Review: HAPPY NEW YEAR, Quick-Witted Candyfloss For The Spectacle Inclined

Editor, U.S. ; Dallas, Texas (@HatefulJosh)
Review: HAPPY NEW YEAR, Quick-Witted Candyfloss For The Spectacle Inclined
Say what you want about Farah Khan, the woman knows what it takes to make a good looking movie.

The director of Happy New Year appears to have gotten her groove back after the disastrous multi-million dollar escapade that was Tees Maar Khan. That film, her last directorial effort back in 2010, was her only film without her lucky charm, Shahrukh Khan, in the lead and did little more than introduce one very popular song to endless play at sangeets and birthday parties anywhere non-resident Indians can be found. 

With Happy New Year, Bollywood's most potent director-star combo is back on their A-game. However, the game has changed a bit since 2007 when Om Shanti Om took the world by storm, and there are problematic bits throughout Happy New Year that threaten its ability to successfully connect with the international audience the way I know it wants to do.

Happy New Year
pits Charlie, a down on his luck bare-knuckle fighter with an absurdly high standard of living played by Khan, against Charan Grover, a bajillionaire industrialist who done Charlie wrong, played by Jackie Shroff. When Grover comes into possession of a bunch of priceless diamonds, Charlie hatches a typically convoluted plan -- how else to kill three hours? -- to steal them and set right the wrong that had been done to him and his family. Thereupon we launch our story, which is by turns thrilling, ridiculous, and emotional wrenching, in true Bollywood tradition.

Thank goodness, though, that Charlie is not on his own in this mission, of course a team must be assembled; who ever heard of a heist movie with only one guy? Luckily for him, the rest of the team is populated by charismatic performers like goofball/action hero Abhishek Bachchan, south Indian heavy Sonu Sood, all-around character actor Boman Irani, Khan's Om Shanti Om co-star Deepika Padukone, and the superfluous third nipple of the operation, Vivaan Shah. With a colorful cast of supporting characters, what could possibly go wrong? Well...

Let me start by saying that I had a lot of fun watching Happy New Year. It won't be getting any Oscars, but if Farah Khan knows anything, it's how to keep her audience entertained, and if the reactions I heard in the cinema were any indication, she succeeded in spades. Happy New Year is a brightly colored, obnoxiously loud, brutishly simplistic, yet artfully crafted pile of filmi, overly dramatic conventions and references. Khan knows her history, as anyone who's seen Om Shanti Om can tell, and she's not afraid to nudge the audience over and over again to recycle laughs from other movies. 

While that sounds like a troubling attribute, Khan makes it work. Happy New Year is super heavy on Bollywood inside jokes, many of which I found myself on the right side of, but several of which went zipping over my head. Even now, a couple hundred movies later, there are still oodles of references that I don't get. Thankfully, the way in which even these were incorporated was such that I was able to appreciate the effects of the laughter in the cinema while not always understanding the cause.

Happy New Year
follows the well worn Bollywood structure of a first half setting up the conflict, and the second half resolving the conflict. These days, at least over the last 4 or 5 years, those two halves (traditionally split by an intermission), have typically totalled up to two hours and twenty minutes or less. However, Happy New Year goes full Bolly and cranks it up for every second of the three hour running time, meaning that the first and second halves of the movie could easily be played as separate features. While this typically leads to a whole lot of fluff, most of the material in the film is essential, and any cutting would be more to conform to western ideals of what a film should be, rather than smartly playing to the audience for whom the film was made.

As Shahrukh Khan makes his way from lovable cad to emotional whipping boy to snot-faced, head-bobbling hysterical wreck, the film just keeps on moving around him. He and his love interest, Padukone, are the only two characters given any real arc in the story, which is actually helpful as the rest of this A-Team hold down the fort by being delightfully predictable and at the same time cranking up the crazy with every passing moment. Bachchan's lovable drunk, Irani's mush-mouthed ladies man, and Sood's brute with a heart of gold provide a solid base from which Khan and Padukone can do their "I love you, don't touch me" courtship dance. All of this to the ever pulsating backdrop of ultra modern Dubai.

Oh yeah, did I mention this was a heist movie? I did.

The film spends most of it's disposable time describing, in detail, the heist and the necessary complications within. If there is anything to be cut, it's this. However, the complications bring foward the film's greatest, most Bollywoodish concept: The theives must win a spot in an international dance competition to even begin their scheme. 

How perfect is that? It provides a reason for bar dancer Mohini (Padukone) to play a major part, and it allows for multiple plot-centric musical numbers. Farah Khan's background as the industries premier choreographer does not go to waste just because she's calling all the shots, she still likes to get her hands dirty and choreograph some of the big numbers, and no one choreographs massive dance sequences like Farah Khan. The only disappointment, is that this motley crew of dancers is nowhere near talented enough to even begin competing on this level, however, the script handily takes care of that discrepancy, so all is well.

While it may seem as though I'm gushing a bit about the film, I will admit that a few recurring issues did make me squirm a bit in my seat. The film repeatedly uses gay characters and homo-phobia (that is, the fear of a homosexual finding a straight man attractive), as punchlines. While this is old hat in Indian cinema, it's just really starting to get old. 

If the goal of Indian cinema is to extend its reach, as the ever-increasing number of American cinema screens would suggest, they'd do well to understand that these jokes have overstayed their welcome. It's not only bit parts, though, even indie godfather Anurag Kashyap gets in on the joke as a dance judge who has an illicit tryst with musician Vishal Dadlani, both appearing as themselves in a cameo. 

All in good fun, I suppose, but I don't think that excuse really applies anymore since these jokes are made over and over and over again throughout the film. The intent doesn't seem to be malicious, however, these characters are painted as outsiders and occasionally villainous, and it's a bit disconcerting.

As much as I enjoyed what was great about Happy New Year, and there is a lot to enjoy, it's that last bit that stuck with me a little bit too much. Happy New Year will make a ridiculous amount of money. It's funny, romantic, has some great music, wonderful performances from big name actors, and a pedigree that's hard to beat, but I think it's time that popular Bollywood stepped up its game a bit. I think they can do better. 

At an estimated $24 million, the budget is massive by Indian standards, and I think that with the kind of reach that buys, there comes a bit of responsibility that Happy New Year ignores, not maliciously, but lazily, and that's my greatest disappointment. All of the fireworks and bright lights in Dubai couldn't get those few moments out of my head, and it's a shame, because if you ignore them, the film is fantastically entertaining. I just don't feel like ignoring them is the answer; waking up might be.
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