Sunday, March 20, 2005

gone bollywood

This past Thursday I attended the US premiere of Mughal-e-Azam. This film took nine years to make and was initially released in 1960. Most casual film fans have never heard of this film, but it is The Godfather of Bollywood films. The film was restored and colorized and is now available in wide-screen format.

I wasn't sure what to expect since a friend of mine, an expert in Bollywood films, told me a few days before that I was "very brave" to chose Mughal-e-Azam, the epic story of a doomed love affair between Prince Saleem and the slave girl/court dancer Anarkali, as my first theatrical Bollywood experience. Yikes, what I have I gotten myself into? The runtime of this film is 177 minutes, and that is cut down from the original 3 hours 20 minutes. After viewing the restored, colorized, and edited film, I am eager to see the full 200 minutes (available on DVD but only in b/w).

My head is still spinning from watching this film. The visuals are stunning, especially the scenes shot in The Palace of Mirrors. It took nine years to shoot this film, partly because they shot on location in the palaces, and this is a 50's-era Bollywood film. I had a bad feeling when the film started using voice-over, which usually elicits groans, but the voice-over was coming from a map of India. Yes, you read that correctly, the map of India was speaking to us. But once the clunky exposition was out of the way, the film started to really groove. One of my favorite scenes was that of the young Prince stumbling around drunkenly, forcing Emperor Akbar to send his son, Prince Saleem, to grow up on the battlefields, rather than at court.

The "melodic debate" between Anarkali, the slave girl and object of Prince Saleem's desire, and Bahaar, the ambitious lady who desires to be Queen of India, is truly amazing. This is an epic throwdown, with Anarkali and Bahaar taking opposing views on the nature of love, debating through song, backed up by scores of ladies-in-waiting. Prince Salim is the judge and if Anarkali's previous dance didn't steal his heart thoroughly, this debate seals the deal.

Two of my favorite characters were Kumar, the artist/sculptor responsible for bringing Anarkali to the court's attention, and Suraiya, Anarkali's sister. Kumar is the consumate artist, steadfastly refusing to sell out, and harshly critical of the Emperor and his use of power. He looks every bit the deranged indie artist, and when he breaks into song at the end, just as the Emperor was to put Saleem to death - well, there is no one else who could do that song justice. And how is it that everyone in the audience knows all the words to these songs? Suraiya, the sassy, impudent younger sister of Anarkali, is the Det. Lennie Brisco of the film - she gets the best lines! In the original b/w version, I'm told Suraiya has a showstopping song all to herself. I'll have to Netflix the DVD and see for myself.

There were so many plot twists and turns, many more songs and dances, and a wonderful battle scene populated by a cast of thousands, cannons blowing up shit, elephants blinged out and more importantly - horses and warriors flying through the air. It was obvious to see where many of today's films cribbed their ideas from. Many of those in the audience were very familiar with the movie, singing along (loudly) with the film and quoting some of the best lines ever to be uttered in cinema.

The dialogue is incredibly poetic and highly stylized. I'm sure that the translations really didn't do it justice, and that was confirmed by my Bollywood film expert. The language is Urdu with English subtitles, and like any other genre film, you have to give in to it, suspend disbelief and work within the parameters of that genre. I am scheduled to watch another film on Monday, Millions, the new Danny Boyle film (he of Trainspotting, The Beach, A Life Less Ordinary, etc.), but I hesitate to watch anything for the next two weeks, I'm afraid I won't give anything a fair shake after seeing this epic masterpiece.

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