3 July 2005 | BrandtSponseller
How to ruin a good thing
Too many Bollywood films try to be too many different things. Having a standard running time of two and a half to three hours doesn't help, as it encourages sprawl to meet the expected length. Occasionally, the broad-spanning genre hopping works. More often the films work despite the loose focus. But occasionally the over-ambitiousness ends up sinking a film. That's what happens in Mudda.
Writer/director Saurabh Shukla begins the film on solid enough footing. We first follow a college ethics professor named Acharya (Aditya Srivastava) as he announces that he's tired of city life in Mumbai, including the overly political atmosphere of the university and the way that students are used as pawns. He wants to return to a simpler existence in a rural village, where he is certain he'll find peace.
Humorously, as soon as he announces this, Shukla segues to the warring village that Acharya is headed to. Acharya's complaints and subsequent move turn out to have an even more ironic edge later on. The source of the problem is a feud between competing village rulers Balli Tai (Dolly Ahluwalia) and Harphul Singh (Rajat Kapoor). Balli Tai has an almost mobster-like control of the village, including the police, and Harphul accuses her of rigging the most recent election. Paralleling the feud are their offspring. Balli Tai's son Rajbeer (Arya Babbar) is the local bully. Harphul's son Pratap (Prashant Narayanan) is kinder and quieter, which means that Rajbeer is constantly pushing him around.
The initial focus on Acharya as well as subsequent scenes that center on this character have a refreshing "art film" feel. Unfortunately, Acharya quickly becomes negligible in the story. This is another problem that plagues too many Bollywood films--following an interesting character/story for the first 20 to 30 minutes before completely changing gears. Note to Bollywood producers, directors and writers: Don't tease your audience with intriguing material that you're not going to deliver on. Just get on with the story right from the beginning.
Even with changing gears, Mudda isn't too bad at first, as it seems that it will turn out to be something of a quirkily humorous but mostly serious political parable, with the different sides using despicable tactics to win. And fairly quickly Shukla makes the college students the focus instead, but continues the political parable in almost a Lord of the Flies-vein.
However, all of this falls apart and becomes just another dreaded, clichéd love triangle film centered on both Rajbir and Pratap courting the beautiful Sundari (Rekha Vedavyasa). There are a number of character disposition 180-degree shifts that only exist to meet the conventions of the love triangle plot. Character changes like these require justification.
And there are plenty of other problems. Fight scenes have way too much facial mugging and melodrama. They are also poorly blocked, and the sound effects work is so ridiculous that it is hilarious instead. The timbre of the punch sounds is all wrong, and the sounds occur even when no one is punching. At times these scenes were ridiculous enough that I had to pause because I was laughing so hard. The fight scenes are a bit like the cheesiest, most poorly dubbed early 1970s kung fu film you've ever scene, minus the nifty kung fu but plus a lot of overacted primping and posing.
And of course there are breaks for musical numbers. While the music would be pleasant enough in isolation--much of it has almost a light jazz feel, which is refreshing, it wasn't integrated into the film very well, and the songs featured that generic travelogue cinematography as well as generic lyrics--you know that stuff where characters are so in love that they're "pining" for each other, they can't sleep, and so on. These musical numbers could be inserted into a few thousand other films without audiences noticing the difference. Note to Bollywood producers, directors and writers: Not every film has to be a musical--please! Not every film has to be a romance or a love triangle. And if you can't help yourself from putting musical numbers in your films, try a bit of creativity in your lyrics. Believe it or not, it's possible to write song lyrics about any topic imaginable. And not all of the staging of the songs has to be a travelogue. Stop copying whatever classic Bollywood film it is that everyone has been copying for years and years. Bollywood has been complaining about a lack of profits recently. Try to make some creative films that don't putz out by bowing to conventions. If you do that, you'll begin to see hefty profits, and not just from areas with heavy Indian populations.
Because without the incongruous but clichéd songs, without the ridiculous fight scenes, without the horrendous mugging, without the atrociously overacted melodrama, and without the obligation to stretch a story out to a particular bloated running time, Mudda could have been quite a film. The actors are good. The actors are attractive (not just Vedavyasa). There is a lot of good, underdeveloped material here. The village setting was interesting. The composer, Jeet-Pritnam, is talented and very capable of writing intriguing _background_ music. You have some nice cinematography. Mudda could have been a poignant but quirky art film focusing on ethical issues (you had an ethics professor as a potential lead character, but you blew it!) in politics, using a small village as a parable for global political realities. Stop ruining films like this with the insertion of formulaic crap. Please? I'll give you a dollar?