For a few years now, the Rave theater in Southwest Little Rock has, without much fanfare, been playing the odd Bollywood blockbuster, making our fair city a small part of the 21st-century growth of Indian cinema into international markets. Among the films to which Little Rock has been treated are “Ra.One” (2011), a 3-D science-fiction adventure probably best described as “Terminator 2” meets “The Lawnmower Man,” with a healthy dose of slapstick comedy, song, and dance thrown in; “Chennai Express” (2013), the highest-grossing Bollywood film of all time, a romantic action-comedy that highlights the beauty of rural India as well as the musical abilities and choreography of its inhabitants, and my personal favorite, the international espionage-action-romance flick “Ek Tha Tiger” (2012), featuring India’s answer to James Bond punching, shooting, kicking, exploding, singing, and dancing his way across the world.
The latest Bollywood installment to hit Little Rock is “Besharam” (“Shameless”), starring Ranbir Kapoor as Babli, a stylish (and eponymously shameless) car thief whose criminal enterprises help underwrite the orphanage where he was raised and still lives as an adult. Hired to nab something nice for underworld boss Bheem Singh (played with considerable menace by Javed Jaffrey), Babli unknowingly swipes the Mercedes owned by Tara (Pallavi Sharda), a professional businesswoman whose heart he is determined to win, no matter the class and cultural differences that separate them. As Babli attempts to correct his mistake and do something right for the first time in his life, he and Tara find themselves pursued not just by Bheem Singh and his henchmen, but also by police officers Bulbul and Chulbul Chautala (actor Kapoor’s real-life parents, Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh), an old married couple constantly lamenting their childlessness. You see where this is going, don’t you?
That rough description does not do the film justice. If there is something that defines Bollywood, it’s mixing genres like the guy at your party who thinks that playing bartender means pouring a lot of random liquids into the same glass. “Besharam” is a romantic comedy in which seeming opposites find themselves in love after a coincidence-filled sequence of events. “Besharam” is also a roaring action film in which bad guys casually carry rocket launchers and average joes fight like Jackie Chan would if he ever stepped into the Matrix. “Besharam” also has enough (literal) toilet humor to make an Adam Sandler movie seem subtle by comparison.
“Besharam,” as should be expected, is also a musical. The U.S. doesn’t produce a whole lot of musicals these days aside from adaptations of already well-known theatrical fare, such as “Chicago” or “Les Miserables,” or the odd animated Disney film. Bollywood films, however, are musicals by default — song-and-dance sequences simply constitute a cinematic convention, not unlike the montage in American cinema. And the numbers in “Besharam” are absolute stunners, even if they do feature more pelvic thrusting than an Elvis highlights reel. However contrived the plot or two-dimensional the characters, when Kapoor and Sharda hit the dance floor, they are wonderfully charming, from the song “Tere Mohalle,” which constitutes a gamboling battle of the sexes, to “Aare Aare,” an amazingly choreographed piece that seems to use more extras than did Peter Jackson in “The Lord of the Rings.”
Our American sensibilities aren’t really equipped to deal with the fantastic spectacle, genre-bending, and odd non-sequitur that apparently defines much of Indian cinema. (Why does Inspector Chautala suddenly, in the midst of a shootout, develop superhuman breath that lets him exhale the bad guys away? Don’t ask me. Perhaps anything is possible if you live in a world where an entire village can break out into coordinated song at the drop of a hat.) But whether you go to see this film or another Bollywood flick, you will find something in it for everyone, for Bollywood films are a bit like Arkansas weather — if you don’t like what you are watching, wait five minutes, and it will change. In this respect, “Besharam” seems fairly representative, a sample platter of genres and motifs that prioritizes big-screen beauty and spectacle over some contrived verisimilitude of plot. Sure, at times the movie can be a little baffling, but it’s never dull — never, ever dull.