Thursday, October 22, 2009

Baabul (Ravi Chopra, 2006)

Another Bollywood contemporary fantasy, beautifully filmed and featuring some excellent music and some interesting ideas. But at first in some ways the movie seems overlarge, with palatial homes, ultramodern offices, and the pageantry of the materially successful. It is hard to be sure what the significance may be of such expansive wealth, obviously meant to be significant in some way. Several possible answers occur to me. First, the assumption may be that there is nothing wrong with wealth itself, especially wealth earned by ingenuity and hard work. Second, the display of entrepreneurial success—the Kapoors run an internationally prosperous jewelry firm—may be seen as an upbeat affirmation of the possibility of thriving in India. Third, Bollywood long ago took a hint from Hollywood, recognizing that in hard times glamour is especially attractive—witness the spate of movies made about wealthy, glamorous people during the depression. And fourth, Bollywood may well be furnishing their audiences with the comforting notion that the wealthy have personal troubles just like the rest of us ordinary mortals.

In Baabul there are
several plots, and the merry love story of the first half nearly obscures them, though key themes are signalled carefully from time to time. The primary plot is simple enough: young Avinash Kapoor (Salman Khan) returns to India after seven years in America. His parents, Balraj and Shobhna Kapoor (Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini) meet him at the airport. Young Avi is exceedingly handsome and high-spirited, brisk and headstrong and playful in the “American” way. He and his father call each other “Buddy.” This is supposed to indicate good-natured teasing intimacy, and for the most part it works, though largely because Bachchan holds back a little to let Khan run with the part. Right outside the airport the games begin: the father gives the son a fast car, suggests a race, and wins with the help of an amusing bit of cheating. Jokes abound, in the luxurious office, at home, and on the golf course. There Balraj’s ball hits the canvas of a young painter, Malvika, known as “Mini” (Rani Mukherji). Balraj is thickheadedly insulting, but Avi is drawn to the pretty girl. He follows her, pretends he is not wealthy—for she has an aversion to arrogant, selfish rich folk. Their courtship blooms, and is only momentarily set back when she discovers Avi was lying. Balraj follows Mini as she leaves in tears and negotiates a settlement, and they are married with much pageantry. A young man who grew up with Mini, the singer Rajat (John Abraham) gives her away. His rueful smile declares he’s in love with Mini, too. The wedding meets with the approval of the head of the Kapoor family, the dictatorial Balwant (Om Puri), except for one thing. Balraj insists that Pushpa, a widow living with Balwant’s family, should attend the wedding. This goes against tradition and is inauspicious, and Balwant is angry.

Years pass, a cute boy with overlarge glasses is born, and Avi and Mini live happily in the Kapoor household, though work keeps him away a little too much. Hurrying home to the son’s birthday party, Avi jumps out of his taxi and threads his way through traffic, and a taxi hurtles into view, killing him at his doorstep. The entire tone of the movie shifts, and sadness overtakes it. Here Mukherjee comes into her own as an actor. In the early scenes of the movie she wears western clothes and acts sparky and self-willed, matching Khan’s westernized playfulness. But as sorrow overtakes her she begins to glow with a tragic light, and she is much more convincing and much more beautiful. For a long time Balraj, her late husband’s father, watches her with sad eyes. It turns out that Avi’s parents have really accepted Mini as their daughter, and Balraj especially is worried that she is wasting away. She weeps out in the rain, and she appears to get more and more fragile. So Balraj travels to the west to find her friend Rajat, begging him to come home for Mini needs him. He does, and she is happy to see him, but she is hurt by the way Balraj, whom she loves as a father, has thrown them together as if he wanted to be rid of her. Her reproach is very sad indeed.

Though the obstacles are great, after some time Mini is moved to accept Rajat, and wedding preparations begin. But the older brother arrives and forbids the wedding, shouting about the dishonor to the family of allowing a widowed daughter to marry again. He and his sons threaten Balraj and his family, and Mini offers to retreat upstairs so the wedding can be called off. But then Balraj steps forward and quietly defies the commands of his elder brother. There is a brief exchange of arguments, and then Balraj speaks with quiet intensity about the cruelty of this tradition. Mini is his daughter, and for a father to deprive a beloved daughter of a chance at happiness is unthinkable. The old custom of confining widows in the prison of the family is pointlessly cruel, for their lives do not end with the death of their husbands. Indeed, he insists, though the custom of burning widows on their husbands’ pyre is no longer acceptable, the imprisonment of widows is just another kind of suttee. He apologizes to Pushpa for saying nothing all the years when she was deprived of a chance at happiness. Everyone is struck with admiration and everyone weeps and the head of the family praises his younger brother’s good heart and his wisdom. The wedding goes forward, and the movie ends with a quiet close-up of Bachchan, serious and kind and alone. His acting is quietly impressive. He is still capable of monkey business (see his comic turn in an early dance scene) and he still has the impish smile, but in the serious parts of the movie he holds still, and keeps his expression under control. This reserve pays off in the scene when he speaks up for what he knows is right, with a soft-spoken but passionate eloquence.

A cynical view of Baabul might suggest it has everything: riches, pretty people, music, dancing, comic figures, jokes, tragedy, a cute kid, and a socially conscious message to lend it some gravitas. I don’t care. I like the omnium-gatherum way it is put together.

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