kicks the bucket. (He’s always been a compulsive list-maker. It’s just that, now, his list isn’t filled with reminders to repair the bathroom geyser and buy vegetables, but to go abroad and buy a fancy car and so on.) I felt, initially, a vague shudder, an inward groan that this would turn out to be one of those insufferably life-affirming message movies, but it’s a blessed miracle how director Shashant Shah skillfully negotiates the life-affirming-message-movie part without ever letting his film become insufferable.
The success of Dasvidaniya is largely due to the exertions of its excellent cast – a casual list of highlights would include Sarita Joshi (as Amar’s mother) bursting with unbridled joy when Amar takes her out in his new car, Ranvir Shorey preening as a low-rent lothario, Saurabh Shukla making art from the act of stuffing his mouth, Neha Dhupia discovering that Amar really loves her, and Rajat Kapoor (a Mithun fan, who answers to Gunmaster G9) embracing his “chaddi buddy” Amar at the airport. (Even the minor characters are remarkable, like the girl who sells Amar his car or the cranky old man beside Amar on a flight.) What lifts Dasvidaniya to a different plane altogether is that the behind-the-scenes work is almost on par – whether it’s the amazingly colourful dialogue by Arshad Syed (which includes one of the funniest fart lines ever) or the score by Kailash Kher, Paresh and Naresh (whose theme perfectly encapsulates the past and the present of Amar’s situation, through a wistfully nostalgic five-note piano riff underscored by the propulsive drive of a snare drum). The few missteps – a melodramatic development with Suchitra Pillai, a trying-too-hard bit with a tantrik – are easily forgiven in a film that fondly looks back to old-Bollywood tropes even as it recasts them in a multiplex mould. Who could have imagined, for instance, that Pal bhar ke liye koi hamein pyaar kar le could function just as much as a wholesome love song as a winking ode to the pleasures of transitory love, courtesy a Russian prostitute?
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