YOU ARE WHO YOU ARE So maybe it's okay that Kattan is no Fred Astaire
Here's something Chris Kattan probably rarely hears in real life: "In Night at the Roxbury, you were awesome!" Such, however, is the encomium proffered by two young Indian fans toward the beginning of IFC's somewhat random but not altogether terrible new mini-series Bollywood Hero, which finds the former SNL cast member traveling to the subcontinent to star in a saffron-colored, jasmine-scented music-and-dance extravaganza.
At the outset, Kattan — best known for oddball mid-'90s SNL characters like Mango and Azrael Abyss and, well, not a whole lot since (Corky Romano, anyone?) — breaks the fourth wall to explain how he's told his agent that he's tired of being typecast as a clown and how he's instructed the guy to scare up some different, more substantial acting work soon.
No question Bollywood Hero is an atypical Chris Kattan vehicle. As is the musical his character (who's basically a version of himself) signs on to star in. Its title, loosely translated from Hindi, is Peculiar Dancing Boy, and it's described by its director as "a story of these times . . . a serious critique of imperialism and the caste system told through the medium of dance."
But guess what? Chris Kattan can't dance! And he's a far cry from Bollywood's swarthy standard-issue leading men. These incongruities — together with a slew of West-meets-East culture-clash juxtapositions (some drawn from the headlines, like that infamous Richard Gere/Shilpa Shetty kiss from a couple of years back) — constitute the bulk of the film's comedic conflict, at least in the early going.
The other selling point, of course, is the song-and-dance setpieces scattered throughout. At one point, Kattan marvels to Priya (Pooja Kumar), Peculiar Dancing Boy's pulchritudinous producer, that since arriving in India, his dreams have taken on new vibrancy: "They're so colorful, and there's music, and . . . they're really well shot!" Same holds true for these: gorgeous costumes, sumptuous lighting, and creative choreography.
Still, seeing the diminutive, rubber-faced Kattan lip-synch and hip-shake alongside buxom Bollywood beauties is a little weird. Indeed, the whole concept seems, well, out of left field. Bollywood Hero is fun, and very occasionally funny. It also has tip-top production values, fine acting, and stunning cinematography — just as in Slumdog Millionaire, Mumbai's urban squalor never looked so photogenic. (Some of the Slumdog production team worked on this effort, and you can bet that that film's global success helped get this one green-lighted.) But you have to wonder whether the project really merited a three-hour story arc.
That said, there are reasons to tune in. Michael Penn penned a slew of new songs for the soundtrack (which also features a sitar-tangy version of his hit "No Myth"). Julian Sands is great as Reg Hunt, an affected English thespian, and there are quicker cameos from Maya Rudolph, Keanu Reeves, David Alan Grier, and Jennifer Coolidge.
Best of all is Ruma Sengupta as Priya's sarong-clad granny, who feeds Kattan biryani and teaches him to dance, all the while chirping in exasperated Hindi as subtitles flash beneath: "Is he really an actor? He looks more like a monkey. . . . He's not retarded, is he?"
Certainly not. But his demeanor is vaguely simian — something Kattan seems to recognize: witness his feral SNL character Mr. Peepers. And that's okay. As his self-styled character learns, being a leading man isn't always all it's cracked up to be. By the end of Bollywood Hero, among the ashrams and banyan trees, perhaps touched by the wisdom of Ganesh, he comes to accept that he is what he is: a likable goofball, a live-action cartoon. It's good to know one's strengths.
Independent Film Channel | Airs August 6-8 From 10 to 11 pm