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Jai Ho: Bollywood bizarre at the multiplex

The theme of an ordinary Joe, or Jai, fighting bribery and political corruption permeates Indian action cinema.

A detail from the poster for Jai Ho.

Jai Ho (15)
dir: Sohail Khan

The largely forgotten US drama Pay It Forward (2000) concerns a schoolboy inspired by an act of kindness to do favours for three people, each of whom he then urges to do favours for others – and so on, until the planet is transformed into a throbbing marshmallow of benevolence. Anyone who felt that the film could have been improved by bloody fight sequences, Benny Hill-style slapstick and musical numbers will welcome with enthusiasm the Bollywood spectacular Jai Ho. Others may be baffled – but then there’s no point ordering a gateau and complaining that it’s not Ryvita. Austerity has no place in Bollywood. You do it loudly and brashly, with hundreds of precisely drilled dancers extending into the horizon, or else you don’t do it at all.

A vision in denim, with shades and immovable hair, Jai (Salman Khan) crushes injustice wherever he finds it, though admittedly his enemies make it easier by standing around, waiting their turn to punch him, rather than all piling in at once. Jai has an off-screen chorus that chants his name wherever he appears; I can see how that could get annoying but he handles it – like everything else – with pouting aplomb. When he is thanked for breaking some brute’s jaw or standing on a bully’s windpipe, he says, “Don’t thank me,” and explains his Pay It Forward theory, his “goodness chain”. Eyes grow misty, the slow motion kicks in, choral music swells up and any disparity between Jai’s altruistic philosophy and the pummelling he just dished out to his latest adversary is swept away in the swish of a sequinned sari.

After dispatching thugs, Jai likes nothing better than to lead an extravagant song-and-dance number on the theme of inequality. One lyric goes: “They say India’s great/But women are still unsafe/The poor man’s sad/ Liars are prospering/Money, money, everything is money.”

The sentiment is admirable, if undermined slightly by the uniform use of women here as victims or decoration and by production values equal to the defence budget of a small country. It’s common for Bollywood films to flaunt their opulence while appealing to the punters in the cheap seats – in Jai Ho, one character even bemoans the high prices at the popcorn counter (“Now I understand why the masses don’t come to the multiplex!”), which raised some rueful laughter at the venue where I saw the film.

The theme of an ordinary Joe, or Jai, fighting bribery and political corruption permeates Indian action cinema without threatening to alter anything – but I don’t think I’ve seen it pursued as bizarrely as it is in Jai Ho. Our hero befriends a young maths student who has no arms, sitting in class alongside her and transcribing her answers. Catastrophe strikes when he can’t make it to her maths exam because he is stuck in a traffic jam caused by a limousine that is ferrying a politician’s spoiled daughter. Unable to sit her exam (though she tries valiantly, I kid you not, by clamping the pen in her mouth), the student leaps to her death from a shopping centre balcony. Pausing only to roar and shed a single manly tear, Jai vows revenge. There have been more absurd catalysts for vendettas but not many.

There’s even weirder to come. A dignitary delivers an inspiring speech at a school open day and receives a nasty shock from a broken microphone. Everyone rushes to see if he is hurt but he’s more interested in the little girl who has materialised beside him onstage. She asks merely if, rather than fretting over her, he could carry out favours for the next three strangers he meets. See how far Jai’s teachings have spread?

“Don’t worry about me,” she says. “You see, I cannot be electrocuted.” Lifting her sleeve by way of explanation, she reveals an arm made of wood.

It is always reckless to hand out end-of-year awards in January but any other film-makers vying for Most Bizarre Scene of 2014 might do well to throw in the towel now.