My bar for Bollywood Hero was low. Really low. Everything I'd heard about it made it sound like a perilous venture. "Post-famous-ish/B-list-ish white American comedian (Chris Kattan, playing a character of the same name) goes to India to star in a Bollywood movie" would surely lead to thoughtless stereotypes, ignorant or misapplied use of filmi conventions, and scorn for both the Indian and US entertainment industries. Despite the Mumabi setting of its a classic "fish out of water" and "how will this rag-tag mess ever pull together into a success?!?" plots - a sister (Priya/Pooja Kumar) and brother (Monty/Ali Fazal) creating their deceased father's ponderous dream script, a project appropriately called Peculiar Dancing Boy, and in the process shoring up their family's film legacy - there's little Bollywood-specific of heft in the show. There are plenty of trappings, mostly enjoyably executed. A starlet (Lalima/Neha Dhupia)'s career is managed by her overbearing mummy (whom I really wished had been played by Bindu again!). An aging gora has played the English officer in every Raj-y film of the last few decades (Julian Sands). Chris-the-character's first opportunity to show off the results of his dance practice is complete with the familiar and seamless ability of a song picturization to transport peope into different settings and give them new wardrobes.
After a few hours of thinking about it, my guess is that India and Indian cinema were chosen as the water for this fish for two major reasons. First, India is a setting that can provide maximum cultural differences and misunderstandings (and thus potential for comedy) but is still a culture the target audience would be aware of due to general world news and Slumdog Millionaire (more than would arise by planting Chris Kattan in, say, France, yet more relatable than in the popular film industry of Nigeria). Of course, Chris-the-actor's fluency in physical humor (and shiny suits?) makes the idea of him having to dance for his living an easier fit - not that dance is inherently funny, but as you can imagine, the Hollywood actor spends a lot of energy trying to live up to his Bollywood choreography. Second is the real point, I think: Bollywood is an industry where the concepts and iterations of "hero" reign supreme, and yearning to be a movie hero is Chris-the-character's sole motivation. If one watches this series with an eye on the second word of its title, the whole thing coheres better and becomes a more effective story. It makes sense that an actor stuck playing a space goat character on a small-scale cable show (which is what Chris is doing as the series opens) would jump at the chance to do something larger than life. For someone who longs to be to be romantic and dashing, to get the girl, to be taken seriously for once in his life, starring in a Bollywood drama billed as "a serious critique of imperialism and the caste system told through the medium of dance" could be a dream come true. (Side note: this summary of Peculiar Dancing Boy is repeated throughout the series, and every time a character pitched it, I had a hard time not picturing Mard.) I think the filmmakers could have done more with the Bollywood setting, but, as is, it served the main thread - Chris's hero lust and what he learns in the process of fulfilling it - pretty well.
Yesterday Fimli Girl asked me if it was a typical "westerner finds self in India" sort of story and I told her "not really," but after further consideration, I'm not so sure. Certainly not in a hippie-dippie, "India is so magical," mystical finding of self sort of way - in fact, Chris-the-character repeatedly affirms that he's already on top of all things cleansing and calming through various gadgets and practices, the kind of things the rest of us love to make fun of California for. [Vague spoilers ahead!] But in true Holly/Bolly fashion, Chris and the other characters do learn something important about themselves and become better and happier people by the end of the story. It's not so much spiritual as it is identity, "just be yourself," "there's more than one kind of hero," etc. [/Spoilers.]
Bollywood Hero has some (unintentionally) awkward moments. The "We're in Mumbai!" establishing pans across cityscapes focus on what sure look like slums and never show shiny highrises (or the Gateway of India! and they call themselves Bollywood!). Several characters have tritely heartwarming moments at a school for street children. (Side note: I have visited a school in Mumbai very like the one in the film, and my heart was very warmed, so I can't question the characters' reactions - but I can wonder why this thread is in the film.) Some of Chris-the-character's blundering might be because of ignorance about India specifically, but probably as much of it could be due to just not knowing how to exist outside his Hollywood bubble. Early on he is established as being at the bottom of the pecking order in Hollywood, especially in the face of this year's version of himself (Andy Samberg) or a mega-star (Keanu Reeves, who is painful to watch/listen to even while making fun of himself in a five-minute cameo), but it's clear that even there he lives a good-naturedly insulated life. There a few examples of "The food is so hot!" type jokes, but most of the things I was expecting would make me roll my eyes were simply left as observations and not ramped up into real jokes. Chris is repeatedly amazed by the sheer population of India, but there are no punchlines about it. He also never gets ugly American traveler-y, never whining about the water or traffic or heat. We're all glad for that. Basically any obstacle to Chris's dream of hero-dom, whether it's unfamiliar surroundings, dance steps that are over his head, or the loss of his leading lady, is met head-on and tackled, sometimes easily and sometimes not. I will also give the movie credit for pushing one particular arc of awkwardness until it was almost unbearable, then relieving it into a comedic interpretation that I hadn't seen coming. (Of course, I'm totally gullible, so the delight I felt in its resolution may not be possible for other, sharper viewers.)
Most of the humor arises not from wacky cultural differences/misunderstandings but from the shenanigans the crew has to undertake to get their film made. A majority of these fall to Chris-the-character, who despite his best intentions is woefully out of place as a Bollywood leading man (particularly in a costume drama). He can't dance, he kisses his leading lady in public, his scooter breaks down in the countryside as he pursues a retired actress, and he never understands what the director is trying to get him to do once Peculiar Dancing Boy starts shooting. He's a little dense, even though he tries hard and means well. All of which underscores why he hasn't made it big in Hollywood, either - I think the series is basically sympathetic to him but also shows his flaws (and his strengths too, but talking about those will give away the emotional heart of the ending). I don't want to be too harsh on Chris-the-character in case he's a close resemblance to Chris-the-actor/real-person, but it probably qualifies as delusional to think Chris Kattan would be offered the roles that Harrison Ford is now too old for, doesn't it? The Harrison Ford theme runs throughout, actually, as one of the quintessential hero types that Chris would like to be, and there's a nice homage to one of the best scenes of Raiders. Some of my other favorite moments include:
• Julian Sands in his hilariously drunken, inappropriate, sleazeball, bizarro-world version of Tom Alter.
• Chris gets it into his head that he should pitch Peculiar Dancing Boy to a reclusive retired actress who hasn't been on screen for almost a decade. He has no luck googling her but Priya and Monty's granny, with whom he has gestures only-based communication, hops on the phone and immediately finds a friend who knows the actress's exact whereabouts.
• little bits of dialogue scattered throughout, like Chris yelling at a snobby Hollywood party "Stick it up your a**es. I'm going to India!" or taunting Priya about why she has followed him down a country highway by deadpanning "Are you sure it's not because you care about me? Smidgen?" When's the last time you heard "smidgen" in a movie?
• the first song picturization, featuring Lalima and Chris, is to a totally appropriate and wonderful song and gets suitable treatment for someone testing the waters of dance numbers.
• Monty showing Chris around some film studios (and Chris being suitably impressed)
• hearing several of Michael Penn's songs (one with Aimee Mann too, hooray!) in this totally unexpected setting - what if Chris were Heathcliff or Romeo in black jeans?
• take a look at the film poster on the back of the bus!
I tried to find significance in this particular film being situated this way but couldn't. But still! Shashi!
While most of Bollywood Hero easily surpassed my low expectataions for it, it's not perfect. It's messy here and there - as with some Bollywood and Hollywood movies, a lot of threads are either abandoned or glossed over at the happy ending. Its major villain is just a few hairs away from a Mr. Burns level of cartoony greed and ambition. Watching Chris dance peculiarly over multiple scenes is a little uncomfortable. However, I was drawn in by the way the characters talk - I haven't seen many movies that talk about filmmaking in such un-filmi ways - and the underdog charm and momentum of both Chris and Peculiar Dancing Boy are hard to resist. Once I learned to focus on the characters rather than the setting, I thought it was cute. Maybe oversimplified (despite being almost three hours long), but with some real humor and a few well-done characters. I have no idea if my spin on it is what the makers intended, but I think they used their major cultural reference point for good and probably introduced many viewers to some of the joys and basic workings of Hindi cinema.