Bollywood musicals are always over the top, but this three-hour spectacular is stuffed with songs, romance, comedy, devotional material (both Christian and Hindu), and color-soaked dance numbers that are huge even by Hindi standards. An award-winning hit at home, "Straight From the Heart" is so extraordinarily rich in kitsch, it could break through to Western auds by dint of being a near-definitive sample of the genre, and due to its surprisingly modern message.

Bollywood musicals are always over the top, but this three-hour spectacular is stuffed with songs, romance, comedy, devotional material (both Christian and Hindu), and color-soaked dance numbers that are huge even by Hindi standards. An award-winning hit at home, “Straight From the Heart” is so extraordinarily rich in kitsch, it could break through to Western auds by dint of being a near-definitive sample of the genre, and due to its surprisingly modern message.

A nonstop hoot, pic follows Sameer (the currently ubiquitous Salman Khan), a young European heading to India to study vocalese with a classical master (Vikram Gokhale). Naturally, he falls in love with the pandit’s gorgeous daughter, Nandini (Aishwarya Rai, a former Miss World), much to almost everyone’s dismay. Oh well: another reason to sing! (Although the subtitles refer to him as “the Italian guy,” and tell us the scene shifts to Rome at the end, he’s actually supposed to be Indo-Hungarian, and the second-unit city is obviously Budapest.)

Amid all the frooferah, and the traditions being honored, the movie preaches some subversive messages about ethnicity, caste and genuine friendship between men and women. When Nandini wants to join the freewheeling foreigner — who has a penchant for addressing God whenever he’s alone — she’s warned away from the love match with the advice that, “For a few months of joy, you’ll get a treasury of grief.”

She’s subsequently sent off in an arranged marriage with a stolid lawyer (Ajay Devgan), who initially seems insensitive to her plight. When she clams up totally, he invites her to be frank with him, but instead he finds some letters from the long-gone Sameer. Recognizing the awful truth, he offers to take her to Europe, to see what this forbidden love is made of — against the wishes of his own traditionalist family. “Manliness is not to be found,” he tells his shocked father, “in controlling a woman’s happiness!”

Heading into some twists at the end, “Heart” makes fine use of a dazzling array of locations, with extensive work at an incredibly ornate Rajasthan palace especially impressive. Every dance number has a different color-and-design theme, and many of the tunes combine jazz, rock and classical strains to frequently goose-bump-raising effect.

The acting, as usual, leans toward the hammy, with Khan’s Sameer maybe not as masculine as he could be and Rai’s Nandini a bit on the dippy side, but the whole beautifully lensed, widescreen thing — like masala with a heavy dash of paprika — blends into one of the tastiest meals to come out of India in a while. Downside, theatrically, is that megapic is already widely available on tape and disc.

Straight From the Heart

India

Production

A Bhansali Films (New Delhi) production. Produced by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Jhamu Sughand. Executive producer, Ibrahim Desai. Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Screenplay, Bhansali, Kenneth Phillips.

Crew

Camera (color, Cinemascope), Anil Mehta; editor, Bela Segal; music, Ismail Darbar, Anjan Biswas; production designer, Nitin Desai; costumes, Neeta Lulla, Shabina Khan; special FX, Rameesh Meer, Acharya Jitendra; sound (Dolby), Jitendra Choudhary, Suresh Kathurla; choreography, Saroj Khan, Natbar Maharana; associate director, Milind Ukey; assistant director, Sumit Kumar. Reviewed on DVD at Vancouver Film Festival, Sept. 22, 2000. (Also in Seattle Film Festival.) Running time: 188 min.

With

Salman Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Smita Jaykar, Ajay Devgan, Vikram Gokhale, Zohra Segal, Rajeev Rema, Kermati Desai, Vinay Pithak, Kanu Gill, Ahsan Khan, Amrik Gill, Istvan Wohimuth, Csilla Szabo.
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