When Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1958 musical “Flower Drum Song” was revived on Broadway last year, it was provided with an entirely new book because the original one was dismissed as a crudely stereotyped portrait of Chinese-American life. It’s amazing, then, that a movie made in the very same year should so blithely wallow in the clumsiest stereotypes of Indian-American culture in a search for laughs. There’s an amusing idea behind “Bollywood/Hollywood”–the application of the conventions of those huge, corny Indian musical extravaganzas to a story about a family living in North America (Canada, in this case)–but the execution is so badly misconceived and woefully amateurish that it never takes off; the movie is not only clumsily made, but it makes one wince in the same way that a simple remounting of the four-decade old version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein show would have done.
The central character is Rahul (stilted Rahul Khanna), the westernized son of the Seth family. His father is dead–we see him expire in a cutesy opening scene–and a decade after his demise Rahul has linked up with a New Agey white actress (“Baywatch”-grade Jessica Pare), a circumstance that sends his anxious mother (overwrought Moushoumi Chatterjee) and imperious grandmother (lip-smacking Dina Pathak) into paroxysms. Fortunately the girlfriend perishes in a even-more-cutesy freak accident (she falls while trying to levitate over the Hollywood sign). This gives his mother the opportunity to lay down the law to Rahul: either he get himself a traditional Indian girlfriend or she’ll call off the planned nuptials of his sister Twinky (Rishma Malik)–something he can’t allow to happen because, as he knows though mamma doesn’t, the girl is pregnant. Luckily Rahul comes upon Sue (Lisa Ray, the sole cast member to show a professional spark), a spunky escort who identifies herself as Hispanic but can impersonate an Indian with surprising ease, and he hires her to pretend to be his new fiancee. Of course, Sue turns out to be an Indian after all, though a very liberated one, and gradually Rahul regrets that their deal is strictly a business proposition as he begins to fall for her. The outcome is, needless to say, preordained.
The fact that this is a thin conceit isn’t necessarily an obstacle to the movie being enjoyable; great screwball comedies have been made out of even feebler stuff. The problem with “Bollywood/Hollywood” is that it’s been realized so ineptly. Deepa Mehta’s script is filled with dialogue that might have sounded witty on the page but falls flat when delivered as poorly as it is under Mehta’s alternately frantic and sluggish direction. There’s a preciousness to everything that goes on, as though the writer-director and her cast were constantly winking at the audience, smugly satisfied at their cleverness (the smarmy captions that intrude periodically are perhaps the worst offenders in this respect); but their confidence is misplaced. As if the shrillness of Pathak and Chatterjee weren’t bad enough, Mehta adds two other figures to the mix that exacerbate things. One is Govind (Arjun Lombardi-Singh), an annoyingly geeky younger brother; the other is Rahul’s chauffeur, an aggravatingly chirpy fellow named Rocky (Ranjit Chowdhry), who’s also–incredibly–a drag singer in a popular nightspot. The obligatory musical numbers that mimic the Bollywood style are cheesily dumb, but though they provide some brief respite from the dreary plot turns, they aren’t carried off stylishly enough to be more than passably amusing. On the other hand, the production design is suitably colorful–it’s easily the best aspect of the picture.
There’s one character in “Bollywood/Hollywood” whose emotions viewers can readily understand. That’s Mommy Seth, who keeps repeating the mantra “I’m so unlucky” when things don’t go as she wants. We know how she feels. This isn’t either “Bollywood” or “Hollywood” as much as “Follywood.”