Thursday, November 5, 2009

Reviewing a Dhamaal review...

I came across this review of 2007 film Dhamaal while doing my news round up last Friday. The online magazine - Film Threat - specializes in cult movies and independent films but reviews more mainstream fare, too. The tone is classic macho-geek, which should be familiar to anyone who has hung around in the varied movie or gaming fandoms. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it will give a bit of context to their reviews.

The decision by reviewer Phil Hall to watch
Dhamaal is rather baffling on the face of it. If he was going for camp, why not watch Amar Akbar Anthony? If he wanted something more cultish, why not one of the epic masala messes from the 1980s, like Mard? One only has to do the most cursory Google searches to find the hilarious review at Planet Bollybob. Dhamaal is a 2007 comedy aimed squarely at the common man - think Golmaal: Fun Unlimited or Hera Pheri. Or for a Hollywood touchstone, think Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which baffled American critics by staying at number one at the box office for a few weeks, despite middling reviews.

Choosing
Dhamaal was choosing a deliberately mainstream Bollywood film aimed at the Indian masses.

So, let's see what Mr. Hall has to say about it. For contrast, you might want to check the glowing reviews from
Indicine.com, entertainment.oneindia.in, and noted film critic Rajeev Masand.

(I will put Mr. Hall's review in italics with my notes in regular font.)

BOOTLEG FILES 307: “Dhamaal” (2007 Bollywood comedy).

LAST SEEN: Available for viewing on several web sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: No official version has been released.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No U.S. release.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely at the moment.


First of all, note that he appears to have done no research on where to legally purchase Bollywood films. Region free DVDs are available through plenty of legitimate retailers such as Nehaflix.com and even available for loan from Netflix and a growing number of public libraries. Dhamaal is hardly a "bootleg" - which one WOULD have to resort to to watch some of those hard-to-find 1960s masala flicks like Intequam, which Memsaab recently reviewed.


Everyone has heard about Bollywood, but few people outside of India and the Indian diaspora have ever sat down and watched a Bollywood film from start to finish. I just experienced my first Bollywood film, a 2007 comedy called “Dhamaal.” However, there was a sense of deja vu while watching the film – rather than offer an original slice of Indian culture, “Dhamaal” liberally rips off a half-dozen Hollywood films, including the shameless plagiarism of a plot from a genuine cinema classic.


I'm assuming that "few people" here should more properly read "nobody I know" because, while it's not a big number, there are certainly more than a few of us non-desi Bollywood lovers out there. But let's get to the meat of things - Mr. Hall seems to feel that Dhamaal did not offer "an original slice of Indian culture." To which I would ask Mr. Hall, how do you know, if you have never seen a Bollywood film before? Would it be an "original slice of Indian culture" if everyone was wearing "ethnic" clothes and sitting around the village chewing paan? Right away we are tipped off to the fact that Mr. Hall is reviewing based on his preconceived notions of both what it is to be Indian and what it is to be authentic or original.


“Dhamaal” gets off to a wobbly start by introducing its four main characters. Roy is a government security agent who gets fired from his job – the reason for his termination is copied from the film “Johnny English.” Adi is a street performer who plays the saxophone for an admiring crowd, but it is revealed that he is actually miming a taped recording that goes haywire (an ancient gag that is none too fresh). Adi’s brother Manav wears a red beret and overalls and gives the impression of being a simpleton. He repeats a Mr. Bean gag where he gets his hand stuck in a man’s back pocket, and the man doesn’t figure out he has company in his pants until he heads to the lavatory. Boman is a slacker whose father refers to his luxury car as his child.


Before he's even a paragraph into the story, Mr. Hall begins counting Hollywood/Anglo references.


All four wind up broke and homeless due to their stupidity. They crash at the home of Adi and Manav’s aunt, where they steal a pizza delivered to her home. (Hey, who knew there was pizza delivery in India?) When the aunt comes looking for her pizza, the men toss their slices up to the ceiling – a gag stolen from “Dude, Where’s My Car?” The quartet then hatches a scheme to make money by crashing a wake and pretending they are art gallery owners trying to collect on a debt from the dead man’s family. That is an original gag and, not surprisingly, it is completely unfunny.


He's clearly not viewing the film on it's own terms and has decided to play "spot the reference." But unless one is obsessed with "an authentic Indian experience" who cares if a pizza-throwing gag comes from Dude, Where's My Car - besides, it's pretty likely that the majority of the audience of Dhamaal hadn't seen it, nor would have wanted to.


At this point, the film kicks into trademark Bollywood style by introducing a completely irrelevant musical number. The four men are suddenly in a dance club, and their inane personas are replaced with hipster attitudes. As they sing and dance, they are surrounded by a bevy of light skinned blonde women – it is easy to imagine the club is somewhere in Oslo or Stockholm rather than Mumbai.


Mr. Hall shows here that he is unable to comprehend the Bollywood narrative technique of the song picturization. Look at how he phrases it "[t]he four men are suddenly in a dance club" as if the song was meant to be a linear transition from the previous action and the characters were magically lifted from the whereever they were to a dance club. I can guarantee that he doesn't have the same critique for things like the incidental music in Hollywood films. We never see "And then out of NOWHERE a string section starts playing. Did an orchestra suddenly materialize behind those sand dunes?" The ignorant remark about the "pointless" musical number just shows his cultural blindness at work. For what is an "original slice of Indian culture" if not the cheezy club number with white dancers?


After this, the film resumes and the men reprise their art gallery scam. They are mistaken for murderers and are arrested. But the real killers are caught while the men are in transit to jail. The cops release them along the side of a highway in the middle of nowhere.


Suddenly, a car comes zooming down the highway and crashes through a barrier, flying over a cliff and into a ravine. The men rush to the crash and find the driver along his vehicle – he is still alive, and in his dying breath he details that he has buried a large treasure under a giant W in a park miles away from...


Really, what Mr. Hall is doing is not "reviewing" as much as recounting the plot blow-by-blow with not a word about the performances, dialogues, or quality of the songs. This next bit really blows his mind.


Yes, I know what you are thinking. And you are correct. At this point, “Dhamaal” turns into a blatant ripoff/remake of Stanley Kramer’s 1963 slapstick classic “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Indeed, the four men plus a disgruntled police captain (the Spencer Tracy character from the Kramer film) race each other to get to the big W first. An excess of destructive shenanigans is generated before the closing credits.


Since “Dhamaal” is a relatively low budget film, it lacked the huge chase scenes and elaborate comedy sequences that made “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” so wonderful. One sequence, however, is replicated: the runaway airplane subplot, complete with a drunken pilot who gets knocked out while his airplane is in flight (the actor’s costume matches the clothing Jim Backus wore in the original film) and the air traffic controller falling out of his tower. There is also a fire truck on the airport tarmac but, alas, there is no Bollywood equivalent of the Three Stooges waiting for the airplane to land.


“Dhamaal” also steals gags and sequences from Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run,” “Road Trip” and “Starsky and Hutch.” The film’s conclusion, on a concert stage, is stolen from “Rat Race,” which is also a ripoff of the Kramer classic. And the dance club sequence is repeated in the closing credits.


At this point, Mr. Hall is so focused on picking out every single possible reference to Hollywood that he has lost sight of objective reviewing.


Barely compensating for the obvious lack of originality is the film’s annoying habit of inserting cartoonish sound and music effects at every possible opportunities. Eye blinks, head shakes, eyebrow arches and hand gestures are inevitably embellished with an annoying acoustic shtick that is vaguely amusing in a Huckleberry Hound cartoon but annoying in a narrative feature.


This is something that many people used to Hollywood find difficult to get used to - the sound effects. However, they are a staple of the comedy genre and add another level of filmi reality to a movie. Bollywood comedies, like Dhamaal are not meant to be "realistic" in any way shape or form. Of course there are sound effect to further exaggerate already exaggerated movements!! Certain characters will also get theme songs or have their name show up in the backing track when they come on screen.


Bollywood comedies exist almost as a series of sketches, thinly tied together by an overarching plot thread. The focus is not on story - as such - but on performances. Dhamaal featured a powerhouse team of talented comic actors Arshad Warsi, Javed Jaffrey, and Ritesh Deshmukh with Sanjay Dutt and a cameo by Prem Chopra (!) adding the muscle, yet not a word was said in this review about any of the actors.


And I almost got the sense that he had watched without subtitles at all because not a single funny line was mentioned. The comedy from a movie like Dhamaal is going to come from two places - the dialogues and physical comedy - helped along by fun reversals or diversions of expected Bollywood tropes, like Johnny Lever's glass-tapping villain in All the Best.


“Dhamaal” has not been theatrically released in the U.S. and it is not available in U.S. DVD retail outlets. In fact, I only heard about the movie from an amateur critic on YouTube who compared the Indian film with the scenes taken out of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Copies of the film can be found via eBay (I am not certain if these are genuine imports or bootlegs), while unauthorized uploads of the full film can easily be located across the Net.


I like the attempt to get street cred here by hinting that Dhamaal is some hard to find and rare gem instead of the mainstream and widely available film that it is. I also enjoyed the subtle put-down of the "amateur" critic - unlike Mr. Hall himself, we're supposed to think.


I wouldn’t mind experiencing more Bollywood films, but hopefully next time I can find a Mumbai-based production that is closer to 2009 India rather than 1963 Hollywood.


Ah, the grand finale. Mr. Hall is magnanimous enough to condescend to "experience" more Bollywood films, even after Dhamaal, putting the onus on Bollywood to produce a film more fitting his expectations of an "original slice of Indian culture." And what would that be, exactly? Something like Monsoon Wedding?


Mr. Hall's review of Dhamaal felt to me like he had the movie on while watching the game or something - he didn't make any effort to understand where Dhamaal fits into contemporary Bollywood filmmaking and mocks or disparages things that don't make sense to him. The unspoken tagline to this review is "I can't believe people watch this crap - why not American Beauty?"


While this kind of ignorance may have been acceptable - or at least understandable - 30 years ago, today, he could have Googled Dhamaal reviews or read up on the genre to familiarize himself with things before sitting down to watch the film. This kind of cultural superiority game is inexcusable today. Bollywood is not a freakshow that drives into town once every couple of years, where one can gawk at the "irrelevant songs" and "slapstick sound effects" before heading home to "authentic" films (is that orchestra behind the sand dune?). Bollywood is much beloved as a style of filmmaking around the world - from the former Soviet Union to China to Africa to the Middle East. And to dismiss Dhamaal - highly reviewed in the Indian press, mind you - as a collection of gags ripped off from Hollywood makes me dismiss Mr. Hall as nothing but a hack.


So says this "amateur" critic.

5 comments:

Fleur said...

Love your review-of-the-review, Filmi-jaan, you have exactly pointed out what I hate (even in general) of the American media ignorance, arrogance, smugness, "exoticism", "Otherising", America-centrism and all-round asshattery when in regards to non-American, specifically, non-Western cultures and their movies. There is really nothing else to add. Except that this blog rocks :-)

Filmi Girl said...

@Fleur Thanks! I was a little pissed off at his review... ;D I couldn't get over the "original slice of Indian culture" bit!! Who is he to judge?!

ajnabi said...

Maybe he should learn a little big about Indian culture before determining what's authentic and what's not! Just sayin'... And I've been watching Hindi films for 2 years yet wouldn't make much of a stab at deciding if something was authentic on my own.

Your use of "d-bag" in your tweet about this post reminded me of this (totally awesome hilarious) video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tqEBQjWRws&feature=player_embedded

Emily said...

Weird how he seems to want to prove how cool and offbeat he is, watching a "bootleg" movie. 30 seconds of googling could have led him to Nehaflix, or even Netflix probably has it.

And his running commentary on what bits were "stolen" from what American movie...is there a point? "See, I knew Bollywood was stupid, they just copy us and then make it cheesy!", maybe?

I think the problem with American reviewers and Indian movies is that they can't get over the difference in film-making styles long enough to see that it isn't a matter of one being good and the other bad. It's just different. They need to be able to watch and evaluate a movie on its own merit, otherwise they're just like the people posting Prabu Deva and Rajnikanth clips on YouTube so everyone can have a good laugh at the "wacky" "weirdo" Indian movies.

Also I'm getting more than a little steamed at his "irrelevant musical number" comment. And his "I'm so cool I'm one of the few non-Indians brave enough to sit through an ENTIRE Bollywood movie" comment near the beginning. And...oh, pretty much the whole thing.

Filmi Girl said...

@ Emily

I think the problem with American reviewers and Indian movies is that they can't get over the difference in film-making styles long enough to see that it isn't a matter of one being good and the other bad. It's just different.

You hit the nail on the head!! That's why I get so mad when I see reviews like this! As if the entire Indian movie industry should be catering to tastes of some white guy with too much time on his hands and a cultural superiority problem.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl