You might not expect an Indian actor to get much attention strolling past the high-end stores on Rodeo Drive. Yet as the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan turns the corner to walk into a Beverly Hills hotel on a recent Friday afternoon, Indian nationals materialize out of nowhere to point and stare. Eager onlookers pull out cameras and take photos with him. Even gaggles of white teenage girls gawk — they don't know Khan, but there are few men who could pull off a mod jacket and jet-black ponytail so convincingly.
Brad Pitt and Will Smith may have millions of fans around the world, but Khan — or SRK to the faithful — quantifies his groupies with a few added zeros. He is the biggest movie star you’ve never heard of. And perhaps the world’s biggest movie star, period. In a country of 1.2 billion where movies are a way of life, Khan delights fans with romance, comedy and action, sometimes all in the same movie. (This is Bollywood, after all.)
The actor had come to Los Angeles on a rare publicity trip to promote one of the most important releases of his career, “Ra.One,” which opened around the world and in a number of Southland theaters last week. With a budget estimated at $30 million, the film, directed by the veteran Anubhav Sinha, is touted as the most expensive project in Bollywood history.
“Ra.One” brackets a sweet father-son story around a splashy, effects-driven action tale about a video game designer who finds the real and virtual worlds melding. Amid the latex and the lasers, there is also, needless to say, singing and dancing — think of it as a sort of Indian “Tron.”
“We're trying to Bollywoodize the superhero,” Khan, half-smiling, said of “Ra.One.” (The title is short for Random Access 1.0; if pronounced a certain way, it is also a pun on the Hindu demon Ravan.)
The results thus far have justified the investment. Reviews have been mixed, but “Ra.One’s” distributor estimates that the picture already had grossed more than it cost to make, taking in $35 million around the world in its first five days of release. It rang up $1.65 million in ticket sales in the United States, the distributor said; the film is currently playing in about 135 U.S. theaters.
Movies: Past, present and future
“What if something that is meant to be played, starts playing with your life,” the trailer for “Ra.One” begins, asking a question you surely have thought about every time you picked up a video-game controller, your Blackberry or a French horn.
If you’ve never heard of the movie that tag line is promoting, “Ra.One,” you clearly haven’t been keeping up with the latest in Bollywood big bets. A slick science-fiction movie with some Eastern-influenced action, the Anubhav Singha film stars Bollywood mega-star Shah Rukh Khan and comes out to great worldwide (if not exactly domestic) anticipation on Wednesday. A lot of rupees are riding on it: At a budget of roughly $30 million, "Ra.One" is being touted as the most expensive Hindi production in history.
To hear the press materials tell it: “A father trying hard to 'fit-in' in his Son's bad*** world- A son trying hard to 'dude-up' his dad from 'aiiiyyyo' to 'YO!' And a mother lost in translation between her husband's 'ingeva' and her son's Inn'it!' While Shekhar was trying every trick in the book to woo his son, get 'dude-ified' and 'up his coolness quotient' his son had given up on him.. Just when the father-son duo hit a deadlock- Shekhar strikes gold when he designs one hell of a game. Finally it all starts falling in place; as the family comes together only to find themselves in the middle of a crash not just a hard drive crash but a crash that would drive them to a disaster and make their lives go KABOOM!!!”
Kabooming descriptions aside, "Ra.One" is reminiscent of what China is trying to with “The Flowers of War,” an effects-driven epic modeled after the big-budget spectacle of "Saving Private Ryan” and other Hollywood war films--only in this case the Asian production is following in the path of science-fiction heavyweights like James Cameron and his progenitors.
Indeed, as you can see from the trailer below, “Ra.One” looks shiny and expensive, and is a far cry from the song-and-dance numbers most often associated with Bollywood movies, though whether it’s sufficiently different from “Tron” and a host of other Hollywood confections is a separate question.
"Slumdog Millionaire" introduced a wider audience to the modern Bollywood style of filmmaking, in which song and melodrama freely mix, but opportunities to see the classics of the 1950s and '60s, the era known as the Golden Age of Indian cinema, are rare indeed. In conjunction with its "India's Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow" exhibition, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is presenting 1960's "Full Moon" (Chaudhvin Ka Chand), a film starring and produced by the gifted Guru Dutt, who died tragically young in 1964 at the age of 39. Get a glimpse of where it all began. Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at LACMA's Bing Auditorium.
Though he wasn't behind the camera on this film, Dutt was also a gifted director, and fans of the genre would be well-advised to track down a DVD of his best known film, 1957's "Pyaasa," a two-hour and 33-minute musical fantasy from India, stylishly shot in black-and-white, that mixes delicate singing with social consciousness and bogglingly melodramatic plot twists.
"Pyaasa" follows an unappreciated poet named Vijay who finds life more to his liking in the slums of a big city and in the arms of a woman of questionable virtue. Vijay’s work takes off when he is mistakenly reported dead and, among other things, he eventually gets to crash his own memorial service. Yes, it's like that.
-- Kenneth Turan, Times film critic
Photo: "Full Moon" (Chaudhvin Ka Chand) features Waheeda Rehman, left, and co-star/producer Guru Dutt. Credit: Gala Entertainment