Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ra One: The Greatest Movie Ever Made

No, the movie "Ra One" has nothing to do with vampires, or my writing or me accept for the fact that I’ve wanted to see Shah Rukh Khan play a superhero for a long time. I threatened in a previous post that I would elaborate on my fixation this movie and now I'm making good on my threat.
So buckle up and enjoy the ride.

The makers of "Ra One" had a tough road to hoe. They were working on a genre rare in Bollywood. The Indian filmmaking industry had toyed with the superhero genre with films like "Drona," "Krrish" and "Robot" but none of these movies were able to cross pollinate Bollywood and Hollywood as successfully as "Ra One."

The glue that holds this movie together is Shah Rukh Khan whose belief in the project translates into the film. It’s a skill he brings to so many of his pictures. His intense promotion, before and after the film was released illustrated his commitment to the project. He understood that to bring this project to fruition, he might need to go outside Bollywood for certain things. It was not an insult to his nation’s movie industry. Rather, it was a realistic understanding that while Bollywood might excel at some things (it has very much kept the musical genre alive), it didn’t possess the skills for some modern aspects of movie making like visual effects (vfx as he calls it).

So, he asked for help and borrowed, as most creative endeavors do. He was, after all, helping to create something that was unique for Bollywood, but not to the rest of the world. And even Hollywood has borrowed a style here and there. The wire work seen in many movies is hardly unusual in the martial arts movies of China. Many of the ground breaking effects to be found in "The Matrix" movies were inspired by martial arts movies.

I point this out because one of the more pathetic critiques of "Ra One" has been that it relied on Matrix-like effects. Well what movie hasn’t since the makers of "The Matrix" invented them? It’s a bit like being annoyed because "The Jazz Singer" was the first sound movie and later movies utilized the technology. Movies, TV, commercials, web clips, they all use that distinctive look.

But Khan himself said that while much of what the makers of "Ra One" were doing was new to Bollywood, it was not necessarily new to industries outside of Bollywood. He felt it was time for Indian cinema, which can be a rather insulated industry, to try to broaden its appeal. There’s no reason, he feels, that Bollywood movies can’t be as widely accepted as the movies of other countries without losing its sense of identity.

It’s a bit hard perhaps for Americans to understand. We are, as Bill Murray so wonderfully put it in the movie “Stripes,” mutts.

We can call ourselves African-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, but the bottom line is, as a nation, America is a mutt. Its strength, and yes, some of its headaches, come from our muttitude. We’re the kid sibling who can be a little wild cause the elder siblings have tamped down the path for us and made it an easier journey. In exchange, we’ve been able to consider life in a different way and perhaps come up with some things that the elder siblings haven’t been able to cause they were too constrained by the responsibility of their world. It’s curious: In some ways ours is a distinctive sensibility, yet an every-person sensibility. When you watch Spider-man, or Superman, or The X-Men, we don’t have a lot of national taboos to concern ourselves within these movies. We simply tell the stories. What you see are stories where nationality doesn’t really come in to play much, no matter how very proud we are of America. Even Superman who fought for Truth, Justice and the American Way…well, the American Way (when we don’t have some arrogant politician screwing that up) is pretty much just about Truth and Justice. That’s all you really need in life. It’s a universal thing.

And it’s this universal feeling that helps make American movies so popular around the world. America’s true distinction is its ability to be indistinct.

Other older countries have definite cultural distinctions that, whether they’re positive or negative, don’t necessarily translate outside that country’s borders. Some of it is laziness on the part of the viewer foreign to that movie’s home audience. America, for example, has no problem believing that the Sharks and the Jets in “West Side Story” will participate in a whole song and dance before a rumble, butthey find two lovers breaking into song and dance in a Bollywood movie, ridiculous. The music can be as wonderful as that of a Hollywood musical, yet it just won’t wash with some American viewers.

Of course some of it could be due to the fact that, despite this intense push for globalization that India itself has benefited from, Bollywood is not willing to alter itself in anyway to be compatible to non-Indian viewers.

Shahrukh Khan is proud of his country and proud of his country’s film product. But he understands that in order for it to be more acceptable to countries outside of Indian, the industry must do a bit of bowing itself. The detriments can be nonexistent, the benefits high.

And that’s what fueled this movie and perhaps that’s why it succeeded where “Krrish,” “Drona” and “Robot” didn’t. It relied on experts in the fields. Bollywood for some parts; Hollywood for others. The resultant blend was highly entertaining.

My first thought when I heard that my wish of Shah Rukh Khan playing the role of a superhero was granted was, “How are they going to put musical numbers in a superhero movie?”

I love superheroes, though I prefer them on film to paper. I never had the patience for graphic novels (or as they used to be called, comics). I like my reading more linear. But I do have a good imagination and love to lose myself to fantasy. I’ve always loved mythology and superheroes are, after all, simply a modern society’s way of carrying on the mythology of the past.

But while the superhero musical isn’t a new concept (decades ago there was a rather successful Superman musical as well as the Spider-man musical mounted a few years ago) it isn’t something you’d expect from a superhero movie.

In short, how were the makers of “Ra One” going to believably blend music and superheroes? Perhaps I should have had more faith. Or perhaps I should have realized that both genres, the musical and the superhero movie, require a suspension of disbelief that might cross easily into each other’s realms. Of course it has to be done carefully. I’ve yet to see “Robot” completely, but “Krrish” and “Drona” both had musical numbers that I found to be rather clunky. But then so were their storylines.

The musical numbers in “Ra One” are incredible and skillfully woven into the storyline (which is more than I can say for some non-superhero Bollywood movies I’ve watched). Those that don’t involve dancing, carry along the exposition of the film wonderfully, especially in the instance of "Raftaarein" which culminates in the destruction of a train station by an out of control train. The rapper Akon was chosen to perform two of the songs and does a superb job of singing the Hindi lyrics that one wouldn’t know that it’s a non-Indian singing the song.

The dance numbers are fun and frothy. “Criminal” advertising clearly the love between the game maker Shekher and his wife Sonia. "Chammak Challo" hints at what could be between G.One and Sonia. "Right By Your Side" has a bit more youthful feel and is another montage that helps move the exposition along.

The premise of the movie is simple. A game maker Shekhar Subramaniam living in London wants to impress his son. Shekhar’s language is Tamil while his wife’s is Hindi. In some respects, India is a bit like America: A large nation of states trying to hold itself together despite the difference in certain regions. India, however, has the added pressure of having regions that speak different languages (though if you listen to the difference between Yankee and Southern speak in America, you might find the same confusion). These regions have cultures that differ slightly too, so Shekhar and Sonia do have a bit of a different sensibility to them. Which must be at times difficult for their son Prateek who has to deal with their distinctive cultural peculiarities while growing up himself in London. Sonia wants to see her husband and son’s bond strengthen, but it seems nothing that Shekhar can do can reach his son. His son doesn’t hate him. He’s just embarrassed by him and perhaps the cultural divide is a bit too wide.

So Shekhar decides to grant Prateek his wish and creates the ultimate villain in one of the games that his company produces. Some question has been raised as to why Prateek would want “idolize” a villain (his gaming name is Lucifer). Here’s why. Cause Prateek is a young boy and young boys are stupid creatures who are fascinated by the strength of evil. It, hopefully, isn’t something that lasts long. But very frequently, villains have added dimensions that heroes don’t have and thus they are considered more exciting than heroes. Prateek doesn’t want an unbeatable villain, but one that challenges Prateek, who is very good at video games. When he does partake in the game that his father ultimately creates, he still uses his name Lucifer, but he takes on the avatar of G.One, the hero, to beat the villain Ra One. He’s looking for a challenge and so far, most video game villains have not proven much of a challenge.

As the movie’s introduction explains, however, the company is also working on ways of creating ultra-sophisticated 3D technology that could change the world of technology. So the basic premise is that this villain, Ra One which stands for Random Access One (but has an allusion to the Indian demon Raavan), designed to be ultra-intuitive in game battle simulations, begins to think for itself and utilizes the technology to enter the real world. The last thing he remembers is being beaten on level two by Lucifer (Prateek who was playing the game during the launch party) so he feels the urge to destroy Lucifer before doing whatever mischief he can in the real world. Newly born to the world, he is like a child, his one focus being to kill Lucifer.

The parts where Ra One begins to think for himself are quite eerie as is the part where he finally beaks free from the game. The mood is enhanced by some wonderful incidental music and excellent cinematography.

Now this is the part of the movie that even I had to admit was a bit beyond my grasp. They did indeed take a lot of liberties. So what I did was what I’ve done through most superhero movies. I just went with it. I understood what they were going for and went with it. Cause here’s a little secret: I still don’t understand why Peter Parker didn’t die from the bite of a radioactive spider but instead had his genes manipulated, within a day mind you, to the point where he could climb walls and spin webs. And Iron Man? I’ve seen "Iron Man" about 5, 467 times and I still don’t get how his heart is able to provide enough power for him to travel thousands of miles away to another country, take down some bad guys using some pretty sophisticated hardware, and then fly back home after a battle in the air with two U.S. war planes. So far, we have not found an element small enough to fit into this heart yet strong enough to do the sort of damage that Iron Man can do. While watching the movie, I just sort of ran with it. The script was great, the acting was great, the effects were great. So I shined on the rest.

At this point in "Ra One," so enjoyable was everything, I was willing to shine on the rest. Plus the uncertainty wasn’t so glaring that it kept me from getting into the film.

There have been other criticisms of the film. It copied "The Terminator." It might have borrowed from "The Terminator," but copied? The concept of a young boy being chased by something that wants to kill it is hardly new. Look at the Old Testament. There are a couple of stories in there in that vein. Then there are the myths that the Jews borrowed from to create their myths.

It copies from “Iron Man.” The whole heart thing…they may have a point. But the argument could be made that the characters of Ra One and G.One were designed for a video game and video games are greatly inspired by superheroes (and vice versa). Shekhar the game maker may very well have borrowed the concept of a heart that powers the hero from “Iron Man” (though in the game Ra.One, the characters can function without their hearts. They are just not as powerful.

What you do have in “Ra One” is a great story with some really tender scenes when it comes to the game maker and his wife and the game maker and his son. And later, when G.One enters the pictures, looking so much like Shekhar, it adds another dimension. The intended elements, be they touching, funny, scary, were well executed. You have incredible performances by Kareena Kapoor as Sonia, Armaan Verma as Prateek, and Arjun Rampal as the last avatar of Ra One.

And then there’s Shah Rukh Khan who has been at the top Bollywood for two decades. At 46 he has somehow become sexier than he was ten years before. For the 2007 movie “Om Shanti Om” he sculpted his body and it has stood him in good stead for his role in “Ra One.” Even more to the point, he has grown as an actor and a dancer in the past ten years. I first noticed it in the film “Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi,” which is a beautifully done film, story wise, acting wise and music wise. Dance numbers in earlier movies while exuberant didn’t possess the same sort of intimate confidence that he had in this movie. And the role he played in “Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi” required a more subdued acting style only hinted at in other movies, that he nailed in this movie. In “Ra One” there are moves that his 46-year-old body with its pevious back, knee and shoulder problems, performs that would put to shame actors half his age. Add to that the energy that he brings to the role that, again, actors half his age would be hard pressed to keep up with.

Ultimately, that’s what brought me to the theater seven times for “Ra One.” It would have been more but my schedule is so tight that it was a minor miracle that I made it seven times. The fact that it was out longer than I thought it would be in America helped. I can tell you, the people at Big Cinemas in Niles now know me and will probably recognize me in December when I go to see the opening of Don 2, another Shahrukh Khan movie that I’ve been highly anticipating.

Honestly, though, I don’t know what about “Ra One” makes it rank in my top ten superhero movies (perhaps even top five). Is it because I’m such a fan of Shahrukh Khan? Is it because the Bollywood/Hollywood thing was pulled off? (The more I read about the movie and its hybrid reality the more interested I became in it.) Whatever it is it has made for a very happy October/November and will make for a very happy December when I receive my DVD copy (pre-ordered) of “Ra One”: The greatest movie ever made.

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