My long time Bolly Blogosphere friends know that my tastes and critical tastes rarely line up. The critical consensus puts Aladin at fair to middling – I, on the other hand, think it’s the best film I’ve seen all year. Taking the classic Arabic folk tale of Aladdin and giving it a heavy dose of filmi magic, Aladin is as sharp as it is entertaining. Finally, a film that exceeded my expectations – although I fear it was both too smart and too glitzy for the critics!
The story takes place in a quaint (fictional) mountain village along the Chinese border of India. Aladin (Ritesh Deshmukh) is a college student – and orphan – at the bottom of the social pecking order. The film follows his adventures as he navigates college life, a mysterious jinn named Genius (Amitabh Bachchan), and a suspiciously evil ringmaster named Ringmaster (Sanjay Dutt). Also, there is a beautiful lady involved – played by former Miss Sri Lanka Jaqueline Fernandez.
But what takes Aladin to the next level is a fantastic script by Sujoy Ghosh that layers some interesting meta-narrative on top of that adventure story. Genius – the jinn – acts like Bollywood magic throughout the film. When Genius appears, people sing and dance and act filmi. I don’t want to give too much away but the song picturizations for “O Re Saawariya” and (especially) “You May Be” make this explicit. I’ll discuss “O Re Saawariya” a little further down so I’ll just touch on “You May Be” as an example of what I’m talking about.
(The song promo is here)
“You May Be” has a lovelorn Aladin at a loss to woo the elusive Jasmin – Genius provides the words, dance movements, and music so that he is playback singing for Aladin. Filmi magic at work! The heightened atmosphere taken for granted in so many films is revealed and explored as magic in Aladin.
Who knew Sujoy Ghosh had it in him? Has anyone seen his previous film Home Delivery?
The idea of genie spreading filmi magic throughout the film is simply… Genius!
Still, a good story and clever commentary do not alone a good film make. There are two other key elements to Aladin - characters and actors.
Let’s start with Ritesh as the titular Aladin. I’ve been a big fan of Mr. Ritesh Deshmukh for a long time – ever since Bluffmaster, actually, in which I felt he outshone Abhishek Bachchan by a mile. Aladin as a character is the kind of soft-spoken beta male that would be portrayed by Michael Cera (Superbad) or in an earlier generation perhaps Bud Cort (Harold and Maude) or Sanjeev Kumar. He is totally disconnected from the community. Aladin has no family and no friends - his peers either torment or ignore him. His life is completely lonely. Ritesh knocks it out of the park, making the viewer (aka me) empathize with Aladin rather than pity or disdain him.
The Japanese have a word that I think perfectly describes the type of character that Aladin is - kawaii. It has a complicated meaning, mixing elements of cuteness with a darker twinge of the pitiful and vulnerable. Kawaii is adorable but is unable to defend itself – much like Aladin, who is unable to speak up for himself, unable to fight back, tied by his isolation. Ritesh can do kawaii like nobody’s business – he’s all big eyes and vulnerable looks. And – this is 100% true – he made me cry at one point. Yes, a children’s movie had my eyes tearing up in empathy for Aladin.
Enter the heroine – Jasmin, played by newcomer Jacquine Fernandez. Jasmin is also a newcomer to the college. I’m convinced that Aladin falls for her in large part because she is new and therefore doesn’t realize that he is a social pariah. She talks to him like a normal person! Jasmin is everything that Aladin is not – she’s confident, physically strong (!), and a desired member of the community.
There are actually two romances in the film – Jasmin/Aladin and the more important romance between the Genius and Aladin.
Don’t get me wrong, there is no sexual tension between Genius and Aladin but they do develop a strong bond of… brotherhood, maybe, is the way to describe it. Another thread of the meta-narrative has the film exploring the differences between real and fake romance – which is where “O Re Saawariya” comes in.
I’ve resisted spoilers but I want to talk about this so…
Last chance to skip to the next section…
Ok, so, Aladin, begin human, finally breaks down and wishes for Jasmin – which obviously completely backfires. Aladin is at a total and absolute low, convinced nobody will ever love him, makes this wish and down the stairs comes Jasmin, all cutesy nicknames and offers of foot rubs. Aladin, to his very big credit, is disgusted by the outcome of his wish.
And I think this is where Aladin just won me over intellectually. While this is a film about the male character’s journey, the heroine is treated like a person and not an object. She even rescues him a few times from danger by using her dishoom-dishoom skills. Aladin’s disgust with himself for wishing this and with the result of the wish were just perfect. I don’t blame him for wishing for Jasmin – who among us hasn’t desperately wished for the same thing at some point – but he did the right thing when faced with the mess he had made.
One last spoiler, the biggest moment of the film isn't when big, evil Sanjay Dutt is defeated in some epic dishoom-dishoom with Amitabh Bachchan (yes, you read that right) but when Aladin is FINALLY able to speak up for himself.
The Big B as Genius was a delight! He still has that old magic! Genius’ bonding with Aladin was too adorable – he does it despite himself. And in the end, the most helpful “magic” that Genius gives him is just the support of a friend.
What about the characters? The world of Aladin is populated with some entertaining folks, including…
* The bully who beats up Aladin all the time – Kasim (Sahil Khan), who kind of looked and acted like Salman Khan.
* The campus acapella group who sings Bollywood oldies – seriously! Put out an album and I will buy it! They were fantastic!
* The campus extras who, for the most part, looked like they might actually come from the India/China border – and kudos to the casting director for that one.
* Sanjay Dutt’s gang of hilarious henchmen, who all had special costumes.
* The denizens of the costume ball whose costumes included Uncle Ya from Love Story 2050 and Mehmood in geisha drag from Love in Tokyo.
* Awesome Ratna Pathak (you may know her as the mom from Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na) as a local restaurant owner.
* Guitar frog (that will make sense, I promise.)
* Also, I’m not sure who we have to thank for this but there are definitely some sexy dudes thrown into one of the dance numbers. It’s nice to give audiences a break from the bikini babes with some hunky dudes every once in a while.
In short, I was supremely impressed with the whole film – and especially with Ritesh. I mean, I always suspected that he COULD carry a film by himself and now he’s proven that he can! The new actress definitely has potential – she’s not Ayesha Takia but she does have screen presence and can take a song, which is an important skill.
This will be one I buy on DVD.
I only hope that Aladin finds its audience and doesn't end up a lost gem like Jaan-e-Mann...