I wish this movie was easier to find so more of you could enjoy it. It is such a delight start to finish, and so good-humored.
There is a danger in the NRI community of turning any element of their national heritage, and their ethnic past, into something worthy of reverence and respect. But when you do that, you lose what made it valuable in the first place. For my heritage, German, it would be like if we decided we could only put traditional wooden ornaments on the Christmas tree, nothing fun and plastic and homemade. Because before we left Germany, that’s what it was like. But the thing is, Christmas is supposed to be fun! Using plastic ornaments and giving joke presents is more in keeping of the original spirit than trying to perfectly recreate the traditional Christmas of Germany. And in the same way, the Indian immigrant community can tend to suddenly treat with seriousness and reverence things which, back in India, are just plain fun. That’s what this movie is about. About taking the fun and joy and silliness of Hindi film and honoring it by embracing it.
Mira Nair commits to this balancing act of silly and seriousness straight through to the casting. Rahul Khanna is the lead, Akshaye’s handsomer brother and Vinod Khanna’s son, and an occasional lead actor in mainstream Hindi films. Opposite him is Lisa Ray, Mira Nair’s regular collaberator who also has been in mainstream Hindi films. Akshaye himself does a cameo. Dina Pathak, mother of Supriya and Ratna, plays the matriarch. Moushami Chatterjee and Khulbushan Kharbanda round out the crossover cast. And then the rest are Canadians, local actors from the local theater scene. Everyone from Jessica Pare (future star of Mad Men) to Jazz Man (local Toronto female drag queen). Mira wanted a real Indian cast, a hero who looks and acts like a hero and a heroine who looks and acts like a heroine, surrounded by a traditional mother and father and grandmother. But they are dropped into this strange other world where everyone else around them is Canadian.
The story Mira wants to tell is a mixture of the “filmi” emotions that characters think they should feel, the performative form of their ethnic identities, and their actual emotions. Rahul’s mother sobs and cries and we don’t believe it because it is just what a mother is supposed to do. Rahul has a few quick casual moments with his younger siblings and we see that he actually does feel a responsibility to them as the oldest of the family. The central plot is totally filmi, which the characters consciously comment on, but at the same time they can’t resist getting caught up in the same filmi emotions they deride.
It’s not a perfect movie. Lisa Ray is, frankly, terrible. Oh my gosh, so bad! Her stilted line delivery and overly cool kind of attitude almost manages to ruin the film. She does nail a few of the more serious moments, perhaps she is just terrible at comedy? Even the conscious commentary can’t quite hide the weaknesses of the plot. Overall it somehow has the feeling of a short story rather than a novel, the characters and narrative are just a bit too simple, too un-layered.
But man, the moments when it flips around and comments on what it is doing are wonderful! It’s in the little things, like how Mira Nair has a Hindi film going on in the background of almost every scene, because that’s what it is like in an NRI household, the films are constantly pumped in teaching you how to be. The enormous tacky light up “Om” on the gate of the house. The Russian maid servant who is in love with Raj Kapoor movies. And of course, best of all, when Akshaye Khanna drops into a full on dance number, playing himself, because this is a world where Akshaye Khanna shows up at Toronto engagement parties and goes right to work dancing with the heroine.
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Rahul Khanna is the son of a wealthy family in Toronto. His father died and made him promise to take care of the family in a typical filmi-father way. Rahul is in love with Jessica Pare, a pop star. But she dies in a tragic transcendental meditation accident (it’s hilarious). His mother insists on him meeting a string of arranged brides and he doesn’t like any of them. He is ready to just not get married, but his mother declares his younger sister can’t be married until he is engaged, and then his sister goes to him and tells him she is pregnant. With nowhere else to turn, he goes to a bar and is picked up by a call girl, Lisa Ray. He suggests she pretend to be his fiancee, but he will have to teach her how to be Indian. He brings her to his family house and only then does she reveal (through song) that she actually is Indian, not Hispanic like he assumed. She also manages to convince his grandmother to invite her to stay in the house. Lisa Ray goes home to her small working class house and tries to sneak out with some clothes but is caught by her father, the audience learns she is a loved daughter of a nice family but is rebelling and fighting with her father for unknown reasons, thus wanting to stay with Rahul’s family. Lisa taunts Rahul by pretending she is trying to rip off the family he is so protective about, but is also nice to his little brother and grandmother. He comes to realize that she is honest and kind and starts to fall in love with her. Only for someone to recognize her at a club he goes to for the engagement party and claim that she is a prostitute. He is furious, and she is furious that he needs to know if she is just an “escort” or an actual prostitute. They break up. But he is sad and his family convinces him to go after her. He goes to her house and gives a big dramatic proposal and she climbs into his limo and they make out as the airplanes fly overhead (desis always live near the airport). And then song!
You see what a fun silly plot this is? It’s hardly even a plot, Lisa Ray is hired to be Rahul’s fiancee, they fall in love, they have a fight, they make up. It isn’t just short for an Indian movie, it’s short for any movie. Where’s the sudden introduction of Lisa Ray’s ex-boyfriend once she and Rahul get close? Where’s the return from the dead of Jessica Pare to trap Rahul between them? Where’s the sudden cancellation of his sister’s engagement meaning he doesn’t have a reason to keep Lisa Ray around? Any kind of an additional twist beyond this extremely flimsy premise would elevate this from “almost spoof” to “definitely a thing on its own”.
Or maybe it’s still a Lisa Ray problem? I could see a version of the movie that is about how Rahul already rebelled and now is trying to find a balance between responsibilities and personal happiness, and Lisa Ray is in the process of understanding why she rebelled and how to come back home. A version where their chemistry is popping and we just want to go along for the ride of one upsmanship. Not this movie, where I cover my ears whenever she tries to recite dialogue, but that other movie.
Or, I could see this movie as a straight up drama. Lisa Ray is kind of a tragic figure. She started working as an escort as a gesture of defiance to hurt her parents after they attempted to marry her off. Now, she has found a new accepting home with Rahul’s family but it isn’t really her home, she is torn between her lies and her heart. And of course there’s also Rahul, the perfect man, who she is afraid to let herself want since he is so far above her (although she pretends not to feel it). That’s what comes through in their fight scene, her anger and betrayal and pride when he doesn’t believe her, how much she has come to put her self-worth in his respect. But, it’s just the one scene. The rest of it is TERRIBLE.
Thankfully, everyone else is great. Dina Pathak has a great time as a Shakespeare quoting grandmother, Jazz Man is great as the driver/confidant who has his own secret. And Rahul easily manages comedy by not trying for comedy. He shoots for drama and every so slightly overshoots. Which is what makes it hilarious. His face during the “Just Now I Am Missing You” song? Just that slightly too sad and serious? Cracks me up every time! There may not be much of a plot, but it is such a fun ride I don’t really care. I’d rather just sit back, relax, and enjoy.