When I first picked up the Bollywood Beats screener and saw what the film was about, it caused me to wonder: North Texas’ South Asian community could cast, crew, create and produce a professional Bollywood musical? There was that much talent and resources, in-front-of- and behind-the-camera? Impressive.
Turns out I had to shift my expectations somewhat. Bollywood Beats was indeed shot in Plano (standing in for LA), and writer-director Mehul Shah is an SMU grad. But post-production was all done in Delhi, and the principal actors are out-of-town pros (actress-co-producer Mansi Patel, Lilette Dubey of Monsoon Wedding, former Miss India USA Pooja Kumar).
So the back story of the film actually goes like this: SMU grad Shah continues his climb in the industry from his Desi base (Desi refers to the children of the South Asian diaspora, in this case, Indian-Americans). Shah’s first film was the 2005 drama, Diwali, so kudos to him for continuing his trans-oceanic efforts.
Right. So how’s the movie? It’s a low-budget-but-n0t-that-cheap-looking musical set in America with all of the silly-happy Bollywood conventions intact, sub-category: the struggling young dancer with a dream. Raj ( Sachin Bhatt) wants to dance professionally, but he can’t get a gig, his dad doesn’t understand why he doesn’t find a real job and his girlfriend dumps him. An older Indian woman (Dubey) has a suggestion: Why not start a dance class for Indian women? Typically, Jyoti, this fairy-godmother plot-device, has no real motivation or relationship. She’s just a good-hearted, independent, unmarried woman (from somewhere) with all the money she needs (from somewhere) to help out other people, and not just Raj (there’s an adulterous husband who needs to be exposed). And no, Jyoti is not a cougar out to seduce Raj. That’s another kind of Bollywood film.
Needless to say, the class is a success, there’s a possible gig with a music video, a disastrous one at an Indian wedding and before I could set down my roti and ghee and shout, “climactic dance competition coming up,” one of them pops out of nowhere.
If all of these aren’t well-worn Bollywood cliches, they’re certainly well-worn Hollywood cliches. But that’s not the point with such a film. Because of Shah’s Indian-American setting and (apparently) intended audience, Bollywood Beats features an American pop-culture and immigrant overlay to the very familiar generational/sexual/professional tensions. Raj, for instance, is developing a personal dance style that mixes hip-hop moves with more traditional Indian dance steps. There’s also an extended sequence involving a young gay male (Mehul Shah himself) and the acceptance (or lack of same) he encounters. Traditional family and sex roles (gay or housewife) don’t accommodate the transplant process as easily as music and dancing do, but then all the tensions get channeled into music and dancing, anyway.
Right. So how are the dance productions? Those are pretty much the entire purpose of a Bollywood musical. It’s revealing that although Keith Clark is credited with the choreography, four other names are listed below his, without official title — suggesting the varying styles on display. Bhatt is attractive and charming, though his hip-hop moves are more mainstream breaks and glides than hard-core aggressive krump. As the put-upon housewife who (surprise!) suddenly flowers on the floor, Kumar is a commanding presence. Bollywood musicals are all about directing (possibly dangerous) sexual energies into safe, smiling, lightly smoldering dance numbers, and Kumar excels at conveying the smolder, especially in the final sequence.
For no real reason except to spin off the sampler offered in the climactic competition, Shah tags on an ending medley that’s a wry history of Bollywood dance, and you can see how, over the years, Indians have very knowingly melded their own conventions with American movies, music and fashions — including ’60s mini-skirts and Beatles-era psychedelia, Saturday Night Fever disco and Purple Rain-era Prince. It’s the chief reason to see Bollywood Beats. Unfettered by plot or character or earnest social issues, it’s just fun.
At the AFI Film Festival, Bollywood Beats screens Sunday at 3:30 at NorthPark and Wednesday at 10 pm at Magnolia.