Friday 29 June 2012

Once more, Kapoor: "Teri Meri Kahaani"

Teri Meri Kahaani, Bollywood's first major overseas hit of the summer, is a cutesy, messy tale of star-crossed lovers in three different time periods who repeatedly find themselves confronted with problems of communication - problems this somewhat garbled film knows all too well. It opens in 1960, where upstart guitar man Govind (Shahid Kapoor) happens to board the same train as Ruksar (Priyanka Chopra), a haughty actress on her way to Mumbai, or sets that constitute a stylised version of same, to shoot her latest movie. Though their courtship is set out in alarmingly perky fashion, involving a lot of sped-up, Benny Hill-style bum-pinching and girl-following, the vision underlying these early scenes is broadly (and, at a time when every other Bollywood release wants to be a Brett Ratner action spectacular, reassuringly) traditionalist. The period styling and 60s guitar licks reach their apex in "Jabse Mere Dil Ko Uff", the moment when everything - boy, girl, music, lyrics - come together, and a very strong contender for the title of 2012's best filmed musical number.

Alas, this moment is fleeting. Just as Govind and Ruksar's relationship is building, it's put on narrative hold, at which point we flash ahead to Stratford-upon-Avon in the present day. Here, student Krish (Kapoor again, this time with shaggy, Shah Rukh hair) bumps into visiting Nottingham lass Radha (Chopra, in a "Music is Good" T-shirt), shortly after the latter has seen the bench on which, it's claimed, the Bard wrote parts of Romeo and Juliet. You get where we're going by now, and this middle third suffers from being the most conventionally formulated of the lot: Midlands-based viewers may get a region-specific kick from watching the leads sing and dance outside the Barclays on Stratford High Street, but their romance proves wanly uninspiring, and its keynote song, "That's All I Really Wanna Do", manages to be very nearly as bland as its title. (In this instance, music is not so good.) 

There's less bum-pinching, but this strand has tics of its own: the thrust is that the couple come to conduct the bulk of their relationship long(ish) distance via social networks, which cues rather too much onscreen Twittering to be truly involving and anything other than flagrant zeitgeist-chasing. Somewhat amusingly, the worst thing Radha can think to do upon the pair's eventual break-up is to post online a pic of Krish with the smallest imaginable amount of his arsecrack showing - pixellated, of course, so as not to offend any grandmothers in the audience. At which point, anticipating the interval, we're whisked backwards in time once more, to Lahore in 1910, where Kapoor is reinvented as Javed, a buff, poetry-quoting womaniser (apparently ten-a-penny in the pre-Partition era) whom Chopra's Aradhana offers first sanctuary, when the former is fleeing troops sent after him after he's discovered seducing the Governor's daughter, and then guides towards political enlightenment, or at least tripping a British officer up into a pile of manure, which is the closest this PG-rated entry gets to examining the messiness of indigenous resistance movements.

Taken as a whole, the film has an ambition and scope you want to encourage, and the stars - who are, I'm assuming, the reason for the film's box-office success - are appealing: Chopra, in particular, is just a doll in the period segments, whether heading elegantly to the piano in rehearsals for a lavish movie number we don't actually get to see performed, or installed on the cinema's least practical - least safe - swing over the banks of the Ravi River. Yet the film is naive and vague around its own better ideas: for all the script's handwringing about connection, director Kunal Kohli and writer Robin Bhatt haven't much of a clue how to link up their constituent parts, which leads to credibility issues, come the notionally happy ending, when they start crosscutting between the experiences of a political prisoner who's emerged from jail to find his beloved is being married off and those of an undergraduate playa who's just been unfriended on Facebook.

What we're left to watch are wild sweeps at three stories that might appeal to three different demographics, rather than one story (or theme) developed with any depth, and though the direction gets more expansive with each successive interlude, the film shrinks in interest: it pains me to say the Stratford segment is a dead loss, and Kohli-Bhatt's Lahore is full of framebreaking modernisms (characters who say "okay" and "smartass") that mark it down as flimsy pastiche. Teri Meri Kahaani is at its most comfortable and confident in Sixties movieland, in part because it's the work of filmmakers who've sourced the majority of their ideas from other films. Something magical happened on these sets at the time of filming "...Dil Ko Uff" (go on, take another look; even in this cut-down, promo version, it's quite something); the rest, exposed to the bright lights of the real world, begins to look altogether clumsily choreographed.

Teri Meri Kahaani is in cinemas nationwide.

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