Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
My wife regularly accuses me of hypocrisy when it comes to Indian cinema: "You tolerate things in Bollywood films that you wouldn't tolerate in a typical American blockbuster!" And I admit it. When the dour Jason Bourne survives a fall from several stories up and walks away with nary a limp, my internal B.S. meter hits critical levels, precisely because the movie wants me to take it seriously. In your typical Bollywood movie, though, those physics-defying feats occur amid a steady stream of dance numbers and comic relief gags, so one is never transported to that state of mind in which all must be taken as real. Consequently, you can just enjoy what is before you.
However, my hypocrisy struggled under the weight of "Shivaay," one of the latest Bollywood releases to hit Central Arkansas. Our title character (Ajay Devgn, who also directs) acts as a guide in the Himalayas. During one climbing expedition, he falls in love with Bulgarian student Olga (Erika Kaar). This brief affair ends with her pregnant and wanting to have an abortion, already having family members to care for back in Bulgaria, but Shivaay bullies her into going full term and leaving the child with him. (Patriarchy at its best.)
Fast-forward nine years, and Shivaay is climbing mountains with his mute daughter, Gaura (Abigail Eames). After Gaura learns the true story of her mother, Shivaay takes her to Bulgaria in search of Olga, enlisting the help of local consulate worker Anushka (Sayesha Saigal). And here, in a satisfying reversal of every Fu Manchu-esque tale of white slavery set in the "insidious" Orient, Gaura is kidnapped by a ring of human traffickers. This turns Shivaay into India's answer to Liam Neeson, tearing through the Bulgarian underworld in search of his daughter and leaving behind an ever-growing pile of dead bodies — mostly pimps and corrupt cops. Anushka eventually comes to his aid (outside her official capacity, of course), having enlisted Olga as well as a hacker friend (Vir Das) who does the requisite jabbering about firewalls and download speeds.
It's a rather basic setup for an action film, and it could have been done quite well, but the movie undermines itself in several ways. To begin with, the editing is atrocious, especially during the action sequences — there are so many cuts it feels that the movie was not so much put through an editing suite but a Ginsu knife commercial, leaving the viewer with no real sense of the physical space in which the action occurs. Too, although the car chase scenes see many vehicles trashed (they must be cheap in Bulgaria), the film rather obviously replaces real stunt work with a green screen.
But the biggest knock against the movie is the utter cartoonishness of its villains. The henchmen would not even qualify as Imperial Stormtroopers they shoot so badly, while the heads of this flesh trade operation exhibit zero business acumen. Despite knowing that Shivaay wants only his daughter, they insist upon keeping this one girl captive even in the face of a rising body count and the risk of losing everything. Yes, the power of cinema can make the viewer experience a range of strange and wonderful emotions, but no movie should ever leave you thinking, "Gosh, I could run a better child sex slavery operation than these bozos."
Perhaps even that could have been forgiven had "Shivaay" been a more typical Bollywood movie, one which tries hard "to contain the whole of life," as Salman Rushdie once described the genre. Granted, dance numbers and comic relief (of which there are none here) could very well have felt misplaced in such a story, but Indian cinema proves so enjoyable precisely when it reminds us that the whole range of human experience is still possible, even in our darkest hours. After all, our eponymous hero is named for the god of destruction and creation, and one wishes that actor and director Devgn had explored more of that duality. Instead, he made a second-rate American popcorn flick — and a mockery of my carefully cultivated hypocrisy.