Thursday, January 3, 2008

Welcome to the Eagle

The Eagle, a single-screen theater specializing in popular Indian ("Bollywood") films, is located at a busy intersection in Jackson Heights, Queens. Half a block from the borough's central subway hub, the Art-Deco theater formerly known as the Earle (and serving as a porno house in its previous incarnation) is just a quick express train ride away from midtown Manhattan. Last Sunday night, when I attended a screening of the new Hindi-language comedy Welcome, though, there didn't appear to be too many slumming Manhattanites in attendance. The local crowd was modest, filling less than a quarter of the Eagle's 600 seats, but was in refreshing good humor throughout. I'm told that for hotly anticipated debuts, raucous filmgoers pack the house, loudly singing along with the picture's musical numbers but, on the night I attended, except for the continual laughter occasioned by the film's genuinely comic presentation, the audience was notably subdued, its presence scarcely felt.

The film itself, essentially a romantic comedy which finds the central couple beset by an increasingly absurd series of complications occasioned primarily by the woman's familial ties to the mob, is perhaps rather simplistic in its staging, but proved to be funnier than any American picture I saw all year. A series of comic set pieces, the film eschews the sort of verbal, character-driven comedy increasingly favored in even the most lowbrow domestic yukfests and which reached some sort of apotheosis in the recent critical/commercial triumphs of Judd Apatow. In contrast, the humor in Welcome is situational and slapstick and the film remains defiantly stupid until the end. Partaking of a fast-paced music video sensibility which allows it to wear its two and a half hour running time lightly, another gag (or musical number) is never far away. The film's first hour reaches its peak with a wonderfully humorous car chase whose comic presentation begins when the hero suddenly finds the steering wheel of his vehicle coming loose from the dashboard. From there it's just a matter of time before the rest of the car disassembles; the roof is shortly removed from the car's top but, without becoming entirely disattached, it trails behind the vehicle, serving as an extra seat for a startled passenger. Later, the filmmakers stage a lengthy sequence with the characters trapped in a house which teeters (à la The Gold Rush) back and forth on the edge of a precipice. But, whereas Chaplin's presentation is relatively compact, in Welcome, the scene aims for complete exhaustion of every comic possibility and, in its thoroughness, is many times as long (if not quite as inventive) as its model.

What is perhaps most interesting about the picture for an American viewer unfamiliar with Indian popular cinema is the film's narrative structure. Whereas mainstream Western films follow a more or less linear narrative, Welcome is structured as a series of circular movements. No sooner is the possibility of romantic fulfillment (in marriage, naturally, the film is nothing if not moral) approached, then a series of complications arises to prevent such an easy consummation. The obstacles overcome, the marriage again appears to be near at hand, only to have, without any logical preparation, a new set of barriers introduced. These barriers may take the form of whole new characters (an imposing Italian don), sudden changes of orientation on the part of existing characters or terrible misunderstandings, but they are always injected into the narrative with no advance warning. With the introduction of the new obstacles, the circular pattern begins again, an endlessly repeatable strategy which allows the filmmakers to extend the picture indefinitely, filling out a remarkably thin premise with enough plotting to sustain the lengthy running time expected by Indian audiences. Unlike mainstream American comedy, in which the diminution of obstacles to the characters' desired outcome or the approach of an imminent ritual that the audience understands to be the film's climactic event signals the film's conclusion, there is no sense in watching Welcome as to when the picture might end. Its stopping point is completely arbitrary. While it may be understood that the wedding of the romantic leads is the central event with which the film must conclude, it is not an event contingent on any temporal considerations. It will happen only when (that is, if) all obstacles to its consummation are eliminated. And since the film's structure depends on the perpetual, systematic introduction of new obstacles, the work is, in a sense, endless.

Despite these narratological differences, the film translates easily across cultures. There is no possibility of the film's physical comedy posing any difficulties of comprehension to American audiences. Then, there is nothing in the picture for the fetishistic Westerner to treat as "exotic," since the film's conception of modern Indian culture is more or less the same as the Western culture represented by American mass media. The obstacles that prevent the couple from marrying, the mutual distrust of their families and a series of absurd misunderstandings, are not intrinsic to any one culture and in fact are the stuff of such Occidental cornerstones as Romeo and Juliet. In the end, Welcome is a compendium of more or less amusing gags that, while Indian in setting and uniquely structured according to Bollywood conventions, is perfectly accessible to Western audiences; in other words an ideal vehicle for not merely the theater's primary Indian-American clientele, but for any filmgoer interested in accomplished comic entertainment.


Adam said...

nice way to start the year.

and such a glamorous picture of the eagle!

SoMars: Literary Journal of Mayhem and Hysterics said...

where is your best of 2007 list andrew...I wait with baited breath. Anyway, it sounds like a hoot to see bollywood movies at this theater!
talk to you later

andrew schenker said...

My 2007 best-of list will be posted on the collaborative blog, The House Next Door (with a link available on The Cine File) this coming week.