Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic: Bahut Suckage

In Hollywood, there is process known as “test screening,” in which a film studio shows an unfinished film to a series of audiences and makes changes to the film based on audience reactions. While the studio’s goal is to craft a film that is exactly what the viewing audience would like to see, the actual results are more varied. Cutting an emotionally charged reprise of Somewhere Over the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz certainly didn’t affect the film’s box office gross or status as a beloved children’s film - although it certainly would have added more pathos to the film - but for every positive or neutral tweak made courtesy of a test screening, there is a film like 28 Days Later or Blade Runner which gets a disconcertingly happy ending tacked on to an otherwise bleak film because (surprise) bleak endings test negatively. Of course nobody likes to feel bad but there is a catharsis in the emotion that delivers a longer lasting satisfaction than a slap-dash happy ending - which is not to bash happy endings but to illustrate that giving audiences what they think they want is not always a good idea.

Film critic turned film maker Kunal Kohli is a man who thinks he knows what audiences want. As a film critic, he prided himself on taking the “populist” approach to reviewing. As he himself said in a 2007 interview:

“I was always a populist critic. I was not criticizing films for the sake of criticizing them 99% of the time. I am not showing off... I was right about when I said a film is a hit or a film is a flop. The one percent when I was wrong was when I said Dilwale is a hit and it became a blockbuster, one was Ram Jaane, which I said would not do well and there is still a controversy over whether Ram Jaane did well or did not do well.”

[Although one could argue that predicting hits and flops is not really “reviewing” per se. - FG]

Aditya Chopra is another man who thinks he knows what audiences want, after all, he was responsible for one of the most successful films of all time - Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), a film that wasn’t just a blockbuster, it was (and remains) a cultural touchstone. (a) This kind of success was only to be expected from the son of Yash Chopra, whose Yash Raj Films was synonymous with “crowd-pleasing blockbuster” through the 1970s and 1980s. As a producer, Aditya seemed set to carry on the tradition through the 1990s and well into the 2000s. In DDLJ, he had discovered a new formula that worked with both Indians at home and the growing market for films with the diaspora in the West - a strong belief in the new globalized consumer culture tied with an equally strong belief in conservative family values and wrapped up in a flawless physical package.

Kunal Kohli joined with Yash Raj in the early part of the 2000s, just as Yash Raj was hitting a slump. With Aditya, he wrote the lackluster Mujhse Dosti Karoge (2002), a film cobbled together from a checklist of things that they thought audiences wanted. A medley song, a church scene, a college dance sequence, the popular girl and the homely girl were all pulled from successful films and shoved into this one. Despite the best efforts of the cast, it didn’t work. Bollywood was changing and the formula of Mujhse Dosti Karoge were firmly rooted in the previous era. Yash Raj needed another update.

Enter Hum Tum.

Released in the spring of 2004, Hum Tum, Kunal Kohli’s second film with Yash Raj, hit the bullseye. The film hit upon the same notes of previous Aditya Chopra produced films but packaged for a generation whose media diet included Hollywood films, as well as Bollywood - the romantic melodrama was muted and the cinematography was closer in style to Hollywood film (b) but Kunal sprinkled his film with just enough fo the filmi style (i.e. a wedding song) and Bollywood in-jokes (c) to keep the film’s heart firmly planted in Mumbai. But the most important factor in this new style was Kunal Kohli’s choice of leading man - Saif Ali Khan.

Urbane, Anglocized, and very, very cool - in an understated way - Saif Ali Khan was the perfect hero for a film that was itself urbane, Anglocized, and very, very cool - in an understated way. Karan, Saif's character, was not a super-lover or super-fighter or super-dancer. Karan didn’t weep for two reels because his lover left him; Karan didn’t beat up twenty bad guys for trying to talk to his lover. Karan was an ordinary guy with a floppy haircut and pile of insecurities and audiences loved him. It was a break-out role for Saif and he would go on to play variations on Karan in hit films like Parineeta (2005, Karan in the 1960s), Salaam Namaste (2005, Karan in Australia).

Saif’s co-star in Hum Tum was somebody else in need of a big break - Rani Mukerji. With her husky voice and womanly mannerisms, Rani had some trouble finding a place in Bollywood. Despite her prodigious talent, Rani was too substantial for the flighty, girlish heroine roles that were going to actresses like Lara Dutta and too proper for the racy heroine roles that actresses like Bipasha Basu snapped up. As Rhea in Hum Tum, Rani didn’t have to put on girlish giggles but she also didn’t have to strip down to a bikini - Rhea was a competent, adult woman. She had tried a role like this before in Saathiya (2002) but the film hadn’t quite clicked. This time, opposite Saif Ali Khan, audiences were ready to appreciate their realistic chemistry.

Hum Tum rung the starting bells on two years of Rani, Saif, and Kunal Kohli dominating the industry. Rani had a heroine-driven critical and commercial hit in Black (2005), Saif won global accolades for his villainous turn in Omkara (2006), and Kunal Kohli topped the box office with the notoriously perfectionist Aamir Khan in Fanaa (2006).

And then it all started to go down hill. Saif’s prestige picture Eklavya (2007) had a middling response, Rani was unable to carry female-driven Lagaa Chunari Mein Daag (2007). The two had even reunited for another urbane, Anglocized romance for Yash Raj - Tara Rum Pum, which bombed spectacularly.

Meanwhile, Kunal had decided to branch out on his own, to produce his own film for Yash Raj and take a slice of that box office success for his own bank account. The film he was going to do it with was Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic. And who better to star in it than the pair who had done so well for him in Hum Tum.

If Rani and Saif had any misgivings about starring in a cloyingly sweet family entertainer, they must have been mitigated by two factors - 1) the growing need for both of them for a hit film and 2) Kunal Kohli’s previously demonstrated hit-making abilities. Unfortunately for Saif, Rani, Kunal Kohli, and Ameesha Patel (who also desperately needed a hit) Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic was not going to be making anybody’s career.

Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic is the story of cold-hearted businessman Ranbir (Saif Ali Khan) who is sentenced by a judge to have primary care-giving responsibility for four orphans whose parents he (Ranbir) killed in a car accident. (Stay with me.) Unfortunately for the kids, Ranbir isn’t used to engaging with human beings on any emotional level deeper than purchasing presents for his ditzy girlfriend Malaika (Ameesha Patel) so he is totally at a loss at how to deal with four grieving children who express their unhappiness with life by playing pranks on him.

Thankfully for Ranbir, God (Rishi Kapoor) (d) happens to be keeping a close eye on the situation from his cotton-candy cloud and rainbow palace and decides to send his favorite angel, the mischevious Geeta (Rani Mukerji) down to help the children and Ranbir bond. Geeta has two restrictions - she cannot let humans see her doing magic and she is unable to cry. After bullying her way into a job as nanny for the children, she swiftly breaks the first rule by magically disarming the pranks the children left her as a welcome gift.

Geeta’s job is not to make sure the children are taken care of, but to make sure they forge a loving connection with the man who killed their parents.

Numerous, tedious pranks and pointed jabs at Ranbir and Malaika later, Geeta explains to the children that God doesn’t work in mysterious ways, he works in logical ways. God tallies up the world with ‘plus points’ and ‘minus points.’ If you are good, you earn plus points and good things happen to you but if you are bad, you earn minus points and bad things happen to you. Geeta then brushes away the question of bad things happening to good people (i.e. four children losing their parents and being forced to live with the man who killed their parents) with a hearty laugh and a swift edit to the next scene.

After numerous Geeta-orchestrated attempts at bonding, Ranbir and the children come to some sort of mutual understanding but Geeta’s work is not yet done. They all collectively decide that Ranbir’s girlfriend Malaika has to go. Unlike a normal adult who would just break up with his girlfriend, Ranbir lets his nanny and four wards wreak havoc on Malaika’s garden party with the aim of having her break up with him. (e) The mission succeeds.

Plot events involving Ranbir’s business then require everybody to go to Los Angeles, where the children respond to some completely unmalicious ignorance and curiosity from some white children (f) with an overblown and violent reaction that requires Ranbir to swoop in and save them with some jingoistic rhetoric.

Fortunately for all involved, the presence of Americans in America doesn’t impede Ranbir, Geeta, and the children’s tourism and the romantic Los Angeles scenery finally spurs Ranbir to give into the romantic tension that was supposed to have been simmering through the entire film. Geeta isn’t having any of it and runs away to her cloud kingdom but she cannot escape. Ranbir prays for her to return; God talks her into it; and Geeta is magiced back to Earth as a human. She and Ranbir get married and have a daughter... who may have inherited Geeta’s angel powers!


(I’ll pause for everyone to take their insulin.)

Reviews were more tepid than cruel (i.e. “good for a family film”) but audiences were completely uninterested in the film; it bombed.

Trade reports had Aditya Chopra demanding Kunal take some responsibility for a lackluster film. Something Kunal was reluctant to do. In a butthurt blog post on Bollywood Hungama he lashes out at the rumors of a split with Aditya and, instead of taking responsibility, blames poor timing and bad publicity for the flop status.

Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic worked only and mainly with Kids and sadly not at the Box office ! We should’ve released the film in a holiday period, but then as they say hindsight, is 20:20, but the pain of Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic not working at the Box Office is something only Adi and me can understand and share.

Despite Kunl’s public display of solidarity, the match made in (rainbow cloud cotton-candy) heaven was broken. Saif and Rani have not worked together since and neither have Kunal and Adi.

In full disclosure, I remember enjoying the film well enough when I saw it in the theater and I fully expected to enjoy it again when I watched it for this feature. Imagine my surprise when the film not only failed to capture my emotions but actually succeed in angering me. In retrospect I suspect that my initial reaction may have had something to do with the fact that I saw this with a friend and we spent most of the film happily giggling over a shirtless and charmingly grumpy Saif Ali Khan, who does the best with the material that he can.

Watching with a more sober eye, it’s very clear that there are a number of problems with this film but, if I had to guess, the top reason that this flopped is that the premise is really half-baked and the resulting soggy-looking concoction failed to even tempt the audience far enough into the theater to spread bad word of mouth. And by premise, I am, of course, referring to Gott im Himmel and his horde of far-from-angelic angels, living in their fantasy cloud kingdom.

Kunal Kohli sets up his world to have an all-powerful deity who can track every person’s actions; assign those actions a concrete value of “plus” or “minus;” keep a running tally of those actions; and dole out either punishments or rewards based solely on those actions. Kunal then gives this deity a stable of nubile female angels to do his bidding, like a more literal “Charlie” and his eponymous Angels from the 1970s TV show and sets them all up in a CGI-version of a Lisa Frank drawing. As far as I could figure, “God” and his domain seem to be an exoticized version of the Abrahamic God combined with a heavy dose of the American version of Santa Claus. He’s Santa God - the reverse image of Mike Meyers’s exotic “Hindu” holy man in The Love Guru.

The Santa God draws much of his inspiration from Hollywood depictions of both the Christian God and Santa Claus - films like The Santa Clause and Bruce Almighty. One can only assume that Kunal Kohli felt that a desi version of the same was needed - but this idea of obeying the rules leads to wishes being granted is a far cry from the religious images one usually sees in Hindi films, even lighthearted family films - the comforting rituals of Yash Raj films; the impersonal divine intervention of Amar Akbar Anthony and other vintage masala; or the allegorical references to Ram and Raavan and Krishna. But with this half-baked Santa God in place, moral questions - always a prime topic in family films, at least the good ones - are brushed aside with a chiding lecture from Geeta on how brushing your teeth gives you plus points in Santa God’s Holy Ledger because that is the extent of Santa God’s sphere of influence. Daily chores. (g)

For a film so built around the idea of God, there is surprisingly little discussion of the soul and what it means to be good or bad and what happens after death. The children are grieving for lost parents but Geeta offers no guidance on that matter. Are the parents in Heaven? Hell? Reincarnated? Perhaps Kunal Kohli was right in that children wouldn’t care about such issues but one must assume that parents would, especially in a film about children losing their parents. And, in the end, the theology of Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic is far too flimsy to deal with the problems the script throws at it and one is left questioning what kind of comfort or guidance a cotton-candy Santa God has to offer anybody.

The one concession to actual religions that actually exist was the calculating decision on Kunal Kohli’s part to make one - just one - of children a Sikh, which I can only assume was done to appeal to the Punjabi community. Even for this child, only the outward markers of his religion are shown - as if there was nothing more to being a Sikh than growing one’s hair out. Did the parents take just the one child to Sikh prayer services? And why raise just the one child as a Sikh anyways if they adopted him as a baby, wouldn’t that only alienate him from his family? AND if Sikhs exist in Kunal Kohli’s fantasy land, I think Guru Nanak would have a thing or two to say about plus and minus points - after all, can one really engage in selfless worship if one is tallying one’s good deeds in the back of one’s mind in anticipation of a giant reward?

This myopic and selfish view of morality - plus points and minus points - leads to the another of the massive problems with the film: Geeta. Rani Mukerji does her best to make Geeta sort of innocently mischevious but the plot requires Geeta to do some really unkind things. Not only does Geeta encourage the children to break up Ranbir and Malaika by ruining her garden party, another sequence, during a cooking contest, has Geeta ruining the other children’s entries in order to let one of the orphans win. Why? Because the orphan “deserved” it? This idea of “deserving” to win and that bad behavior is justified if you don’t like somebody - and let’s be clear, Malaika may have been ditzy but she was never deliberately mean to the children - are really unpalatable.

At the cold heart of the film is one idea - if you’re in the in-group, you’re with us but if you’re not, screw you. This is a thread that has permeated, to varying degrees, through many of the Yash Raj films over the years since Aditya took over but it is rarely as ugly as in Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic. Not only do the children, Geeta, and Ranbir not care about anybody directly related to them, they also trumpet an unhealthy jingoism. For a angel, Geeta seems awfully invested in the idea of being Indian. I am willing to swallow a lot of country-pride in a film, rooting for Team India in Chak De India, for example, but Kunal Kohli goes to some really ridiculous depths to insert his anti-everybody-who-is-not-India message into Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic. And it’s really unnecessary in a family film.

Even leaving aside the song picturization in the museum that is a promo for how great India is, the manipulative scene in Los Angeles where Ranbir swoops in to yell at some small children was the final nail in the coffin for Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic as far as I am concerned.

That Kunal Kohli thought that we would find Ranbir sympathetic after not only not being man enough to tell his own girlfriend that he didn’t want to date her anymore but then yelling at small children for no reason just shows how wrong-headed this entire film was.

I can’t leave Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic without mentioning Ameesha Patel and her infamous bikini scene during the garden party. Yes, a lavicious bikini scene in the middle of what was later claimed to be a children’s film is completely uncalled for. However, Ameesha Patel is the one high point in this otherwise dreary and depressing film. Perhaps it’s because her performance felt so genuine, a small spot of sincerity (no matter how ditzy) in an ocean of manipulative dross.

Much like a film I reviewed earlier - Saawariya - Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic is the product of Kunal Kohli’s worst instincts as a filmmaker left unchecked. The pride he took in predicting an audience’s tastes led him to a script that feels like a condescending rehash of test screening feedback cards:

“I liked that scene where I was proud of India.”

“BiKNis R HOTTT!11!1”

“OMG, don’t you think Saif and Rani make the best jodi?”

“When will we have a desi Santa Claus?”

“I love Mr. India because it had children and magic.”

And in the end, when a filmmaker’s only vision is to please everybody, he or she will end up pleasing nobody.

Kunal Kohli brought up Mr. India as a touchstone for this film in a handful of interviews - usually disputing claims that he had swiped inspiration from The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins (both of which he CLEARLY has seen). Mr. India did have magic of a sort and it did have a boatload of orphans but Mr. India had a story to tell and it wasn’t afraid to tackle hard issues. The children in Mr. India were poor; they had to worry about getting food to eat. The children in Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic refuse to eat dinner because they don’t like what is served; all their material needs are taken care of. The children in Mr. India face death head-on; the children in Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic face death off-screen and through the course of the film live in a safe space where nothing is really at stake other than whether or not they will agree to like Ranbir.

But children don’t like to play in safe spaces, especially not ones so obviously “safe.” Would a roller coaster be as exciting if there wasn’t the feeling that you could fall at any moment?

Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic is a roller coaster that sails smoothly in a circle; Kunal Kohli decked up as Santa Claus, giving us the brand name toys we asked for on our Christmas lists - a film with no desire to surprise and thrill us, no desire to show us something unexpected and made with no pyaar and precious little magic.

Much like the previously mentioned Saawariya, re-watching this film made me extremely wary of Kunal Kohli’s next film, which is said to be a love story (naturellement) that stars Priyanka Chopra and Shahid Kapoor (hit pair from Kaminey who both desparately need hits) and takes place over three generations (Love Aaj Kal) and will have a Bollywood-referencing “retro” item song (more of the Om Shanti Om hangover.)

Has he learned his lesson about by-the-numbers filmmaking? Judging by the response to his last production, the tepid by-the-numbers Break Ke Baad, I would say no. But who knows, maybe Kunal has some plus points coming to him...

Somebody call Rishi Kapoor.

(a) And is STILL playing in a theater in Mumbai - almost 20 years later.

(b) Cinematographer Sunil Patel trained in the UK. He went on to work on (among other films) Salaam Namaste and Bachna Ae Haseeno - both of which have a similar Hollywood romantic-comedy feel.

(c) Like Rishi Kapoor’s character introduced singing a song from his hit 1970 film Bobby.

(d) I loved typing that.

(e) Because nothing says “competent adult male” like being too scared to break up with your girlfriend.

(f) The child asks, completely innocently, “Oh, are you from India? Oh, do you ride an elephant?” as if no Indian child has ever harmlessly asked an American child - “Oh, so do you eat hamburgers every day? Do you play baseball?!” I remember being quite young and asking a Greek classmate if she believed in Zeus. Was I ignorant? Of course, I was only like 8 years old! But it absolutely was not malicious and the overreaction here is ridiculous.

(g) This is shown early on when Santa God grants a man who has earned “plus points” a wish - that wish is to catch the bus and not be late for work.


Indian Essay said...

Great writeup FG. I found myself smiling through the review..

I don't know about you, but I find myself thinking semi-violent thoughts (!) against almost all the kids' roles (and their high-pitched voices) in Indian movies. The kids are often precocious, obnoxious and extremely irritating ;o(

Sal said...

Saathiya was a surprise hit, actually. The songs, too, were all the rage. Furthermore, Rani'd had another hit in the year before Hum Tum released - Chalte Chalte in 2003 with SRK.
I am not sure if Lara is a good point of comparison for early-2000s Rani; she'd just made her debut the year before Hum Tum released, and had had only four Hindi film releases by 2004, none of which featured as girly or flighty.Rani's competitors at that point were Preity, Aishwarya and Kareena.
Also, Rani did do a bunch of those bubbly, girly roles and was famous for them; the problem was, she was doing them in really dire Bobby Deol/Govinda films. But then Saathiya and Chalte Chalte happened, followed by Hum Tum and Veer Zaara, taking her straight to the top.

batulm said...

Really good write-up, Filmi Girl. You articulated all the reasons why I detested 'Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic'. And yes, probably Ameesha in her yellow bikini, though inappropriate, is the single high point of the film.

Filmi Girl said...

@Indian Essay Thanks! Kids in film are hit or miss with me. Sometimes I don't mind them; sometimes they are really good; and sometimes I want to murder them. This film it wasn't the child actors as much as what the script had them doing...

@Sal Thanks for bringing this up! You make some good points. :)

I wouldn't say that Saathiya was a "hit" hit in the way Hum Tum was or Black. It certainly was successful but it didn't exactly set the box office or anything else on fire.

Also, Rani did do a bunch of those bubbly, girly roles and was famous for them; the problem was, she was doing them in really dire Bobby Deol/Govinda films.

That's kind of my point, though, she was doing dire Bobby Deol films while the new tall, slim Miss India crew was doing similar roles in bigger films. Rani's girly act just wasn't selling itself.

I think we look back at Rani as a big name in those years through rose colored glasses. Chalte Chalte wasn't that big of a hit in 2003 while Preity had a big handful of hits that year. Again in 2002 Saathiya did okay but meanwhile Aishwarya and Bipasha were cleaning up with films like Devdas and Raaz and Company.

Even in films like Veer-Zaara and KKKG which were hits that Rani was in, Rani wasn't leading lady. She was a known face, sure, but she wasn't the draw for those films.

Perhaps I downplayed her success in the early 2000s a bit much in this piece but not by that much.

That's how I see it, anyways. :)

@batulm Oh, thank you! And, yes, this would appear to be Ameesha's finest role - though very inappropriate for the film. ;)

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
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