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Reinventing the Superhero for Bollywood

Reinventing the Superhero for Bollywood (photo)

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The highest grossing movie in Hindi film history is 2008’s “Ghajini,” the story of an amnesiac who carries out his revenge against the people who killed his beloved with the help of an elaborate system of Polaroid pictures and tattoos. Sound familiar? “Ghajini” is actually a quasi-remake of Christopher Nolan’s “Memento,” one of Bollywood’s many unauthorized, Indianized editions of Hollywood films, which include everything from “Jagged Edge” to “Powder” to “Fight Club.” Being a huge nerd, my first thought when I discovered the American influence on Indian cinema was: what does a Bollywood superhero look like? Turns out the characters themselves closely resemble their American counterparts, though their movies bear some striking differences.

In India, superhero flicks are also very much masala films, which freely combine various (and, for Western audiences, incongruous) genres in the fashion of the blend of spices from which the term comes. Tragedy and comedy commingle in a world that can be a broad farce in one scene and a violent thriller the next, with those signature musical numbers thrown in. The motivation’s the same as the one that drives most Hollywood tentpole filmmaking: to create a movie that caters to the widest possible audience. But where Hollywood tends to go for broad appeal by smoothing out any and all idiosyncrasies in their product, a good masala film revels in quirkiness — each movie literally tries to be everything for everyone.

Take, for example, “Mr. India” (1987) one of the earliest and most endearingly popular superhero films. Faster than a speeding bullet, the opening careens through enough genres for five movies: police and government officials discuss a crime wave, a cartoonishly evil supervillain announces plans to destroy India, a professor teaches his class about the theoretical possibility of turning a man invisible, a poor violinist cares for a house full of orphaned children and a frustrated newspaper editor yells at a reporter. The main character is actually Arun, a violinist (played by “Slumdog Millionaire”‘s Anil Kapoor), who, as it turns out, is the son of the professor’s colleague who actually invented a bracelet that could turn the person wearing it invisible, and who, as it turns out, lives on the very plot of land that the supervillain Mogambo (“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”‘s Amrish Puri) needs to take over the entire country, which, as it turns out, also happens to be the spot where the troubled reporter (Sridevi) winds up living as a boarder, despite the fact that she hates kids and Arun’s house is full of them. Gah, even just typing it, I’m out of breath.

As a hero, Mr. India fits into the Spider-Man mold: a scientific experiment grants an average Joe with a mess of responsibility the power to do something about it. In this case, Arun acquires his father’s long lost invisibility device, declares himself “Mr. India” and sets out to stop Mogambo from stealing his land and ruining his country. Like Spider-Man — and the rest of the heroes we’ll discuss in this piece, not to mention most superheroes in general — he’s driven by father issues; losing his father at a young age inspired Arun to become the caretaker for as many orphans as he could rescue from the streets of Bombay.

07102009_Mr_India.jpgThat army of wretchedly adorable tots highlight just how wildly the tone can shift in a masala film. In America, any movie with a dozen sprightly kids riding bicycles built for 12 and singing songs would get auto-categorized as a movie for children. But “Mr. India” has some content clearly aimed at adult audiences, including gruesome fates for several characters and a shockingly sensual musical number between an invisible Kapoor and rain-soaked Sridevi that culminates in a roll in the hay both literal and figurative. Credit director Shekhar Kapur, who went on to direct “Elizabeth” and “The Four Feathers,” for blending all the disparate elements into a satisfying meal.

Interestingly, beyond his bedazzled invisibility bracelet, Arun has no special crime-fighting costume. While this might make him the first superhero in international history to defeat his archenemy while wearing a sport coat and rumpled fedora, the unusual sartorial choice carries its own thematic weight. As it develops, Mr. India’s battle with Mogambo takes shape as a metaphorical class war, with the villain representing a greedy, exploitative upper class as the hero proudly announces himself to be “an ordinary Indian.” Dressing their Mr. India in indistinct clothes only emphasizes his status as a regular guy fighting the good fight.

The following year, Bollywood offered a more traditionally attired (though similarly opinionated) superhero, the title character of “Shahenshah” (1988), played by Amitabh Bachchan. By day, he’s Vijay, a bumbling police inspector. By night, he’s Shahenshah (which means “king of kings” or “emperor”), a brutally serious vigilante who corrects the corrupt Indian judicial system’s oversights. If you’ve ever called B.S. on Lois Lane not recognizing Superman once he dons a pair of glasses, you’ll love Shahenshah, who goes the whole nine yards to fully disguise his secret identity, including a gray wig and spirit gum beard to go along with his leather and chainmail getup. It’s a realistic and clever way to hide his face — one I’m surprised that American comics haven’t adopted. Shahenshah’s even got a signature weapon: the noose that his father used many years earlier to hang himself. Seriously: Shahenshah is hardcore. Do not mess.

Trump Funny or Die

Art of the Spoof

Watch Johnny Depp, Jack McBrayer, Patton Oswalt and More in Funny or Die’s Donald Trump Biopic

Johnny Depp just got very classy.

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Photo Credit: Funny or Die

We’re barely halfway through February, but this year’s Too Many Cooks Award for the most bizarre comedy project is already a lock. Blindsiding the world with greatness without any warning, Funny or Die released a 50-minute Donald Trump parody starring an unrecognizable Johnny Depp as Donny.

Ron Howard introduces this “lost” 1988 TV movie adaptation of Trump’s how-to manual The Art of the Deal produced with the retro quality of a Wendy’s training video. Along for the big hair and shoulder pads flashback are Patton Oswalt, Alfred Molina, Todd Margaret‘s Jack McBrayer, Andy Richter, Rob Huebel, Jason Mantzoukas, Paul Scheer, and Michaela Watkins as Ivana — as well as many Reagan-era surprises like a cameo from that loveable cat eater ALF and a theme song by Kenny Loggins.

Much like Eric Jonrosh of The Spoils Before Dying and The Spoils of Babylon fame, “Trump” writes, directs, and narrates his own epic tale of real estate wheelings-and-dealings. Check out the trailer below, and head over to Funny or Die to watch the full Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal movie before the real Donald sics his army of lawyers on Will Ferrell and company. (For more bizarro Johnny Depp characters, be sure to catch Charlie and the Chocolate Factory this month on IFC.)

A Brief History of Bollywood Sex and Romance

A Brief History of Bollywood Sex and Romance (photo)

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You can’t beat the Bollywood classics for their overt romantic tension, where intimate touching (yes, even kissing!) was replaced with the poetic, polite innuendo of hot rain and wet clothing. It’s funny that they’d be so reserved about what happens between consenting adults, considering India is the second most populous country in the world. (We know they’re doing it!) In some ways, however, B’wood has become more relaxed in its attitudes, as younger, Western-influenced generations come of age and make waves in an industry built on tradition. Previously unseen “taboos” like pre-marital sex, onscreen nudity and even wife-swapping have curiously been passed by the Central Board of Film Certification, the strict watchdog equivalent of the MPAA that has served as a censor since the early ’50s. Gathered below is a look at the landmark moments and trends that have raised eyebrows through Bollywood history.

06262009_MughaleAzam.jpgBehind the Steamy Scenes

Screen icons Dilip Kumar and the beautiful Madhubala fell in love both on screen and off in 1951’s “Tarana,” while she was still a teenager. Fearful that Kumar would steal away his breadwinner, Madhubala’s father refused to let her see him or even go on location shooting when the two were signed to co-star in 1957’s “Naya Daur” together. This led to two messy lawsuits, the couple’s dirty laundry aired in court, and an uncomfortable decade-long shoot for 1960’s “Mughal-e-Azam,” during which the break-up occurred. Similarly fueling the gossip mill were speculations over actor-filmmaker Raj Kapoor (see below) and his longtime muse Nargis, which likely helped the box office success of their movies for years. But it doesn’t get more scandalous than when actress Rekha turned up at a 1980 celebrity wedding wearing rings and sindoor (red powder in the part of a woman’s hair, symbolizing marriage), basically announcing her coupling with former screen partner Amitabh Bachchan, who was also in attendance but already married to Jaya Bhaduri. The three even co-starred in 1981’s infidelity triangle drama “Silsila,” which is as weirdly sensational as if the three-headed tabloid monster Brangelinaniston had agreed to star in a quasi-autobiographical film about their relationships.

06262009_Bobby.jpgThe X-Ray Glasses of the Imagination

Victoria’s Secret could’ve made a killing if they’d invested in Bollywood during the ’70s and ’80s, when the appearance of a plain white brassiere represented the forbidden nature of onscreen toplessness. An actress wearing just her over-the-shoulder boulder holder who turned out the lights, for instance, would be implying that she’d soon be showing her breasts to her lover. If anyone realized the power of such clothed titillation, it was Raj Kapoor, whose films began to push the envelope late in his directorial career. His unparalleled 1973 teen romance “Bobby” made an overnight pin-up sensation of Dimple Kapadia when she appeared in a bikini, and 1978’s “Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram” (which faced an uphill battle with the censor board, and was criticized by some as being exploitative) saw Zeenat Aman in a barely-there sari that defied physics by staying on. His final film, 1985’s “Ram Teri Ganga Mali” caused further controversy when 16-year-old star Mandakini appeared bathing in a waterfall, wearing only a sheer white sari that made no attempt to conceal her nipples. Today, bikini babes are far more prevalent in Bollywood culture, and 2000’s “Hera Pheri” even depicted male sunbathers in bikinis, mistaken as girls from a distance by the film’s protagonist.

06262009_dhoom2.jpgLurid Lip Locks

Up until the ’50s, if Bollywood stars wanted to express love or even lust onscreen, clasping each other’s hands and staring longingly was about as risqué as it got. Hugging and light face caressing became the next leap over the following three decades, but it wasn’t until the ’90s that kissing was really acknowledged, let alone done. A woman might lean in for lip service, but would shyly run away before the deal was sealed, or else the actual act would be covered by a veil in the moment before, like some “Austin Powers” gag. While this, too, is changing today (superstar actor Aamir Khan even has a kissing clause put in his co-stars’ contracts; if they won’t kiss him, they can’t act opposite him), puckering up can still be contentious. Padmini Kolhapure made headlines when she merely gave Prince Charles a peck on the cheek, and after Aishwarya Rai smooched Hrithik Roshan in 2006’s “Dhoom 2,” obscenity cases were filed. Most recently, everyone heard about the stir Richard Gere caused in 2007 when he playfully re-enacted his “Shall We Dance?” pose, catching Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty off-guard with a snog during an AIDS awareness benefit. Shetty told the press it wasn’t a big deal; people on the streets of Bhopal burned her posters in effigy anyway.

The Hollywood/Bollywood Connection

The Hollywood/Bollywood Connection (photo)

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Long before “Jai Ho” entered the international lexicon, the gap between Hollywood and Bollywood had already been shrinking. In distinctly Western style, much of the action has occurred behind the scenes: Indian cable TV magnate and Bollywood producer Ronnie Screwvala’s UTV Software Communications has co-produced the latest Hollywood films from Indian filmmakers M. Night Shyamalan (“The Happening”) and Mira Nair (“The Namesake”), in addition to making financing deals with Sony and Will Smith’s production company Overbrook Entertainment; Disney and Warner Brothers have begun to finance their own Bollywood productions; and last year, Reliance, one of India’s biggest producer of Bollywood films, made production pacts with the companies of Nicolas Cage, George Clooney and Brad Pitt before making their biggest coup — financing DreamWorks, an investment that allowed the Steven Spielberg-led studio to leave its deal at Paramount.

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