Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Cutting the strings: "Kites"

A UK Top Five hit and the first Bollywood film to make significant inroads at the U.S. box office, Anurag Basu's Kites begins as pure noir - Hrithik Roshan tumbles out of a railroad carriage down Mexico way, a couple of slugs in his back - before getting knotty, if not outright tangled, and a whole lot less arresting.

Roshan, perhaps overdoing the whole chewing-raffishly-on-a-toothpick look, plays an individual apparently called Jay Ray, a long-time Vegas hustler who woos a casino owner's daughter with an eye to snaffling her inheritance. Upon entering her household, he finds his target's brother is on the verge of marrying Linda (Barbara Mori, her presence enough to set a dozen Spanish guitars twanging on the soundtrack), one of the - count 'em - eleven immigrant women our hero married in his dog days to help ease their passage over the border. (In rather ungentlemanly fashion, he claims "I didn't remember the other ten".)

The pair bond again - over some remarkably cutesy shadowplay, turning one another's fingers into rabbits - and it's only when our hero's future brother- and father-in-law begin shooting in the face all those who've crossed them that Jay Ray realises he's in too deep; we, however, have long since derived his reunion with Linda isn't going to end well from the intermittent flashforwards - reminiscent of TV's Damages - that feature Roshan stumbling around the desert, bloodied and beaten, with Linda's would-be second husband on his tail.

In everything from the casino backdrop to the songs announcing Jay Ray as a - and I quote - "serious player" to the scene in which the lovers sit on the balcony of her well-appointed penthouse comparing the price tags on their possessions, it's clear the budget here is some way north of the norm: maybe not Yash Chopra lavish, but pretty pricey all the same. It's the strings that have been cut. "Goodbye poverty!," Roshan exclaims, as his character's stock rises, and what's most notable about Kites is how it bids a similar farewell to foreign climes. For perhaps the first time in an NRI drama, not one character expresses a yearning for Mother India, not even when they're reduced to selling popcorn on the Vegas strip or scrabbling through the desert dirt. (Of the two main characters, it's the Latina heroine who has the greater heritage.)

Of course, it may be that a generation of young Indians - the true slumdog millionaires, who went west and made their fortune - no longer feel the same pangs of homesickness and insecurity their forefathers did upon leaving home turf. Kites is nothing if not cinematically grounded and confident: there are car chases and old-school stunts; there is what one of the responding officers describes as a "shootout at Bonanza Creek ranch"; and you can only laugh when Jay Ray starts tossing down the vehicles from a moving car transporter in order to delay his and Linda's pursuers. Yet it's telling, and also somewhat sad, that the films Basu references - The Searchers, the Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet, Thelma and Louise - are American, rather than Hindi.

Kites may be the point at which the Indian popular cinema switches from a feminine model to a masculine model, which seems a shame at a time when the cinema is quite male enough as it is. The essential pleasures of a Bollywood film have here been struck out by efficiency experts with an eye on the bottom line. There is a wet sari number of a sort, although when Linda throws her shoes asunder in the bordertown rain, we can be fairly certain she will be able to afford another pair; the remaining dance sequences are as shamelessly au courant as those featured in StreetDance 3D. Roshan, anyway, has no time to dance, not when he has shirts to remove - and never in the history of cinema has one torso been flaunted so knowingly; the actor very nearly makes Gerard Butler look demure.

Several leading Bollywood figures - looking, perhaps, to further line their nests - have insisted that their cinema, to better compete with the West, needs to mature and earn its own way in the world. Yet as that world grows more commercial with every passing minute, surely we might find a place in our art for a little gentle, homespun naivety - the kind Kites only accidentally hits upon with the unexpected transcendence of its ending. (The producers had clearly already departed for the wrap party.) Instead, in a bid to double its money, a "remix" of Kites, overseen by the none-more-masculine Brett Ratner, has followed Basu's feature into cinemas a week after its release. Shouldn't there be some shame or indignity attached to being a thousand miles from home and having your film recut by the man who gave the planet Rush Hour 3?

Kites and Kites: the Remix are on general release.

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