Writer-director Sudhir Mishra (“Hazaaron khwaishein aisi,” “Chameli”) continues to straddle the line between serious drama and Bollywood glitz in “Lost Moon,” a dull-witted valentine to the burgeoning studio era of the 1950s and ’60s. Pulling out just about every backstage musical device imaginable, pic centers on a rising female star and an author-turned-helmer whose fame and love for each other shift with the larger forces of the Bollywood industry. Fun in the first hour turns into a bummer in the second, sure to leave a generally sour taste in many mouths across the subcontinent and non-resident Indian sites.
In the mid-1950s, with his star fading, Prem Kumar (Rajat Kapoor) thinks he’s discovered someone in pretty Nikhat (Soha Ali Khan), who dreams of stardom and turns out to have the talent to back it up. She takes advantage of her big break and — in a rush that Mishra nimbly handles with zippy pacing — rises to the top of the studio run by the portly Khosa (an amusing Saurabh Shukla).
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On a parallel track, Zafar (Shiney Ahuja) seems at first like a dashing version of John Turturro’s playwright-turned-screenwriter Barton Fink: He’s established himself as a fine author in Urdu lit, but is ambitious enough to play the Bollywood game. Though Mishra’s script oddly describes Zafar’s painful and emotional childhood, it neglects to develop his most obvious conflict: How to preserve oneself as an artist inside the entertainment machine?
Zafar impresses the studio brass with his scripting know-how, while his pal Shyamol (Vinay Pathak) gets his foot in the door, becoming an a.d. Zafar and Nikhat heat it up behind the scenes as their career profiles improve, with Zafar finally earning enough stripes to direct his own script.
As a portrayal of how Bollywood musicals were made in one of its golden eras, “Lost Moon” contains several delicious moments — particularly the giddy variety of movie styles, dressed up with a wild range of dance and music styles from American pop to traditional kathak (created with some panache by the choreography team of Harshall-Vithal, Kamal Nath, Oscar Unger, Rajeev Surti).
When the second hour descends into tonally uneven melodrama, with Nikhat hitting the bottle and Zafar losing her affections as well as artistic control, pic virtually grinds to a halt. In the miscalculated interest of invoking some character and psychological depth, Mishra unintentionally drains all the fun from his movie.
Ahuja never fully convinces as a literary man, but projects a certain Errol Flynn touch of manly beauty. Doing a bit too much emoting for her own good, Ali Khan proves a difficult fit as an emotional center, while support is solid. Mishra commands a solid production package, with terrific contributions by production designer Gautam Sen, costume designers Ashima Belapurkar and Niharika Khan and a nifty music set by composer Shantanu Moitra.
Pic’s Hindi title, “Khoya khoya chand,” refers to the (fictional) classic film Zafar finally makes.