(This has first published on Firstpost.com)
Sing along with me. Twinkle twinkle little star… . Because none of you have reached director Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s IQ level, every exposition in his Hollywood debut, Broken Horses, is overtly laid out.
For example, the film title, Broken Horses, explains the genre. It's about two brothers, set in cowboy land. One is a gun-toting Buddy (Chris Marquette, straight hair) and the other, a violin-playing Jakey (Anton Yelchin, nice curls).
As a child, Buddy naively believes the first lie told by the drug lord Hench (Vincent D’Onofrio), regarding the murder of Buddy and Jake's Sheriff father. Buddy shoots the “killer” and joins Hench’s gang. Younger brother, Jakey is packed off to study music in New York. Years later, Jakey comes back for his wedding. Seeing the two together, Hench suspects he will lose Buddy. So, naturally, he decides to have Jakey killed.
You can take a boy out of Bollywood, but you can’t take Bollywood out of him.
Sometimes, though not often, Chopra opts for subtlety in Broken Horses. For instance, Hench recoils in horror at the sight of a candle flame. A faint background tune — “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” — hints at a past memory and a present fear of fire.
In 1989, Hench's character was brown and introduced to us as Anna (Nana Patekar) in Chopra’s award-winning, Parinda. It won two National awards, five Filmfare awards and was India’s official entry for the 1990 Oscars. But these Americans, they did not see the smart director in Chopra. They only noticed Shekhar Kapur.
Parinda was well-crafted, slickly-written and brilliantly executed. Yes, there were similarities to the 1954 film, On The Waterfront, but the phobic Anna was distinctive and simply volcanic. For some reason, Chopra decided to tone down the fire in Broken Horses and let go of the symbolic pigeons of Parinda. (Kabutar ja ja ja… .)
So, in Broken Horses, Hench is understated. This time, the hero, Buddy, lights a cigar for Hench and Hench simply turns his back. But Chopra has set it up so obviously that even kindergarten kids know what’s coming next.
It turns out, Vincent D’Onofrio is no Nana Patekar. He just goes along with the moves.
One suspects Chopra thinks we are like Buddy. Poor fellow always mixed up his b’s and d’s and spelt his name as Dubby. To underscore this point and make an exhibition of his limited acting skills, Marquette does not move beyond a single, vacuous expression.
But hold your horses, broken as they may be. This film isn’t exactly Parinda. Chopra has actually eliminated all that was great about Parinda in order to be Hollywood-worthy, including the tender, lovemaking finale between Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit. No Hindi film has ever matched the utter pathos of that explosive climax.
Broken Horses does not get into ’80s’ melodrama — except every time Buddy talks in that unconvincing, thick accent; except in that age-old brothers’ theme; except in the plot.
Chopra seems to have a thing for Westerns and so, he tries to try to do a Clint Eastwood by setting his film on the Mexican border, in a ranch, at a vague time period defined as “15 years before” (before what?) and move gradually into the future.
The script is by Chopra and Abhijat Joshi, who may be making an English film set in the West but don’t believe in getting an American co-writer. Who cares if the dialogues sound flat and on the nose? As for horses, a single white ‘unbroken’ horse does make an appearance towards the end. Jakey’s sweet girlfriend (Maria Valverde) gets to ride the beauty. She is half dressed in a shirt, at the time. Not quite Lady Godiva, but hey.
Emmy nominated Mary Vogt did the costumes and manages to ensure none of the characters look dusty, weathered or sun-burnt. So what if they live and work on a ranch. Art director, Christopher Tandon, has previously worked on the Kill Bill films.The lakeside ranch itself looks more like a Disney version of a ranch — pretty but like a fairy-tale setting, which isn't what you expect in a cowboy Western.
Broken Horses also boasts of having Oscar-nominated cinematographer, Tom Stern, who shot Changeling and Million Dollar Baby among others. Stern takes some fine shots of the Mexican landscape. A particular stunning one shows whirling film reels during a murder sequence.
The publicity for the film has included gushing praise from big, Hollywood names. Director James Cameron said, “The film just wraps around you like a snake that squeezes.” Maybe we should send all the Bollywood variations of Nagin to him. It may help Cameron to appreciate the power of song, dance and music in Indian cinema.
If not anything else, Cameron should hear R D Burman’s “Pyaar ke mod pe” from Parinda.
(This writer has decided to rewatch the cult classic Parinda and Khamosh to regain her faith in Chopra. She is opting to forget Eklavya.)