On the surface a totally formulaic, moralistic family drama, “Baghban” in fact manipulates the traditional Bollywood levers in interesting, often affecting ways. Anchored by a commanding perf from veteran Amitabh Bachchan, as a devoted father who’s royally shafted by his selfish offspring, pic is a rare example of mainstream Hindi cinema focusing on oldsters’ problems. It has enough surprises to keep masala fans pleasantly entertained. In India alone, pic has hauled in a dandy 170 million rupees ($3.6 million) in its first five weeks to become year’s biggest hit, beating “E.T.” clone “Koi … mil gaya.” Offshore biz has been tasty, too.
Bachchan plays Raj Malhotra, chief accountant at a bank, who’s been married to love-of-his-life Pooja (mature diva Hema Malini), for 40 years. They have four sons, three of whom are married, and also an adopted son, Alok (Salman Khan, uncharacteristically saintly), who’s in London romancing his future bride, Arpita (Mahima Chaudhary).
First 50 minutes unspool like a regular conservative family pic, with plenty of lovey-dovey scenes between Raj and Pooja, plus bright, adoring sons and daughters-in-law. Film springs the first of its genre twists when Raj summons the family home for the Holi festival — celebrated in a lively ensemble dance number — after which he announces his retirement.
The younger generation has eagerly gathered in hope of financial handouts and is flabbergasted when Raj announces he and Pooja want to move in with one of them. In fact, Raj has spent every last rupee on his sons’ upbringing, and he’s even taken out a loan so No. 2 son Sanjay (Samir Soni) can buy a car.
Mom and dad are surprised when the kids don’t fall over themselves to take them in, but put up a brave face when it’s suggested they stay separately with each son for six months at a time. As the intermission looms, Raj and Pooja face being split up for the first time in their lives.
Pic really gets going in Part Two, as Raj stays with Sanjay and wife Reena (Divya Dutta) in Delhi and Pooja with No. 1 son Ajay (Aman Verma) and wife Kiran (Suman Ranganathan) in Mumbai. As each parent gets used to life with a younger, more practical generation, film crosscuts between the two, leading to one of the most affecting numbers, a love song by telephone between the disillusioned Raj and Pooja.
Plot then shifts gears, as Raj finds supportive friends with a coffee-bar owner (Paresh Rawal, very good) and his wife (Lilette Dubey), and Pooja finds an eventual ally in Ajay’s Me-Gen daughter, Payal (newcomer Rimi Sen). But things are still going from bad to worse with the sons and daughters-in-law.
Cleverly, pic focuses on Raj and Pooja discovering their own sense of independence rather than relying on traditional expectations of their offsprings’ duties. Plot is totally schematic in this respect, with Raj penning a successful, semi-autobiographical novel called “Baghban” (“The Gardener”). But amidst all the final homilies about generational differences, ending springs a major surprise.
Pic is shot through with distracting flaws: The kids are one-note selfish yuppies with few redeeming features, Ranganathan looks far too young to have a teenage daughter, and how come the parents could afford such a lavish home all this time? Reasons for wanting to live with their children isn’t properly justified either.
It takes stars of Bachchan and Hema Malini’s stature to make the confection work, and luckily they’re both up to the job, creating a palpable sense of the couple’s mutual affection, especially in a “second-honeymoon” sequence in Part Two. No stranger to patriarch roles (“K3G”), Bachchan redeems his rep after a sorry turn in crime exploitationer “Boom,” and his chemistry with Rawal in the second half is moving.
Score by Aadesh Shrivastava is OK without being memorable, the catchiest number being a Valentine’s Day ensembler in which Bollywood meets Hindi rap. Other tech credits are fine, fully in tune with vet producer B.R. Chopra’s rep. Story idea was actually conceived by Chopra 30 years ago, with Dilip Kumar skedded as the lead.