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Boogie On, Mumbai Cyborg

by John Rodat on November 3, 2011

Directed by Anubhav Sinha

The designer: Shah Rukh Khan in RA.ONE

If you’re at all familiar with Bollywood—which, technically, comprises only those Indian studios producing Hindi-language films, though it is often used incorrectly to refer to all Indian cinema—you likely know of its eclecticism. Bollywood is known to run roughshod over generic conventions, mixing and matching categories at whim. So common is this approach that “masala,” a word that refers literally to a spice mixture, has become a category of cinema unto itself.

It’s a stylistic mixing more aggressive than, say, the American “dramedy”: Recognizable—even stock and outright clichéd—elements of action, comedy, detective, science fiction, etc., can all be incorporated in one film. And, as the vast majority of Bollywood movies are musicals to some extent, there’s yet another type, inherently.

Trained as we Westerners are to expect generic cohesion and sleekness of plot, it can be a challenge to make much sense of such a free-for-all approach. So, what happens when this deranged amalgamation (to our comparatively minimalist eyes) gains blockbuster budgets?

Ra.One, the most expensive Bollywood production to date, carries on the tradition of drawing from different cinematic categories, without question: Nominally a sci-fi flick, it also has elements of the superhero subgenre, workplace comedy, a coming-of-age story, domestic comedy, domestic tragedy, romance and, of course, a couple of music-video-style set pieces featuring the singing of Akon.

Of course.

The plot is focused on the family of an Indian video-game designer, Shekhar Subramanium (Shah Rukh Khan), living in London with his wife, Sonia (Kareena Kapoor), and son, Prateek (Armaan Verma). Shekhar is, we gather, a brilliant designer and respected team leader, but he’s a bit of a goof: His good-natured eccentricities seem to endear him to his tolerantly amused (and, hey, wow, hot) wife; his young son, however, finds his bumbling affability embarrassing in the extreme.

It is young Prateek’s fascination with coolness—with kick-ass bad guys, specifically—that inspires Shekhar in his most ambitious game design.  Shekhar and his team devise Ra.One, the baddest of possible digital bad guys for their new virtual reality game . . .

You see where this is going, right? If you’ve seen either version of Tron, The Terminator or The Matrix, you do: Technology intended to serve and/or entertain man, animates, becomes sentient and throws a massive, disruptive tantrum. Ra.One’s director, Anubhav Sinha, has, by the way, definitely seen all those movies. I would guess he liked them quite a bit.

See, another interesting and defining aspect of Bollywood productions is the, uh, well, the plagiarism. Low-budgets, tight shooting schedules, lax or nonexistent copyright laws, and an emphasis on ROI resulted in a system of boosted script and visual elements. Big budgets and more accommodating calendars seem to have done little to alter that. Viewing Ra.One is a bit like sci-fi Bingo. Every one of the aforementioned movies contributes, directly, to this one: The opening scene of computer-animated digital information streaming and materializing mimics the opening of Tron: Legacy; the first real-world incarnation of Ra.One wears Neo’s leather jacket and the Terminator’s mirrored shades . . . it goes on.

The thing is, it’s sooo blatant it’s hard to feel that you’re catching the filmmakers in anything. At one point, right before things really go down, Shekhar drunkenly slurs to a mock-up of his nemisis, “I’ll be back!” Everyone’s in on the joke.

I’m told by more expert watchers of Indian film than myself that the appropriation includes other Indian movies, as well. (There is a cameo by Indian actor Rajnikanth, in the role of his lead character from another recent big-budget Indian film, Robot).

This unapologetic borrowing, the heedless cross-genre jumps, the self-aware referentiality, and the overt desire to entertain combine with the up-to-the-minute digital effects and high-dollar stunt work combine for a Bollywood film that is more familiar than one might expect. It’s a slick, hip, good-natured, light-hearted techo-thiller.

Imagine a Disney production called The Tron Identity. With dance breaks.