Almost everything about Housefull really put me off. I wasn't surprised I didn't like it, but I was surprised at how low some of its humor felt, what lengths the writers went to to set up gags like using a real tiger or filling Buckingham Palace with laughing gas, and how very, very hard the actors tried to pull it off. And of course, according to some measures, like box office, maybe they succeeded. I'm not going to try to argue with anyone that they did not like this movie or that they should have approached it differently than they did (though 99% of the time I think that any piece of culture or art, whether a film or a tv show or magazine or whatever, that shows evidence of thought going in deserves something similar from those of us who chose to engage with it. Anyway...). And of course comedy is often culturally related, if not fully specific, and to state that something is objectively funny or not is impossible. That's why I find it so hard to write about some Hindi comedies: the ones I laugh with, I just roll along with merrily, but whenever I find myself thinking "Why the eff are people laughing at this?" as I did several times last night as the audience around me roared (most notably at the vacuum cleaner tube gay joke and almost everything Signor Pasta said, when I was ready to throw him into the ocean), I wonder how much of the explanation is as simple, and as tenacious, as cultural differences.
What's nagging at me is why I spent the whole runtime of movie trying to develop explanations or make excuses for it. As with Magadheera, if this were an American, British, Australian, etc. film, I wouldn't watch it. I do not even sample the Hollywood comedies that I read about as being loud, brash, crass, and full of jokes that sound like 14-year-olds wrote them. I haven't seen Knocked Up, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, most of the American Pie films, or even The Hangover, which I cannot quite bring myself to try even though almost everyone I know who has seen it really liked it. They just don't sound like my cup of tea at all, so I benevolently ignore them and don't give my decision much of a second thought. But if they were in Hindi (or Telugu or Tamil) and - this is next point is a very important factor - actually showed up in my town on the big screen, I would definitely go. Why is "being Indian" somehow enough to attract my attention and almost always entice me to invest my time and brain power? Everything I had read about Housefull by the reviewers (both the professionals in newspapers and magazines and labor-of-love bloggers etc.) whose opinions and thought processes I respect made me think I wouldn't like it, yet I watched it anyway. My town gets maybe one Indian film (usually Hindi, though increasingly Telugu films are coming to town too) every month if we're lucky, and I try as hard as I can to support the distributor and cinema as much as I can, and if that includes plonking down $10 and devoting three hours on a Saturday night, that's a price I am happy to pay. If I lived in Chicago and could safely assume I'd have multiple chances to see most of the new releases, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have gone to this one.
Trying to understand and appreciate movies, no matter where or when they're from, on their own terms is something that's important to me. I would do so for paintings or novels or people, so why not films? In this case, I will admit that all that I've learned about Hindi film culture (types, tropes, styles, stars, audiences) over the years is not helping me understand the details of the appeals or efforts of this movie better. For the record, I do think a lot of effort was put in in certain aspects of making this - if not always much thought (see the script, for example). From what I read on blogs, it seems lots of fans of Indian movies feel very defensive about their passions and that media from most other cultures/countries paint all Indian popular films in one huge and mostly uninformed, if not dismissive, brushstroke.* But being similarly broad the other direction - that is, liking something just because it's from a certain place or involves certain people - is silly too. As V Love Movies has recently reminded me, "a bad movie is a bad movie, no matter where it comes from." And I am not inspired to think any further about where, figuratively, Housefull comes from or where it meant to go.
Since I've sort of danced around the issue of cultural differences in humor, let me say that I have at least one piece of evidence that my reactions to this film cannot be explained only by having a different cultural background from the makers and intended audience. Friend and fellow American blogger and enjoyer-of-overthinking-things Filmi Girl really liked this movie. She and I share many of the same loves in Hindi films generally, but we responded very differently to Housefull. She says that she'd need to invent Sajid Khan if he didn't already exist; I'm vowing that since he does in fact exist, I'll have to pretend he doesn't by scrunching my eyes shut, clamping my hands over my ears, and singing LALALALALALA at full volume during the weeks surrounding his next release.
And on the topic of different countries, what should we make of Heyy Baby and Housefull being set elsewhere than India? I don't think it's just about upping the glamor quotient. I wonder if it's the comedy version of what Karan Johar sometimes does with the films he directs and produces, using other countries as a safety net for including ideas in his films that would probably be less tolerated if he'd set them in India. I don't think there's any question that setting My Name Is Khan, Kurbaan, or Dostana in India would have led to a host of issues that were lessened or avoided by putting them in the US. Is it just plain old easier to consider major film characters like a philanderer and an unwed mother to exist in far-flung Australia than in Mother India? Off the top of my head, Housefull doesn't seem to present any potential problems like that; the morality of the characters seems to me basically decent - admirable at times, even - and it's only their decisions that are demonstrate a lack of thought. As much as I hated this movie, the people in it certainly mean well and act from a place of love and concern for one of each other most of the time. They may be dumb, but at least they're not mean or hateful.
I wrote on twitter after coming home from Housefull that I thought it was about 95% dreadful. After a good night's sleep, I will reduce that about to around 85%. The remainder of my opinion is filled mainly with the cheerfulness of the characters and story. I also found Akshay Kumar's sort of Andy Bernard-y (Ed Helms on The Office) character more endearing than I'd like to admit. Jiah Khan, Arjun Rampal, Deepika Padukone, and Lillette Dubey were also okay in their roles - faint praise, but it's way more than I'm willing to say for anyone else, who were varying degrees of painful. Boman Irani should know better, and Sajid Khan is to be blamed for letting Ritesh Deshmukh and Lara Dutta go so far overboard, especially in the bug-eyed reactions to pain or surprise. And as usual, Randhir Kapoor made me want to look the other way to avoid watching his shtick. Was he actually drunk on set this time? He looked so lost. And somehow he still looks as old as Shashi, who is nine years, and I imagine multiple health problems, his senior. Uh...oh right, I was talking about what I liked. Okay. I liked "Dhanno" and was grateful Akshay and Ritesh had a chance to cut loose even a little bit, and the clubwear of the backup dancers was a gleeful fug fest. I loved Arjun's clothes and finally understood why people might be willing to watch a whole film just to stare at him. I liked that women expressing interest in sex was treated as utterly un-noteworthy and certainly not fodder for stupid jokes. And I liked the inevitable ending that reminded us all that trying to build a relationship based on lies is bad and that we should trust the people we care about to make their own decisions.
But that's all I've got. Overall I found it ragingly, forcibly un-funny, and the fact that the writers had the nerve to insist everyone in the film laugh at the end by gassing them just made it all the worse. "You will laugh. OH YES YOU WILL!" No. I won't.
* This is not a position I find myself in, and I'm glad. None of my friends has ever been anything but supportive and interested in my Bollywood haze, and many of them read these posts even though they have no interest in watching the films. (Any of you reading: definitely don't see this one!) As for general American (and other) ignorance about Indian cinema of many kinds, I'm somehow able not to get angry about it. Ignorance and the tendency to stereotype things we don't have experience with is basic human nature, and we all do it even when we probably know better (for example, Signor Pasta in this very film), and telling the uninitiated that they're stupid isn't going to make them any more willing to re-think their opinions. My experiences in conversations that actually involve discussing those stereotypes have been positive. And of course, when asked or invited, I love to describe - and encourage engagement with - Indian movies.