(Sanjay Leela Bhansali, India, 2002)


One of the most admirable traits in Australian film culture is the dogged persistence of some distributors and exhibitors in trying to get Bollywood entertainment noticed beyond its primed niche market of Indian-Australians.

For many filmgoers, Bollywood cinema remains something distant and exotic. Too often, it is derided, sight unseen, as one of the trashiest forms of popular art in world culture.

Certainly, one needs to surrender all cultivated defences and hurl oneself into the vibrancy of the best Bollywood films in order to appreciate their sublime beauty and joy.

Critics who dismiss these films as artificial, too long, too thinly plotted or just plain silly often betray a casually racist insensitivity towards any cultural form that deviates even slightly from the dominant, American norm.

In fact, like the extravagant fantasies and comedies that emerged from Hong Kong in the ’80s, Bollywood films today capture the kind of innocent exuberance that long ago disappeared from Hollywood musicals.

Paradoxically, it is precisely the severe censorship restrictions upon mainstream Indian filmmakers – no sex, nudity or even kissing allowed – that creates the superb, erotic intensity of the musical numbers in Bollywood films, not to mention their endlessly convoluted plots of love denied, and their code of absolute physical glamour.

Devdas is one of the most spectacular Bollywood musicals of the past decade. It spins, for just over three hours, the elaborate tale of Devdas (Shah Rukh Khan) and Paro (Ashwarya Rai), soul mates since childhood, who must travel a long, strange path before figuring out their destiny.

Class differences and social approbation conspire to keep our lovers apart. Devdas turns to an adoring courtesan, Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit), while Paro enters into an arranged, loveless marriage. But nothing can entirely extinguish the memory of their passion for each other.

Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali unleashes a non-stop orgy of colour, choreography and lyrical, sweeping camera movements that puts Baz Luhrmann or Chicago (2002) to shame.

Bollywood cinema, happily, does not yet need the alibis of postmodern irony or withering sarcasm in order to have a good time with singing, dancing and an old-fashioned love story.

MORE Bollywood: Saathiya

© Adrian Martin May 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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