Disclaimer #1: I'm more of an independent movie fan, so if you're looking for in-depth pop references to older films, Hindi or otherwise, or cutesy tid-bits about the costume designer or choice of filming locations, you're at the wrong blog.
Disclaimer #2: I'm not a B-wood fangirl. I have watched exactly seven bollywood films in my 24 years of existence, the choice of which never depended on a particular artist's ability, but more on whose birthday treat was paying for what ticket. Of that list, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, is still my favourite.
Disclaimer #3: I know the director. As a writer and a friend, I count him among the select few who have a standing invitation to my funeral. However, this fact did not compel me to feverishly seek a torrent of his movie Ru-Ba-Ru when he told me about its release in September 2008. Nor did I ask mum to FedEx a copy over, or find a kind soul who would zip a .rar version and upload it on some massive oasis of server space at his/her disposal. In fact, it took me eight months and the collapse of a precariously balanced stack of discounted DVDs-- the one next to the discounted Parle-G biscuit stack-- at a local Indian grocery store to notice that a copy of Ru-Ba-Ru could be mine for what is essentially the cost of a large green tea and a sesame bagel at the Au Bon Pain in downtown Boston.
Things I love about this film?
- It's run time. I know many folk who share at least 50% of my ethnicity enjoy the three hour song, dance and tears experience, but I for one would prefer to have my left eyeball dug out with a very blunt spoon (HT to Men in Tights) and eaten by a petulant Moroccan-trying-to-pass-for-French female shop assistant at the pastry wing of Harrods at Knightsbridge who was just told by her vicious little Japanese co-worker that Indian eyeballs were a great cure for the clap. In case you missed my point-- The movie held my attention right till the end.
- A lack of item numbers. And item PYTs.
- A fresh soundtrack. The track 'a beautiful day' needs special mention. Won't say more-- go read this guy's take for further details. He sounds like he gets paid for doing what he does.
- The ballsiness with which it gives the finger to certain ingrained Bollywood tropes: the traditionalist parent is missing, as is the overly sympathetic one. Gone is the angry patriarch, the greater cast/community/family/clan/village to whose whims the lead actors usually give in or die in their attempt to protest. There is no cloyingly cute kid brother, no amusing side-kick, no the group identity portrayed through song, dance and bad costuming.
- Corollary to # 4: fresh supporting characters. The mother and step-father of Nikhil are apologetic, understanding; they reach out to their prodigal son despite the distance he has maintained for so many years, and tell his girlfriend to forget about touching their feet-- a glorious eff-off to one of the most sacred cliches of family scenes in Bollywood. Tara's mother echoes the female Indian parent stereotype, but the fact that Tara controls their flow of communication (the mother is never seen, only heard as distant bleating over long distance phone calls) gives a realistic, modern slant to their dynamic.
- No extended choreographed song/dance scenes. Though I will say, I don't believe the movie needed Tara's post-play "impromptu" performance-- Her ease with figuring out the intro chords/timing, and the spontaneous entry of costumed dancers (yet another revered trope) was a bit too.. err, promptu, for that particular scene. I would assume that someone integral to the film project must have declared that the life-affirming moment for the female lead had to come through a big finale in front of a 100% appreciative audience. Not sure, but hey, I've sat through worse. Really. I have.
There were some things that threw me off-- like the camera treatment of the saxophone scene, and Tara's dialogues in the first half of the movie. Then again, the day I hear realistic female dialogue in a Hindi film of non-gritty subject matter, i.e. where the woman isn't fighting the ills of poverty, drug addiction, prostitution or an unmotivated husband given to arrack-guzzling, I shall spontaneously turn hermaphrodite and take Prince on in a UFC cage match.
I'm also not quite sure about Tara's motivation: until we are told that it's opening night, the character comes across as a poor little rich girl with one and a half daddy issues, striving to please her man. Her clumsy moments don't create comedy, but unease. They evoked in me painful memories of improv moments during Adzap on various inter-college cultural stages; perhaps if Tara's character was given a little more authenticity and grounding, I would have been able to relate to her in a happier light.
The radio bit in the opening scene didn't push my happy button, nor did the camera distance during the stage bits. But these are itty-bitty details, the stuff you come up with when you run a mind-comb through the things you like, such as best friends, favourite lovers and omelets ordered the same way at the same restaurant you've been going to for the past ten years, just because feeling that intimate with a person or thing, relating that closely tricks you into believing you have the delusionary right to do so.
I don't think Nikhil needed as many flash-back moments: those felt laboured, as did some of the foreshadowing bits. We all have a list of favourite movie scenes that have deja vu script treatments. My list for instance, includes (but is not limited to) memento, stranger than fiction, sliding doors, deja vu and of course, the black cat bit from The Matrix. Moments in the second half of Ru-Ba-Ru did stand out and create suspense, but I feel the scripting could have been more graceful here, & thusly could have added to the audience's building anxiety and Nikhil's desperation without necessarily turning it into a faux-action flick.
Googling to see what has been said about the film, I couldn't help but notice the repeatedly parroted statement that Ru-Ba-Ru is lifted from the Love-Hewitt flick, 'If Only'.
I'm sure some die-hard B-wood fan somewhere has blogged a list of Hindi movies that are "adaptations" or "homages" of existing movies, American and otherwise. Ladies n' gentlemen-- that list is long, and still growing. And it's not just scripts alone-- I've seen clips from Hindi films that pull from soundtracks, pop songs, mannerisms of various yank heroes and famous movie moments: the kaante/reservoir dogs walk scene, anyone?
The day I encounter a wholly original, non-derived Hindi movie... well, refer aforementioned statement regarding hermaphrodites and UFC cage matches. Like Jarmusch said, it's not about whether you derive or not-- It's how well you do it.
Additional Dialogue Quibble: The taxi driver's lines were predictable at times ("you already paid me yesterday" [paraphrase], for instance). Part of me did mourn Nikhil's final mini monologue but only because there is such anguish when you put yourself as a writer or person in that moment:
what can you tell the person you love most in the world about death, either yours or theirs? What can you tell them about dealing with a final absence, about all the time you are forced to give up spending with them, about the role of fate/god/chaos theory/luck? Perhaps the best thing to do is shuffle off one's mortal coil in silence-- think of that superb moment with Irfan Khan on the phone, towards the end of Nair's 'Namesake'.
I'm not sure.
What I do know is, the movie made me ask this question. It stirred emotions, and it made me impatient: I now want movies directed by Indians in India that are free of standard devices, every last frikkin bell & whistle of 'em. I want films that can be independently directed, free of any and all market forces. I want films that bitch-slap their marketing agents into telling the truth about a movie, for once, instead of pegging it to appeal to some established demographic. I want human stories: let them be melodramatic, colourful and accompanied by music for we are Indian after all, and some traits should never be changed, but in the name of all that has ever moved you, Ever, let these stories and their characters be real.
Go watch Ru-Ba-Ru. Fuck what the papers have told you, fuck what you heard, fuck your dependency on formulas and you just might allow yourself to be surprised by the degree of honesty in this film. It isn't perfect: it holds all the promise of what can be, instead.