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Fancy an Indian?

I was going to start this month’s blog by describing a recent movie, to see whether you could identify it. Then I realised that, because we always illustrate these things, you would know that I was talking about a Bollywood picture. And you could make a reasonable guess that it was one of the films depicted on this very computer screen. So the whole thing would be moot. Notwithstanding the above, humour me. Here is what I was going to write as the first paragraph:
      Who can name this film, which recently played British cinemas? It’s a foreign film, a big-budget, effects-filled sci-fi extravaganza. The most expensive movie ever made in its particular country. Half of the film is set in London, shot at recognisable locations including Tower Bridge, Battersea Power Station and Heathrow. It had a big, glamorous, red carpet UK premiere in London and then opened wide on 94 screens across the country in both 3D and 2D versions, remaining in cinemas for up to five weeks. And, as far as I’m aware, there hasn’t been a single thing written about it in any British film magazine or by the film critic of any British newspaper or any mention on radio or TV. It’s like the film doesn’t exist.
      Why yes, it is a Bollywood film. How did you guess? It’s called Ra-One and, despite being a huge production, despite 50% of the movie being set and shot in the UK, it has been as roundly ignored as every other Bollywood film released over here. Of which there are a lot. Every year dozens of Bollywood films play British cinemas but you won’t find them reviewed in Empire or Total Film or Sight and Sound or in the pages of your newspaper. Claudia Winkleman and Mark Kermode can be confidently relied upon to completely ignore them. It’s like the whole genre doesn’t exist. Like India doesn’t exist.
      Here’s what I don’t get. There are Japanese films that play British cinemas, Chinese films, French, German and Italian films, movies from Israel and Norway and Brazil and every non-Anglophone country you can think of where at least one person owns a DV camera and has FinalCutPro on their computer. All of these are treated as regular releases. Obviously they have limited appeal and tend to play the independent/arthouse circuit, but you’ll find them reviewed and discussed alongside the regular British/American titles. Ironically they’re often playing on one screen in London, leaving the vast majority of the British cinema-going population reading about films they can’t actually yet see (although, to be fair, that problem has lessened since the introduction of digital projection). Yet the Bollywood pictures playing at your local multiplex, advertised on big posters and card standees that you walk past every time you go to the movies, films you could very easily slap down a few quid to see - there’s no mention of them.
      Most people in this country have never seen a Bollywood film - apart from the British-Asian community, obviously. And you know, you really should. Because Bollywood films are great. They’re like cinema used to be in the golden age. Full of singing and dancing and costumes and sets and spectacle and entertainment and cheesy plots and exciting action sequences and ludicrously beautiful women and insanely handsome guys and happy endings. Hollywood used to make films like that. Bollywood still does.
      And if your cinematic taste is largely in the genres of horror, fantasy and sci-fi - don’t worry. Bollywood can accommodate you. In among the romantic comedies and the cop movies and the action thrillers, there’s a solid body of Indian fantastique playing at your local cinema but you need to watch out for it because sure as hell Kermode and Winkleman and the wonks at Empire aren’t going to tell you when these films are set for release.
      I try and get along to see one or two Bollywoods a year at my local Odeon. I’d love to see more but then I’d love to get out more anyway, at my age. When I heard about Ra-One I immediately sought out the trailer on the web and then headed up the road for two and a half hours of fun. And yes, Bollywood films are that long. So what? So was Avatar and that didn’t have an intermission.
      All of which preamble, unfortunately, leads into my report that Ra-One was actually somewhat disappointing. Shah Rukh Khan stars as Shekhar, a nerdy computer games designer working for an Indian company in London. Straight off the bat we’re in a fantasy world because this computer games company has big, open-plan, stylish offices instead of cramped rooms full of scraps of paper, empty Coke cans, half-eaten pizzas and Star Wars figures. Shekhar’s son encourages him to create a game where the villain wins, rather then the hero, and thus is born Ra-One (a pun on the demon Ravan). The game’s hero, modelled on Shekhar himself, is named G-One.
      Somewhat predictably, Ra-One escapes from the game and comes after Shekhar’s son. Less predictably, Shekhar is actually killed halfway through. But it’s okay because, after the toilet break, G-One appears as a father substitute (played by Khan again, but in a much less nerdy manner) and accompanies the family to their home in Mumbai. Ra-One follows and lots of action leads to a climactic showdown in a virtual reality suite at a games expo with the boy using his gaming expertise to enable G-One to finally beat the unbeatable villain.
      Ra-One is a film full of surprises. The first surprise was that it is set in London. I mean honestly, why wasn’t this big news? Bollywood films shoot all over the world and have been made in the UK before, but rarely in central London. (One of the ironies of living in Leicester, home to the UK’s largest Indian population - and best curry houses! - is that it’s manifestly unsuitable for Bollywood productions. Whereas Shah Rukh Khan could walk down most British streets unrecognised, here he’d be mobbed.) There is an absolutely awesome car-chase in the first half of Ra-One, full of spectacular stunts; out-takes under the end credits show that most of those were done for real on the streets of central London. How was that not news?
      A second surprise was the presence of Tom Wu, one of the best British-Chinese actors currently working. I met Tom a few years ago on the set of Mutant Chronicles where I recognised him from his role in the awful British sci-fi feature Intergalactic Combat. He was also in The Scorpion King 2, CBBC fantasy adventure series Spirit Warriors and even played Burt Kwouk in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. Here he is a colleague of Shekhar, who gets killed, after which Ra-One morphs into a copy of the character, meaning that for part of the film Wu gets to play the main bad guy. He gets to do some Bollywood dancing too!
      Which brings me to the disappointing surprise that Ra-One is unfortunately short on the old hoofing and hollering. There are only two dance numbers in the whole film, both set at parties. There are a couple of other songs on the soundtrack (including an appalling version of ’Stand By Me’!) but you can get songs anywhere. I want to see 20 blokes and 20 chicks shaking their thangs to a kicking Bollywood beat. It’s what I’ve paid money for. Yes drama, yes action, yes romance, yes comedy - but mainly I want dance routines. Cut some capers, man!
       One additional surprise and, to be honest, the only real punch-the-air moment in the film is a completely gratuitous cameo appearance by Superstar Rajnikanth in character as Chitti, the title character from the previous Bollywood big-budget record holder, Robot. Rajnikanth is awesome. He’s about 60, dresses like he’s 40 and behaves like he’s 20. I mean, how big do your balls have to be to actually demand billing as ‘superstar’?
      I saw Robot in the same cinema about a year ago and that really did blow me away. It’s out on DVD now - you should watch it. Once again we have a nerdy hero and his technological creation played by the same actor. Rajnikanth is a robotics expert who creates Chitti, a perfect android, in his image and in doing so manages to ignore his girlfriend, played by the most physically perfect woman on the face of the planet, Ashwarya Rai. In the second half, Chitti goes rogue, creates an army of Chittis and sets about destroying everything in sight using ideas pinched from the Matrix sequels.
      So unbelievably freaking awesome is this movie that I have just had to pause between paragraphs to scoot over to YouTube and watch the trailer. Twice. Do it now. Stop reading this, open YouTube in another tab or window and search for ‘Bollywood robot trailer’. I’ll wait.
      See what I mean? Now that’s what I’m talking about! Did you see that giant robotic, police-car-gobbling snake made out of hundreds of identical robot copies of the lead actor? Did you notice that one of the dance routines is set in the Andes? Not for any reason, it’s just: let’s fly our camera crew, leads and dancers out to Machu Pichu for a week. Amazing stuff. I might have been more impressed with Ra-One if I hadn’t already seen Robot, because that film set the bar so high.
      One of the few western reviews of Ra-One was in Hollywood Reporter. While enthusiastic, it was written by someone with little or no knowledge of Indian cinema because it referred to G-One as ‘the first Bollywood superhero’. Which is nonsense. Even if we discount Chitti in his good, pre-rogue state and we discount old Bollywood cheapies like Mr India, there was an honest-to-goodness Bollywood superhero movie a few years ago. It was called Krrish and I saw that at my local Odeon too.
      Hrithik Roshan starred as an orphan who grows up with extraordinary powers that his grandmother urges him to hide. As an adult (in Singapore for some reason), Krrish becomes a superhero by accident when he rescues people from a fire. Terrific special effects and excellent martial arts choreography by Hong Kong action supremo Tony Ching make this a hugely enjoyable fantasy action film. There’s a bad guy and a beautiful girl and all the singing and dancing that was so conspicuously absent from 2006’s other big screen superhero blockbusters like Superman Returns and X-Men 3.
       Had Krrish been my first dipping of a toe into Bollywood waters, I would not have realised that it is actually a sequel, because the main character is the child of the two leads in 2003 sci-fi epic Koi... Mil Gaya. This was actually the first Bollywood special effects blockbuster and was effectively a remake of two Hollywood hits. Imagine if you watched Close Encounters, then nipped to the loo, then settled back in the same seat to watch ET, with the twist that ET is actually one of the aliens left behind at the end of CE3K. That’s Koi... Mil Gaya. Except you’ve got to have an adult lead so Roshan plays Rohit, a learning-disabled young man with a mental age of about eight.
      The lonely little alien Jadu uses magical sci-fi powers to turn Rohit into a super-strong, super-intelligent hero. As you can see, Bollywood sci-fi is very keen on dressing up its leading men as wimps and geeks for the first half of each film before letting them loose as real he-men after the intermission. But there’s a sadness at the end of Koi... Mil Gaya when Jadu’s departure causes Rohit to regress to his previous mental state (as indeed there is sadness at the end of Ra-One when the dad-substitute must leave after defeating the villain). This actually makes the 2003 film comparable to Flowers for Algernon (filmed as Charlie) and demonstrates that there is much more to Bollywood sci-fi than just singing, dancing and special effects.
      But mainly it’s the singing, dancing and special effects. Excuse me, I’m off to YouTube again now...

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.