"We're in Switzerland all of the sudden!"
"Just keep smiling."
Recently Dr. Freex complained that we B-Masters tend to ignore movies about cowboys and Indians. Well, we'll let him take care of the cowboys while we cover the Indians.
Ziddi (we think the title means "stubborn") is the story of Deva (Sunny Deol), a crime lord in some or another Indian city. Yes, this is a Bollywood film (named for the city of Bombay, where the Indian film industry is located), not a western. As near as we can tell this was a fairly popular film in India, and it's a bit slicker in the production department than most other Bollywood films we've seen.
In the first scene we see Deva holding court -- a vigilante court that tries corrupt cops and criminals who prey on the poor. When a cop brought to this court is proven to have killed suspects in custody, Deva shoots the man with his own gun.
"Curse you Firestone!"
This first scene gives us a good idea of what to expect for the rest of the film. The first shot of Deva behind his desk is backlit with "god rays." Then when Deva wants to approach the cop in a dramatic fashion his desk splits in two right down the middle so Deva doesn't have to walk around it. Sure it looks cool, but it seems like a pretty unlikely function to have built into a desk. (And wouldn't the seam make it a difficult surface upon which to write?) Then Deva lays out the charges against the cop, which include killing innocent suspects in jail and leaving their families with no one to provide for them. Then Deva sentences the cop to death, and when Deva shoots the guy, the prop gun clearly misfires, so the explosion is seen in the chamber on the side of the gun and not in the barrel. Yet they kept the shot in.
This combination of slick style, narrative incoherence, gritty drama, and filmmaking ineptitude will be present throughout the three hours (three!) of the film's running time.
Immediately after this scene the film goes into a flashback. Deva is a wild son compared to his conservative lawyer father. While his father tries to reign Deva in, Deva goes out at night and runs with street gangs. At least that what we think he does. What actually happens is we hear Deva's father say that Deva is going out, and the movie cuts to a music video of Deva and all his tough friends dancing to an interminable pop song. These bizarre, pointless music videos are a standard feature of Bollywood films, yet they gain a certain charm because even at this late date (Ziddi was made in 1997) they still incorporate all the cliches from videos that ran on MTV in the early 1980s. Apparently Indian filmmakers have decided that the art of musical film peaked with Michael Jackson's "Beat It" and Madonna's "Material Girl." In the case of Ziddi, the overall impression given is that Paula Abdul runs all of India's street gangs.
Quick, somebody put India
in charge of the Olympics!
After the 5-minute musical interlude we are treated to an important event in Deva's formation. A young cur named Vilas has taken to blocking the path of Deva's sister, Guddi, when she walks through town. And just to make matters worse Vilas -- wait for it -- grabbed Guddi's hand! This sends Deva into a rage and he rushes out to confront Vilas. Deva beats the crap out of Vilas in a long brutal scene and then, just to make sure his message gets across, rips Vilas' arm out of its socket! Deva's parents and sister (as well as most of the town's citizens) witness this act, and Deva goes to jail for four years. When Deva gets out of jail he shows no remorse, so his father throws him out.
And that's the end of the flashback, though somewhat clearer editing would have been nice. In the present Deva is one of four crime lords the police want to take down, apparently because he smuggles gold. The others lords are Lal (real estate cheat), Khan (muscle man) and Jindal (narcotics, and the biggest cheese, played by Raj Babbar) Unlike Deva, none of these guys have Deva's keen social conscience and they tend to exploit the poor. Meanwhile Vilas' brother Inder (and best friend to Deva's brother Akasha) has become a high-ranking police officer. We should add that Inder (Ashish Vidyarthi) doesn't seem to hold any ill will towards Deva, even arguing with Deva's father that Vilas deserved what he had coming.
Lighting by God.
Guess what time it is? It's time for a musical number! This one features a club dancer named Jaya (Raveena Tandon) going through her routine. But considering that the plot requires Jaya to be a poverty-stricken working girl, this musical number seems ludicrously elaborate. It makes a Ricky Martin concert look like a coffee shop set by Jewel. It features three costume changes for Jaya, complete battalions of male and female backup dancers who go through their own costume changes, flags, a huge lighted dance floor that stretches from one end of the venue to the other and even climbs a full story up one wall, not to mention a complicated lighting scheme. You'd expect Jaya to be pulling down some major money for all this. Who's her agent? Lou Pearlman?
The other thing that struck us during all this is that the weight requirements for being a leading lady in Bollywood are much more liberal than over here. Which is not to say Raveena Tandon is fat, but she's far from the anorexic standard that defines young female stars in the US. And judging from her backup dancers and a bunch of previews to other Bollywood films we've seen, she's not alone. If most of these women walked into a Hollywood casting office they would probably be told to gain 20 pounds so they could play Sarah Michelle Gellar's fat best friend in her next movie.
Hey, since when does Obi-Wan wear Nikes?
After her performance Jaya wanders out of her dressing room and just happens to witness a mob hit. Spotted by some goons, she runs for her life, until she ends up on the hood of Deva's car. He drives her to safety, but suspects she may have been sent to spy on him. He sends her away, but this unlikely turn of events serves to introduce Deva's romantic interest, even though nearly all of their scenes together are musical numbers. Jaya's introduction also brings her ill mother into the film, providing odious comic relief and some cheap pathos.
But none of this has much to do with the plot. The actual story turns out to be Deva's conflicts with the other crime lords. Lal tries to kill Deva's father because he opposes some of Lal's business dealings. Deva retaliates by showing up at Lal's office and forcing Lal to sign an agreement to sell the disputed land. As Lal signs the paper, the music gets very exciting. Really, We're talking about the kind of music that usually plays under Jackie Chan jumping off a dam onto a burning biplane plummeting towards a train full of nuns.
What Menudo would look like
today if they didn't kick members
out at the age of 16.
Next Deva finds out that one of Jindal's factories sold drugs to a blind woman, telling her it was powdered milk. Deva and his guys show up and destroy the factory in a scene obviously inspired by Hong Kong action films and the Hollywood films inspired by Hong Kong action films. There is even some shot for shot plagiarism of Robert Rodriguez's work in Desperado. In any case, this means war and the bad crime lords do their best to destroy Deva. And the lords have a secret ally that may help them succeed -- dum dum dum -- Inder!
Yes, Inder is really evil, and by this point he's married to Guddi! Deva is slow to figure out what's going on, despite glaringly obvious clues. Inder calls Deva and asks him to show up at a certain place at a certain time. Once there, Deva is attacked by thugs, and nearly framed for the murder of a politician. A little latter Deva calls Jindal and overhears Jindal arguing with Inder. And in the next scene Inder parades around in front of Deva's house carrying a sign that says "I Hate Deva" while yelling "I'm going to kill Deva" with a megaphone. Okay, we're making that last one up, but in seems like Inder did everything but that. Deva isn't the hottest dish in the curry shop, if you get our meaning.
So, despite the four (yes, four!) old school MTV-style musical numbers, this movie is really an action/revenge story. The evil crime lords do mean things to Deva, his family, and the poor people he protects, and Deva retaliates by killing them in various brutal ways, though usually there's some sort of big gunfight between Deva and his goons and the bad guys before the final smackdown.
Obviously, modern style action scenes are new to Indian cinema. While the movie has a glossy, slick look to it, the special effects and editing are incompetent. And by special effects we don't mean CGI. We're talking about simple practical effects. We already mentioned the misfiring prop gun in the first scene.
But that's not all. In this scene a woman is about to be stabbed with a knife. Notice that she is holding a blood pack so she can bloody her hands for the close-up.
There is a fairly exciting car chase towards the middle of the movie, with lots of crashes and explosions. One of the filmmakers' favorite effects during this sequence is to have exploding jeeps and cars fly straight up. While this is sort of impressive, the mechanism that launches the vehicles into the air, some sort of pressurized pipe, is often clearly visible. (It's the vertical line surrounded by steam in the center of each picture.)
But more disturbing than the technical incompetence are the dramatic problems with the movie. We can accept that all Indian films are very long (between two and one half and four hours usually), so we understand why every scene seems to go on twice as long as it really needs to. But why is Jaya even in the film? You could cut every scene with her and her mother out of the film, and it would affect the rest of the movie not one whit. Sure, without her there would be no excuse for musical numbers, but still.
Even more worrying is the moral dimension of the film. This movie seems to be advocating a particularly brutal version of vigilantism. As if it isn't bad enough that Deva kills crime lords with religious instruments and shoots cops at point-blank range, the climatic battle takes place in a shanty town raided by the police, and Deva organizes the poor people into a fighting force that battles the cops in a violent battle. Dozens of cops die, even though they aren't doing anything wrong. For all the mayhem Deva causes he is given a woefully inadequate prison sentence at the end of the film in some last ditch attempt to pretend the film has a conscience.
How is the acting? Pretty awful all around. Sunny Deol is wooden as Deva. Apparently they're trying to cultivate him as some sort of unstoppable action hero, but it backfires. He never seems to be losing a fight for a single second, so he comes across as brutal and boring. Raveena Tandon, pretty as she is, is no actress. She seems to think that talking loudly can make up for a lack of thespian abilities -- kind of a quantity over quality thing. The only actor who acquits himself well is Ashish Vidyarthi, who does a good job as the two-faced Inder.
We found Ziddi a hell of a lot of fun to watch, though not necessarily for the reasons the filmmakers intended. This was all intended seriously, but there is so much about this movie that comes across as silly. That includes the acting, the technical aspects, and the fact that even though this movie is supposed to be grim and gritty, they still threw in musical numbers. If you like to see something different every now and then, this is different. Not good, but different.