It’s rare that we get to see a big Hindi movie release before yeh log over in the desh, but last night was an exception and a treat.
Aladin was the opening night film for the South Asian International Film Festival, which runs through next Tuesday, November 3rd. No one from the film’s cast or crew could make it, but they (Mr. Bachchan, Ritesh, Jacqueline) did tape a brief message to the audience that was broadcast beforehand.
I’m always up for a bit of fantasy in the vein of “…long, long ago in a kingdom far, far away…” and Sabu Cyril has managed to make Jaisalmer look like a magical and beautifully unreal combination of San Gimignano and Jerusalem, almost like the fantastical place where the characters in Saawariya lived, except instead of bathed in blue, this land – Khwaish – is drenched to a pale golden and sandy beige by all the sunlight.
The cast includes Amitabh Bachchan as Genius the Genie, Sanjay Dutt as the evil Ringmaster, Ritesh Deshmukh as Aladin and the lovely new discovery Jacqueline Fernandez as Jasmine.
I confess I am a diehard Amitabh Bachchan fan and would happily watch him in anything, heck, I would watch him make toast reconcile his checking account prepare his taxes ok, I’d watch him do whatever mundane (if any) tasks a man of his wealth and stature might actually carry out himself any more. And I say this even though he likes to paint Americans Westerners as callous people who would happily throw their elderly parents on the rubbish heap.
He is a charming, cool genie, combining a jacket from a band gala suit with jeans, cutting quite a rug in the musical numbers (using that adorably leggy and unique Amitabh Bachchan dance vocabulary that includes several gestures with those long, graceful hands) and even rapping while surround by comely dancers. When it came to hair and hats, Genius seemed to be taking his grooming cues from Vijay Mallya.
Ritesh Deshmukh is sweet as the much put upon Aladin who was orphaned at a young age because some evil-doer did in his parents (yes, yes, I know, Hari Potter too….) and who is forever tormented by his bratty classmates, up to and into university. His principal torturer, the muscular yet delicate-featured Kasim, looks like a very young Rob Lowe on a steroid binge. The two boys become rivals when the very lovely Jasmine comes to town, as a returned student, back from the US.
But not even Mr. Bachchan could keep Aladin from sputtering out midway and dragging toward its denouement. The set up of Aladin’s back story glided along and explained who he was, who his family had been and how the Genie and Ringmaster came to cross paths with him, but once the big Good-versus-Evil picture had been painted, it felt as though the engines had cut out and we had no chance but to slowly, slowly glide toward land.
I can usually concentrate on, say, a book, or something I’m writing, to the total exclusion of whatever is going on around me, and I can also usually sit patiently through most any film, but I fidgeted non-stop for the last 45 minutes of Aladin, at least. I wonder how children will make it from start to finish.
At first I thought “Well, you’re an adult, maybe you just can’t watch a children’s film like you would have if you were eight or nine or ten” but then again, when I think of most Disney films, or the slew of animated films like Toy Story and Madagascar, those have been able to keep the attention (and element of suspense or surprise) through to the finish. I think where Aladin runs into trouble is it becomes too contemplative in its pace and doesn’t surprise us enough.
It’s a pity, because the film does create a lovely environment, in the town, in the local eatery Chaipiyoji, and especially in Aladin’s family home. It’s the cosy sort of place that would make a bibliophile and traveler’s heart plotz with gemÃ¼tlichkeit. The color scheme is earth tones, walls are decorated with photos, there are wooden mantlepieces and maps and stacks of books resting on Persian carpets. That’s what’s lovely in this rendering of this tale, it sweeps you away to some place you really wish existed, that you could step across the screen and walk into, but in the scenes with the Ringmaster, that place is neither seductive nor frightening (actually not even suspenseful).
There are a few genuinely touching moments, like when Ritesh reveals how truly orphaned he does feel because everyone he loves goes away. (Trust me, no matter what age you are, when you’ve lost your last parent, you’ll feel what he’s talking about to your core.)
See it or skip it?
Tough call. As the prospective viewer, consider how great is your love for the cast members or the story of Alladin itself, or if not, how curious you are to see this treatment of an ancient tale. (Congratulations to Sujoy Ghosh for having attempted what he did.)