London Dreams – The Moody Blues
Like its title, London Dreams is ambitious in the scope of its cinematography and plot. The widely publicized self-imposed star salary cuts to afford to film it on a grand scale were probably not a bad idea, given that the script includes huge concert scenes (mostly done in CGI) in three major European cities. The tale is complex and above average in general, with parallel storylines and nuances that allow it to rise above standard melodramatic fare. However, there are significant weights that keep the film’s execution from flying high.
With this outing, director Vipul Shah crosses into more sinister and adult territory than his past films, which include Namastey London (2007). This is one of a very few mainstream masala films I wouldn’t recommend bringing the kids to, unless you want to explain self-flagellation and intravenous drug use by popular film heroes.
The story begins by introducing us to Arjun (played as an adult by Ajay Devgan) and Mannu (Salman Khan) growing up in the Punjab. Misunderstood within his family, Arjun is drawn to play music, something he’s forbidden to do. Mannu is from a musical family, and being rather a layabout in general, he literally runs from music lessons. The tale charts Arjun’s London escape from his family and his obsessive quest to redeem himself and perhaps another family member through his version of musical success.
Technically, the film is rather uneven. Some scenes are beautifully shot, enhancing the emotional tone well, while some seem shoestring and cheap, using techniques like dark red lighting in an enclosed space to convey a character’s mental state. Similarly, the plot has some moving and insightful moments that are undercut by trite devices and actions that seem nonsensical.
The film suffers from trying too hard to look “young.” Styling comes off as corny and overdone (largely via loud and cheap-looking t-shirts and too many garish accessories), and the music scenes seem wooden and without energy, especially from Devgan’s Arjun. A sure signal in Hindi films lately that characters are supposed to be hip is hanging out on rooftops and other gritty urban settings ŕ la 2008’s Rock On and New York (2009), and there’s plenty of roof scenes here to hammer the point home. These people are so street-wise they even graffiti! Their arty-ness seems forced and unreal.
The Rock On comparison seems obvious, especially since both films emphasize the importance of friendship in our lives. However, beside that general message and some stylistic resemblances, the comparison becomes lazy, especially when you consider that one of the challenges for the characters in Rock On is their belief they’re “too old” (read: boring and tame) to rock, while in London Dreams it’s taken for granted that characters who appear in their late 30’s-early 40’s can break through to worldwide success.
Arjun can’t understand why all his hard work doesn’t get him the adulation he feels he better deserves, and the seeds of mayhem are planted. Perhaps because he’s been alone on his own for so long, he doesn’t see that for social beings like humans, emotion often trumps technical skill. It’s not enough to know the mechanics and theory of music, you have to have the heart involved for art to be meaningful. Arjun deliberately cuts that tie over and over, unconscious that by leaving dil out of the equation he moves himself away from his goal. Without audience, there is no Wembley show.
Beloved pop culture figures are often not the most talented, but the ones who seem the most human, and ignoring this maxim has hamstrung careers. Shah would have done well to observe this idea in his film to balance our sympathies for the leads. Salman Khan steals the show. Though he’s the secondary lead and a stock character, he glows onscreen, playing the innocent country boy type well. Even as Arjun sets a plan into play to ruin Mannu, Khan’s character convincingly tries his utmost, if clumsily, to be musically on-point for Arjun.
Unlike Arjun, Mannu doesn’t crave the power of ruling the crowd at Wembley, he gets joy from helping his friend realize a dream. He’s not concerned that the goal may be flawed. There have been enough sarcastic and caustic Khan characters (his love guru role in Partner (2007) being one). Here his emotional devotion to Arjun creates the bulk of the film’s empathetic notes, and the majority of the rationale for the viewer to care about what ultimately happens. It’s worth seeing the film for his performance alone, because it reveals Khan’s capabilities more than a lot of his recent work.
Namastey London had similar naďve bumpkin comic elements as London Dreams, and I’d venture that Akshay Kumar plays the pathos of his character, also a man alone in London, much more convincingly and sympathetically than Devgan’s Arjun, who is so wooden, even when onstage, that he veers into bathos. Facial expressions that are supposed to be tortured can instead resemble the lopsided look he brought to his mentally challenged character in Main Aisa Hi Hoon (2005), and I don’t think that’s intentional.
Devgan has brooding malevolence down. His eyes narrow as he plots his way past the impediment that Mannu has become by “stealing” his spotlight and perhaps even his love interest. However, especially since it’s clear Arjun has had emotional wounds since childhood, Devgan would have done well to consistently convey the affective layers that lead his character to behave as he does. Doing so would elevate his role beyond that of a soap opera villain, which is what he more often resembles. Devgan’s version of being happy (which doesn’t come often) seems forced and insincere. For a change, I’d love if he’d switched roles with Khan in this film to play someone more emotionally open.
One hopes Asin Thottumkal, playing the third lead, was well paid for this turn, which is a step back after co-starring in Ghajini (2008), since her Priya (also the love interest’s name in the musical “Bombay Dreams”) has so little to do and virtually no detail to her character. She functions more as a symbolic point of conflict. Arjun is secretly in love with her (of course he gives no indication, so she doesn’t know), while Mannu begs her over and over to make an honest man of him by agreeing to marry. The plot throws us a tiny bone by showing her negotiating a second-generation immigrant’s double life by being “traditionally” Indian at home and more “Western” in the rock band, but most of her nuances are unexplored. In the band she starts as backup singer (yawn), and is relegated to leading the dance ensemble when Mannu shows up. Thottumkal works with crumbs to give Priya a bit of a spirited personality, but not much is asked of her other than as a love object in songs.
In a film about a rock band, the music and dance seems to have been an afterthought. The choreography isn’t featured much and the songs are pedestrian rock that will neither inspire nor inflame. None stand out after leaving the theatre. Ultimately, this film’s flaws mirror its script. Not enough human details about the characters, and not enough emotion in the music and dance make for something technically admirable that will not have a long-term effect. After admiring the filmmaking skills, clever script and effort, you leave the theatre without the sublime emotional impact characteristic of beloved films.