ROCK AROUND THE CROCK
An “Amadeus”-inspired saga has wonderful musical segments, but a woeful dramatic heart. Plus, a feeble fantasy.
NOV 1, 2009 – IT’S ODD THAT A SOPHISTICATED rock-musical like Rock On was comfortable situating itself in Mumbai, while Vipul Amrutlal Shah’s London Dreams – also a rock-musical, but crammed with crude melodramatic conventions – feels the need to unfurl in NRI-land. The ostensible reason is the finale at the enormous Wembley Stadium, which is supposed to serve as redemption for Arjun (Ajay Devgn, playing the founder-lead singer of the eponymous band). His grandfather, a Sufiyana vocalist, froze in front of the dizzyingly large audience, and Arjun wants to avenge the old man by rocking the very same arena. But when the moment arrives, we’re denied even a cursory shot of Arjun recalling the past or feeling the weight of the present. We cut right into his celebration-of-victory song, Jashn hai jeet ka – he’s already won. He could have been at Wankhede Stadium and it wouldn’t have felt any different.
London Dreams would have worked better in India. The concerts are staged wonderfully, and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy serve up a fantastic soundtrack (though admittedly one that doesn’t instantly stick to your head) – so the musical portions are just fine. It’s the surrounding drama – inspired by Amadeus; invested with a tint of the relationship-angle from Abhimaan – that screams for local colour. It’s in the scenes that take place in Bhatinda that the director is most comfortable. He revels in the handfuls of Holi-pink that smudge the camera, and he winds down visibly when confronted with the cool blues of the West. You can hear the gears churning: how to make a classy (i.e. Western) film with massy (i.e. Indian) material? The question should simply have been: why make a classy film at all? Why not take a cue from Salman Khan’s performance – he plays Manjeet, Arjun’s chaddi-buddy – and throw sophistication to the winds?
Perhaps it’s because of the tony antecedents – an Oscar-encrusted Miloš Forman film, adapted from an equally lauded Peter Shaffer play. The central conceit of the latter is replicated exactly. The hardworking Arjun finds himself increasingly embittered as Manjeet joins the band and shines effortlessly. And Arjun retaliates by railing at God, who, really, is the motor of this story. (There’s a reason Shaffer named his play not Wolfgang or Mozart but Amadeus, beloved of God.) It’s the unfairness with which He doles out his boons that rankles Arjun. Why can’t he be the one with the greater talent? Why choose the boorish Manjeet? (There are a couple of additional touches that reinforce the religious angle. Arjun’s antagonistic father is taken by God, seemingly in an act of Providence, and Arjun takes to almost-ritualistic self-flagellation, either to punish himself or practice self-control.)
But despite all this high-mindedness, the individual episodes are right out of any old lowbrow Bollywood movie. The formation of Arjun’s band, the roping in of Manjeet, the plan hatched by Arjun to bring about Manjeet’s downfall – all of this occurs in the most haphazard fashion. There are juicy plot points begging to be exploited but which are frustratingly elided, like the early portions of Arjun’s life when he finds himself alone in London. (A few glimpses of his struggle might have rendered this character more sympathetic.) Elsewhere, Arjun pleads with Priya’s (Asin) conservative father to let her perform on a tour. (She’s some sort of glorified backup dancer.) The scene should have carried an electric charge, considering that Arjun is reliving – at this moment – a very familiar scenario. His father, too, objected to his being a musician, so there’s an additional resonance to Arjun’s attempts. But we feel nothing.
In truth, it’s hard to feel anything for Arjun. For one, he’s a righteous bore. At a party, when asked what music means to him, he quotes Byron: “There’s music in the sighing of a reed,” and so forth. The unsophisticated Manjeet, on the other hand, simply says, “Jo baat kehne mein ajeeb hoti hain, woh gaane mein kamaal hain.” (And isn’t that the very essence of our film music, that it gives vent to words that cannot be spoken?) The other problem is that Devgn’s performance is practically a carryover from the brooder he played in Omkara. (He even has a lead guitarist pouring Iago-like poison into his ears.) And there’s no compensatory sunshine. If there’s a loosey-goosey joy that erupts within Arjun as he commandeers the stage, we’re not privy to it. (That’s probably why Devgn comes off so stiff in his comedies. He’s wound up all the time.)
To be fair, Salman Khan, too, isn’t a name that readily springs to mind when you’re casting headbangers who feed off the frenzied energies from the mosh pit, and the actor isn’t up to the more dramatic demands of his character (after Arjun has engineered his downfall) – but he makes up for these failings with sheer energy. When the young Manjeet is asked in class what he wants to be when he grows up, he replies that he doesn’t ever want to grow up. That’s Manjeet – the perennial Peter Pan, the bad boy who draws the opposite sex like moths to a flame (as opposed to the ascetic Arjun, who, at one point, is assumed gay), the man-child who has little sense of propriety, and the uncouth comedian armed with a quip for every occasion. He’s the least classy thing in the film, and the most fun.
THE SNEAK PEEKS AT SUJOY GHOSH’S ALADIN didn’t exactly set the pulse racing, and the film proves our instincts were regrettably right. Ghosh has his heart in the right place – he attempts a riff on the Arabian Nights tale by setting it someplace modern enough to accommodate television sets, yet old-world enough to resemble a picturesque never-never-land. And Riteish Deshmukh is a perfect Aladin, a lightweight actor embodying a pleasantly lightweight character. After all, the heavyweights in this modern-day fairy tale are the duelling good and evil genies, Genius and Ringmaster – the former played by Amitabh Bachchan (mugging madly; it’s a wonder there’s any scenery left after he exits his frames), and the latter in the form of Sanjay Dutt (who gets into the spirit of the film with appropriately twinkly-eyed hamminess). An Aladin with too much presence would have thrown the story off-kilter.
The initial portions show promise. I enjoyed the whimsy in a store for ancient things being called, simply, Ancient Things Store. Along the way, Ghosh shows a good eye for accumulating visual detail. No sooner than Aladin’s parents express a wish to be together forever, a villain, outside, tears up a photograph of the couple. The two halves drift down and catch fire – cut to a pair of funeral pyres. And the scenes with Ringmaster unspool with the sort of bravado that suggests a just-this-side-of-surreal Tim Burton caricature painted with the gonzo cinematographic technique of the early Coen brothers. In particular, a stunt where he upends a truck on a mountain road made me giddy with joy – it says as much about the character as the kind of film he’s supposed to be in, silly enough to delight children, and just sinister enough so grownups won’t be bored.
But for some inexplicable reason, Ringmaster is shoved aside to make room for an utterly banal love story between Aladin and Jasmine (Jacqueline Fernandez). This leads to one pleasant-enough duet, with Genie prompting the dumbstruck Aladin (reminiscent of the balcony scene in Cyrano de Bergerac, with Cyrano prompting Christian in the latter’s wooing of Roxane). But the other numbers – staged in a brassy, generic Bollywood-style, and popping up far too frequently – are serious mood-killers. The non-stop invocations of Bachchan-era cinema are even more annoying, with variations on the “mushkil nahin namumkin hai” line from Don and even songs – Anhonee ko honee kar de from Amar Akbar Anthony, and Kab ke bichhade from Lawaaris. Why bother creating a brand-new fantasy universe if you’re going to keep yanking us out of it, with constant nods to a world we know only all too well?
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