Poised to be the singing-and-dancing rainstorm after the drought, “New York” is the first major Bollywood release after last year’s strike, but it’s hardly business as usual. Yes, the young people in it often live and relive life as if it were a Mentos commercial. But as the industry reshapes itself, this drama by helmer Kabir Khan — with its bold, righteous, anti-Bush administration bent — could cut out a new constituency for a genre usually devoted to purely escapist entertainment. Attendance at a late-night weekday screening in Manhattan indicated that the word on “New York” was out, at least among Bollywoodites.
Maintaining the kind of casual acquaintaince with physical reality that is a hallmark of Hindi films, “New York” plays fast and loose with technology and geography: The Brooklyn Promenade (or something like it) is moved to the Staten Island side of Manhattan, for instance. An obviously computer-manipulated city provides the backdrop for a film executed largely in Philadelphia and on laptops.
But despite its title, the pic is less about the city and more about national malpractice in the wake of 9/11 — including the arrests of thousands of “suspected terrorists,” their incarceration and abuse. What Sandeep Shrivastava’s screenplay says, quite plainly, is that U.S. antiterrorism policy was almost guaranteed to produce terrorists. And despite some palaver put in the mouth of an FBI handler named Roshan (Irrfan), about no one being guilty, the film has a deep-seated anger that should strike a chord with those who felt the sting of American paranoia after the World Trade Center attacks (including, obviously, Indians).
When his cab is pulled over by an FBI strike force, which finds weapons in the trunk, Omar (Neil Nitin Mukesh) becomes embroiled in an undercover investigation aimed at an old college friend, Sam (John Abraham), an American-born Muslim. Sam was big man on campus when they attended the U. of the State of New York, where the beautiful Maya (Katrina Kaif) was the Jeanne Moreau to their Jules and Jim. Omar loved Maya, but she married Sam, so they went their separate ways. But now Roshan, using gun charges and the Patriot Act, is coercing Omar to infiltrate Sam and Maya’s home.
There’s a certain amount of silliness early on: Omar’s interrogation jogs his memory and suggests “The Usual Suspects,” except there’s no way any FBI agent would sit through Omar’s musicvideo reveries of the perpetually bubbly Maya, or his stories about Sam’s campus heroics (which includes a college footrace straight out of “Chariots of Fire”). Or his memory of the night they all chased down a mugger, Sam got stabbed and Maya professed her love to him as he lay bleeding from a hole in his leg. (The next scene shows Sam with his arm in a sling.)
Sam’s recollections — after he, Maya and Omar are reunited — pack more of a punch: Having photographed the World Trade Center for an architecture class pre-9/11, he was detained by the FBI for nine months, during which he was shackled, verbally abused, subjected to environmental torture and deprived of legal counsel. He was subsequently cleared and set free, but not from his own rage.
“New York” is finally too Bollywood to abandon many of its conventions, including the heart-on-the-sleeve acting of the three principals (to which Irrfan provides a dry antidote). But it might prove cathartic for people who felt disenfranchised by the war on terror and the nationalistic closing of ranks among many factions of Bush America. It’s a courageous movie in many ways, and a surprising one.
Production values are a mixed bag. Depictions of the Abu Ghraib-style abuses suffered by several characters are powerful, but the computer graphics behind the faux New York are simply too obvious to suspend viewer disbelief.