It seems that some cultural differences are just too great to overcome. Bollywood films have huge audiences in India itself and among the Indian diaspora, but with the exception of pictures like “Slumdog Millionaire,” which use elements of the style to other purposes, they’ve proven incapable of crossing over to a larger western audience. This latest example is a particularly odd attempt to meld Bollywood with not only Hollywood but the telenovella, too. Shot by Anurag Basu in the American southwest, it mingles a florid cross-ethnic romance-with-music (though not Bollywood’s elaborate dance numbers) with a quasi-noir action-adventure, complete with car chases and lots of gunplay. The result is a bizarre mixture of east and west that will probably please neither of its two target audiences.
Plot-wise “Kites” is reminiscent of the 1990 Tony Scott-Kevin Costner bomb “Revenge,” though with plenty of added elements. Bollywood heartthrob Hrithik Roshan stars as J, a dance instructor and all-around hustler in Las Vegas who makes money on the side by “marrying” illegal immigrants so they can get green cards and stay in the country; his latest “wife” is the beautiful Natasha (Barbara Mori). But one of his students becomes fanatically interested in him—Gina (Kangana Ranaut), and she turns out to be the daughter of rich casino owner Bob (Kabir Bedi). When he finds out how flush Gina’s family is, he reconsiders his initial rebuff to the girl, and is soon embraced by Bob as a potential son-in-law, too.
Trouble enters J’s mercenary plans when Gina’s brutal brother Tony (Nick Brown) shows up with his fiancee—none other than Natasha, who’s marrying him for his money. Soon sparks are flying between the two gold-diggers, and they run off together, pursued by the maniacal Tony and his father’s goon squad (as well as incredibly pliant but thoroughly ineffectual police).
But this summary doesn’t do justice—if that’s the right word—to the complexity Basu (who also co-wrote the script) imposes on the picture. The story of the star-crossed lovers is told in a shuffle of flashbacks, starting with a sequence of a wounded J being discovered in the middle of the desert. It then shifts between the tale of how he got there and the narrative of his struggle to survive and get back to Natasha. In case you don’t get some important point, rest assured it will be repeated, often with a pop tune playing over a montage and sometimes in slow-motion. And to provide an action-oriented kick to things, Basu includes a whole series of elaborate chases (mostly with cars, but occasionally with trucks of various sizes, trains, motorcycles, and even hot-air balloons), and a succession of violent encounters, mostly pitting J against Tony but often involving others as well.
And it’s all presented in visually extravagant and emotionally operatic style. That’s typical of the hyperbolic Bollywood approach, which in many respects mimics the attitude of silent movies from a century ago rather than contemporary western cinematic practice. Audiences not habituated to it are likely to find “Kites” a weird fusion of romantic excess, overwrought violence and crudely-staged action, all played to the rafters, filmed in garish colors and accompanied by a bombastic background score. (The “tragic” ending goes so completely off the rails that it’s positively risible.) The movie does, to be sure, showcase two photogenic stars in Roshan and Mori, but neither emerges very positively, not only because their physical attractiveness doesn’t entirely compensate for the greedy, grasping characters they’re playing, but because they overemote so strenuously. Still, the supporting cast go even further overboard, with the first prize for scenery-chewing undoubtedly going to Brown, who offers a combination of sleaziness and overripe menace that must be seen to be disbelieved.
The present review, incidentally, is based on the two-hour plus original version of the movie, with dialogue spoken in a melange of English, Spanish and Hindi. Next week “Kites” will be released wide in a shorter, and dubbed, “American” cut overseen by Brett Ratner. I haven’t seen it, but one doubts whether the transformation will attract much of a stateside audience. Even the best tailor would have trouble turning a kurta into a suit coat.