Kurbaan (Renzil D’Silva, 2009)
I gotta say, looking back over the decade I’ve been watching and reviewing Bollywood movies, I’ve been kind of rubber-stamping them. I’m a huge Bollywood fan, and to this day I still can’t tell you why; most of the Bollywood flicks I’ve seen I’d have probably loathed had they come out of Hollywood. (For one thing, I generally can’t stand big, artificial musical numbers.) And yeah, I’ve given the occasional bad review to a Bollywood movie, but it has to be really, really offensive, which again ends up striking strong emotions in me. Up until now, I had never seen a Bollywood film that simply left me cold. And then I watched Kurbaan.
Plot: Avantika (3 Idiots‘ Kareena Kapoor) is a visiting psychology professor at NYU. She meets Ehsaan (Kal Ho Naa Ho‘s Saif Ali Khan) through the usual Bollywood mechanisms (crazy series of coincidences leading her to believe he’s a boor, etc.), then we get the Big Romance Subplot, they end up affianced after her professorship is over and they’re back in India, and then she gets a letter from NYU asking her to come back for another year. Hallelujah! Ehsaan, a teacher himself, grabs a job at NYU as well (man, it’s easy to gain a professorship at NYU in Bollywood…) teaching a course about Islam and the Modern World, the two of them settle into a small suburban neighborhood with a number of Indian neighbors… and Avantika starts realizing that a lot of her neighbors are, shall we say, a little more orthodox than she originally realized. Eventually, she becomes suspicious enough to start eavesdropping, and realized she and Ehsaan have landed in the middle of a sleeper cell run by charismatic muslim Bhaijaan (the legendary Om Puri, who I think last appeared in less than five films in one year in 1984). She discovers that they’re planning on sending a suicide bomber on a plane that one of her friends is going to be on, and leaves the friend an impassioned message on her answering machine. Said friend’s husband, Riyaz (Prince‘s Vivek Oberoi), is a war correspondent for a major newspaper, and when he realizes what he might have his hands on while listening to his late wife’s messages, he sweet-talks his editor into letting him go undercover in the sleeper cell, working with Avantika to bring them to justice.
The obvious place to start here is with the first half-hour of the movie, which exists solely because it seems every Bollywood movie that’s been made in the past thirty years has to have a Big Romance Subplot(TM). And most of the time I’m okay with that, because it’s so integrated into the story that leaving it out wouldn’t make all that much sense. Here, it seems to exist because it’s expected; there’s one place where they attempt to make it into a plot point, but man, to say it fails miserably would be a kindness. And I’ve mentioned in a number of Bollywood reviews over the last couple of years that Bollywood movies that take place in America really should have a native English speaker go over some of the vernacular to make sure it actually sounds like English. (Side note: D’Silva, at least once, abandons the conceit altogether by have a lily-white college student at NYU simply speak Hindi. Which beggars suspension of disbelief, of course, but I have to say that given the choice between that and some of the hilarious attempts at English dialogue in this movie, I much preferred the Hindi; for obvious reasons, the dialog flowed much more naturally, and I have to admit I was kind of impressed by her fluency. I can’t be certain, because she is not named in the film, and is thus not credited as anything but “Student”, but I think it was Step Up‘s Cheryl Alessio.)
Once the movie went into straight thriller territory, it did get better; D’Souza and scriptwriter Karan Johar (whose Student of the Year is the first film he’s written whose name did not begins with K) have a pretty darn good idea of how to set up a thriller, even if they then kinda blew it by including a lot of brief flashback scenes about how clever they were in setting up the thriller. And honestly, they didn’t add anything new to that pot; this is a comfort-food thriller more than anything. If you’ve watched all the movies about mad bombers in your collection and haven’t seen this one yet, it’s not awful, but you can probably choose any other generic thriller you haven’t seen and have as good a time, if not a better one. **