By Michael Dequina | August 31, 2004

I was beginning to think that my interest in Bollywood film was unusual for someone in the West–particularly in the notoriously B’wood-ignorant U.S.–until June, when Time’s Richard Corliss wrote a huge valentine to his own obsession with commercial Indian cinema. Now far be it for me to be a slave to the Time Warner conglomerate’s supposed trendsetting, but that did give me a little nudge of encouragement that maybe I should continue writing about popular Hindi film. Further encouragement came in the form of recent Bollywood film festivals on the mainstream premium cable networks Turner Classic Movies and the Sundance Channel.

But the real clincher came, as it always does in this industry, with hard box office figures: namely the #16 North American box office finish of “Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (I Will Love Him till the End of Time)” on its opening the weekend of June 27-29, earning over $670,000 on only 60 screens. But like its Hollywood blockbuster counterparts, business more than tumbled by half in its second weekend–not terribly surprising, in light of the mixed reaction of the capacity opening night crowd at my trusty local “Bollyplex,” as I call it (the wonderful Naz 8 Cinemas in Lakewood, California). Even at 201 minutes long (since cut down to 177 minutes, but more on that later), this romance–hyped before its release as B’wood’s big summer blockbuster–isn’t exactly too much longer than the famously lengthy Bollywood norm, but the palpable restlessness of the audience by the film’s final stretch was merited, as the film failed to generate much of interest to sustain such a running time.

Not that “MPKDH” (as it is popularly abbreviated) boasts a plot any less thin as or more familiar than many other Bollywood films. Sanjana (Kareena Kapoor) is a free-spirited type who, fresh out of college, wants to live her life by her own terms; her parents, of course, have more traditional plans in mind–namely, marrying her off to the most appropriate suitor. Appearing to fit the bill to Sanjana’s family is a friend of her sister’s by the name of Prem (Hrithik Roshan), whose outgoing, thrill-seeking belies his status as a big-time businessman–and for a very good reason: it turns out that this Prem, Prem Kishen, is actually an underling of the proper Prem, Prem Kumar (Abhishek Bachchan, refreshingly understated in overblown surroundings), who couldn’t arrive on time due to business commitments. But, of course, by the time Prem Kumar does arrive, Sanjana has already been won over by Prem Kishen.

Sounds like a typical romantic triangle out of B’wood, and it follows the flamboyant masala formula to the letter. The more lighthearted first half of the film focuses on Prem Kishen’s efforts to win over Sanjana while things turn more serious post-intermission with the arrival of Prem Kumar and the formation of the key triangle; dollops of broad humor are spread throughout the film; and there are many buoyant song and dance numbers sprinkled along the way. But director Sooraj Barjatya and his two main stars, Kapoor and Roshan, don’t quite grasp that a certain moderation is called for even in a genre characterized by excess; there’s a fine line between excess and simply too much. Bollywood humor is generally silly, but Barjatya really tests audiences’ patience and suspension of disbelief with his two big “enhancements”–a dog whose head suddenly morphs from live action to animation (!) when angry; and, even worse, an annoying CGI talking parrot (!!) with a penchant for quoting movie titles (!!!). Kapoor’s ongoing high-profile career continues to be confounding with her thoroughly unimpressive performance. She still confuses overwrought mugging with acting, whether comic or dramatic (that her most convincing scene is when she cries on her bed–while face down–says it all); and she continues to prove to be one of the most rhythm-challenged dancers in Bollywood. That last statement cannot, of course, be applied to Roshan, who is a terrific dancer–and, when he wants to be, can be an effective actor. Alas, “MPKDH” is one project where he chooses to overact (perhaps to keep up with his leading lady?), and Barjatya makes the curious decision to not give him one big number where he can really cut loose and show what he can do.

And, in a rather strange move, the one musical number in which Roshan is given the most to do has since been cut from the film and appears on the DVD only as a separate special feature. After complaints about the film’s length during the opening week, the producers made the curious move to order exhibitors to remove an entire reel from the film. While the sequence in question, taking place during a Valentine’s Day party, did drag on and can theoretically be removed fairly cleanly, the film makes very little narrative sense without it. Not only does it mark the crucial turning point where Prem Kishen finally wins over Sanjana and introduces an element that pays off at the climax, the now-excised sequence features the centerpiece musical number that introduces the song–the annoying yet impossibly catchy “Sanjana I Love You”–that becomes the film’s central musical theme for the rest of the film. But I guess such a hasty and sloppy decision is reflective of the overall haphazard line of creative thinking that went into “Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon.”

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