Bollywood Beats (2009) – By Cary Conley

Raj is a twenty-something young man who dreams of making it big as a professional dancer. But Raj has two problems: he is having a very difficult time finding any steady employment and he is Indian, which means his culture frowns upon what many Indians–especially Indian men–see as a frivolous and effeminate pastime, not an occupation. Down on his luck and feeling especially sorry for himself, he runs into Jyoti, a middle-aged Indian woman who persuades Raj to offer a dance class after accidentally seeing him perform a routine. The two knock on dozens of doors trying to convince Indian women, most of whom are very traditional, stay-at-home housewives, to join the new class. But on the first day of class, only three others show up: Vina, a 60-year-old former dancer and retired movie star from India’s heyday of moviemaking; Puja, Vina’s 18-year-old granddaughter who is more interested in the science club and calculus class than dancing; and Laxmi, a naive and very traditional housewife whose loneliness leads her to the class. After only a handful of classes, Vincent, a gay teen who also loves to dance, also joins the troupe of aspiring hip-hop dancers. Together this mishmash of outcasts become friends, experiencing both tragedy and triumph as they dance their way into their family and friends’ hearts.

Each character in this ensemble piece has a flaw they must work through as the film progresses. Jyoti sees herself as a modern woman who never married because she chafes at the strict and sometimes overbearing Indian men. She wants to help others "open their eyes", but while she has a good heart, her conviction causes her to sometimes overstep her bounds, alienating her friends along the way. Vina is a vivacious and forward-thinking Indian woman, a bit of an anomaly given her age. After her daughter died, her son-in-law remarried and left her teenaged granddaughter to live with Vina. She spends her days trying to protect her granddaughter from the truth, though she knows her granddaughter is saddened by this turn of events. Puja is Vina’s granddaughter. Puja’s mother died and her father abandoned her to start a new family with new children. He doesn’t even have time to call Puja. Puja is deeply sad and this doesn’t help her personal view of herself. You see, Puja is also a bit of a nerd and sees herself as an ugly duckling, clumsy and not very pretty. Laxmi is a young wife who was first excited by her big move to America, but since that time, she has lead a lonely life as a housewife with a husband who works very long hours and doesn’t have much time for her. She is feeling more than a little alienated by her new husband, her new country, and her new life. It doesn’t help that Laxmi’s husband is seeing another woman, which Laxmi may or may not be aware of. Vincent is a high school student who happens to be gay. Because of this, he is an outcast at school as well as at home. Vincent’s father is ultra-conservative and cares nothing for his feelings, only of tradition and perception. And then there is Raj, an energetic and positive young man who has made a deal with his father: find steady employment as a professional dancer in six months or quit dreaming and join the family’s jewelry business.

Mehul Shah is something of a renaissance man as he not only wrote, directed and produced Bollywood Beats, but also stars as Vincent. He has created a fun and poignant film that, among other subjects, tackles homosexuality, loneliness, and the sometimes rigid Indian culture that many times sees men lord over their wives, keeping them locked away from public view. As a rule I am not a big fan of musicals or dance movies, but Bollywood Beats is both entertaining and enjoyable on a couple of different levels. If all you want is to be entertained, this film certainly does that. The characters are quirky and fun, the acting is excellent, and the music, while not my cup of tea–I’m no fan of hip-hop–has a good beat that kept my feet tapping the floor. And on a secondary level, the film touches on a wide range of serious subjects as previously mentioned. But while these subjects are all addressed in a very sensitive way, Shah hasn’t created a screenplay meant to beat the viewer over the head with any particular message; rather, these subjects are woven into the story in such a way that the sum total is more than the individual parts.

In the end, everyone struggles to fight their own personal demons, and because Bollywood Beats is ultimately a feel-good movie, the entire cast wins. In fact, if there is a flaw in the film, it is that everyone does win out in the end. Because of this, it is a little too sweet and suffers slightly from being predictable. In fact, the film’s main theme is similar enough to the film Bend It Like Beckham that one of the characters even remarks upon this, perhaps a bit self-consciously. But this is a minor quibble as the film is so enjoyable that I didn’t mind. Bollywood Beats is at times heart-wrenching and laugh-out-loud funny but at all times highly entertaining. The film is slated for release by Breaking Glass Pictures on January 31. I recommend tracking this one down–it’s a winner.