15 November 2002 | bob the moo
Recipe - take `On the Waterfront' treat with Bollywood formula, take all meaning out of it, stretch it to 3 hours and stick in songs that don't fit with the film - et viola - Ghulam!
Siddhu is a small time felon in Bombay who's morals can be summarised as `every man for himself'. His lawyer has faith he can change and is trying to help him by keeping him out of jail for petty offences. Siddhu's brother works for Ronny, an ex-boxer who now runs organised crime in the area. As a result Siddhu gets some muscle work for Ronny. One day Ronny's thugs are beating up some shopkeepers for money by Siddhu's house. Afterwards Siddhu meets the eldest, Hari, and befriends him. However Hari is responsible for causing Ronny trouble and hence Siddhu unwittingly helps Ronny to kill him.
I have only seen a handful of Bollywood films of these I have loved one (Lagaan) and been indifferent to the majority. I find that they have all the flaws of Hollywood exploitation movies without many of the production values. Ghulam (The Slave) is a fine example of the standard Bollywood formula - songs, pretty girls, manly heroes, hairy villains, overacting and dramatic music and direction. As such it is OK but I'm not a fan of these standard formulae. I'd rather have them with at least a bit of a new spin. However this film doesn't want to do that and gives it to us straight. The plot is a basic `do the right thing' film that borrows heavily from `On the Waterfront' in many different ways.
The action scenes suggest a Bollywood Jackie Chan but they lack any of his flair and imagination. The love interest is dropped into the film so heavily that it hits with a heavy clang - the first hour is basically just that, it isn't integrated into the film so much as just added on. It does allow about 5 songs to occur that don't fit with the tone of the film. I'm a little biased because I always struggle to tell one from the other with these things. I know that they films are meant to be whole adventures for an audience but it just felt pretty disjointed to me.
The direction is typically hilarious - rushing cameras etc that really play to the traditional Bollywood clichés. The sound effects sound too fake and don't match the action and the different in sound quality between dialogue and singing is so noticeable that it bothered me. I know that the singing is mostly done by other people in a studio but can't they at least try and match them up in terms of quality at least.
The acting is also very clichéd. Khan was a good hero in Lagaan but he was helped by the more professional feel of that film. Here he fits with the mood of the film in that he just overacts where needed - tears, anger, frustration etc, all emotions are on his sleeve for all to see. The villains are typically bad and gruff and overact like the best of them. Meanwhile love interest Mukherjee (Alisha) is suitably air brushed, pretty and shot with a constant breeze in her hair and soft focus lens!
Considering people make a big deal of Bollywood movies being a big culture. To me this just smacked of American influence. Chicago Bulls tee-shirts, T2 posters etc all clutter the sets. Meanwhile the plot borrows from lots of American films. Like I said the plot itself is just On the Waterfront without the subtext or drama. They take it and just throw out anything of value and add songs! Even the boxing scene sees the opponent being a mickey-take of BRITISH boxer Prince Naseem Hamed. Even the climax is a mix between a wild west stand-off and a Rocky movie! Does no one else see the influence of American culture in this film? It's not a bad thing but why pretend that Bollywood films are something exciting and new?
Overall this film will please those who happily accept the Bollywood film formula with all it's weaknesses. For me I view it on the same level as any other film - it's plot is weak, a basic good versus bad story, with average acting, misplaced songs and not very much to enjoy for an even slightly demanding audience.