For reasons I can only guess at, the Toronto Public Library edition of this film does not contain English or French subtitles – not that I would do much better with French subtitles than none, but it would be some improvement. So I was forced to watch this movie as if it was “silent,” following characters’ expressions, and the contexts of each scene, albeit with the added bonus of intonation. I was not willing to go scouring the interwebs for a version of this movie with English subtitles. So everything I am going to say should be taken with a grain of salt.
Full disclosure: Bollywood is perhaps the one film genre I actively hate. I have never understood why anyone would want to so slavishly adhere to the awful, escapist conventions of “golden age” Hollywood cinema and I doubt I ever will. I much prefer Indian films made outside of the Bollywood tradition, because these films attempt their own national cinema, not one so indebted to dumb Hollywood audience pandering. Also, I don’t like “serious” musicals. I love musicals that are aware of their own stupidity – the idea that anyone breaks out into song at any moment should always be treated with humourous skepticism in my mind – but I cannot take seriously musicals that treat the musical numbers as serious, as part of the greater drama of the film. This is perhaps why I do not love any of the classic Hollywood musicals.
All that being said, this is clearly an ambitious and heartfelt film, that deserves at least some credit for the depth of storytelling outside of the musical numbers and the elaborate (albeit highly artificial) production design. The film uses the classic device of a trial being the source of the flashbacks that tell the story of the protagonists, and it does this before that device had become cliche. Also, the Indian pop music in this film has not yet been horribly infected by western pop music. So, that’s the good.
The bad is everything about Bollywood: This film imitates the artificiality of Hollywood, using hilariously obvious sets instead of locations much of the time – though there is the odd location shot, which is better than average for Hollywood. The musical numbers, which I could not understand the lyrics of, feel inserted much of the time, like they usually do in Hollywood musicals. (There are one or two that feel completely integrated into the film.) The famous (legendary?) dream sequence is only really impressive in its over-the-top-ness, and really didn’t do anything for me. (I pretty sure Powell and Pressburger had already covered this territory, anyway…) And on top of all that, it’s interminably long. Is it the longest musical I have ever seen? I’m 99% sure. It’s over 3 hours long!