Posted on September 22, 2012 at 10:52 pm

Bollywood What's Happenin'

Film Review: Heroine

Widely touted as the pillar of female-oriented cinema in India, Madhur Bhandarkar has built a name for himself with films that allow actresses to shine and transcend the notion that for women in Bollywood, actual talent is a requirement secondary to beauty and glamour.

Chandni Bar made an impact. So he made Satta. That worked too. So he followed it up with Page 3 and Fashion in rapid succession—films exposing the bleak underbellies of the socialite and modeling worlds, respectively.  But with Heroine, Madhur Bhandarkar has taken the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude one film too far.  His mission to boldly depict the superficiality of Bollywood through an actress’s downward spiral is so bogged down with both exaggerations and inadequacies, that the movie ironically appears as shallow as the world it attempts to portray.

Mahi Arora (Kareena Kapoor), at one time, is what every girl pursuing a profession in the movies aspires to be: gorgeous, successful, and the enviable girlfriend of a superstar—in this case, Aryan Khanna (Arjun Rampal).  But as her relationship disintegrates as a result of professional rivalries, so do her career and her mental state.  Moody and impulsive, Mahi naively searches for real emotions in an industry full of manipulators.  Soon, she becomes her own worst enemy, determined to go to any lengths to resurrect her fame.

At least, that’s what I think the film is about.  It’s challenging to further elaborate on Heroine’s plot, as I’m still trying to locate it.  There is no back-story, no build-up, no distinguishable climax—in short, no real story or structure to speak of.  Rather, it’s a mash-up of all of a Bhandarkar film’s ingredients, haphazardly thrown in without consideration of whether they actually propel the film forward or are merely following his now-trite recipe: the pill-popping and alcohol-glugging, the requisite sex scandal, and the industry parties where ulterior motives lurk behind every lipsticked air kiss.  Yawn.

The sloppily handled narrative is matched by the characters, thinly veiled caricatures of real life filmi personalities that are only exacerbated by the cringe-inducing acting of those who play them. Whether it’s the flamboyantly gay friend whose every other word is “babes”; the Bengali (of course) art film director stubbornly committed to creating low-budget “parallel” cinema; or the relentless PR agent who clearly embraces the belief that there’s no such thing as bad press, the supplemental actors perform their roles with depressing one-dimensionality, barely injecting their lines with enough energy to be lifted off the script’s tired pages.  Mindlessly cramming in all the staples that stamp a film with his signature, Bhandarkar heavily compromises the believability of the story and its characters, thus defeating his purpose to illustrate the harsh “realities” of the industry.

You would think that, as the center of the film’s universe, her presence required in literally every frame, Kareena would be totally in her element, especially considering her declarations of aspiring to be a heroine since the womb.  Indeed, there is no question that she looks breathtakingly the part – be it in her lethally short dresses in the title song or her downtrodden, makeup-free look as Mahi tumbles further into self-destruction.  However, this is far from the career-defining performance we were expecting from her—though in all fairness, this has less to do with her talent than with the weakly etched character she has been given.  It would be easier to appreciate Mahi if we could in any way sympathize, identify with, or admire her.  But her fly-off-the-handle nature, constant flip flopping between her decisions, and frankly, annoying co-dependence and insecurity make it difficult to do any of the three.  While one wishes to feel for her through her desperate struggle to grasp at the remnants of her fame, Mahi is so clearly just a consolidation of all the clichés—accurate or otherwise—surrounding a Bollywood actress’s career trajectory that it’s hard to muster any emotion for her.  Kareena gives the bipolar protagonist her best shot, but it is not enough to bring much-needed substance, strength, or soul to the hollow stereotype of her character.  If we feel compassion at all, it is towards Kareena herself: as a highly capable actor, she deserved better than a flat role like this.

Besides Kareena’s honest effort and mesmerizing appearance, only two other real positives stand out in the film: one is Shahana Goswami’s brief but refreshing appearance as Mahi’s art film co-star, during which she breathes much-needed life into the film’s middle.  The other is the tragically beautiful “Saaiyan,” though it is unfortunately picturized on a situation that doesn’t merit the emotion that the song evokes.  Sanjay Suri and Arjun Rampal are disappointingly mechanical as Mahi’s costars: actors who, like her, seem to lack any grip on their goals or emotions.  Randeep Hooda, as a cricketer with a fondness for actresses, gives his role some sincerity—which is more than can be said for 95% of the other cast—but doesn’t make a huge impact.  Even (and I realize I’ll probably be blasted for saying this) the occasional presence of Helen doesn’t provide a saving grace.  Though presented as the veteran actress who serves as the only hope for keeping Mahi grounded, both her sagely advice and the bond between the two seems random and forced.

Ultimately, the movie sinks under the weight of its own unfulfilled promises to be a radical exposé of the elusive inner-workings of Bollywood.  If it reveals anything at all, it is the dire need for Bhandarkar to change his hackneyed formula.  Heroine is everything we’ve seen before, and nothing we need to see again.

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