The Italian neo-realists, the French and Australian New Waves, Hong Kong action, J-horror…every country's cinema gets its time in America, and now India's Bollywood is lapping at the shores. The cognoscenti have staked out their seats at English-subtitled Hindi films that represent an almost surreally different moviegoing experience—one in which, to paraphrase the protagonist of this U.S.-India-Canada co-production, the movies are all five hours long and everything's a big song-and-dance number.
Most Bollywood movies are actually only two-and-a-half to three hours long, and do blend comedy, drama, romance, action and elaborate musical set-pieces all in one fun-for-the-whole-family film—the notion being to give cash-strapped Indian audiences a lot of movie for the money. The masala that is Marigold is Bollywood-lite—less than two hours, produced in English, and self-consciously aware of being the Indian equivalent of such domesticated, faux-ethnic dishes as spaghetti and meatballs or chow mein. But y'know, really good spaghetti and meatballs or chow mein, faux or no, is delicious.
A Cinderella story with a literal prince, Marigold otherwise follows in the fish-out-of-water tradition of American women in exotic locales finding love with a romantic native—Katharine Hepburn in Summertime, Vivian Leigh in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. Written and directed by an American in Goa, the smallest of India's 28 states, Marigold plops a Hollywood actress playing a Hollywood actress into a Bollywood movie about the making of a Bollywood movie, with not only film-within-a-film bits but also meta-moments when you're watching a film about a film about the making of the film. It's all dizzying, but what a delight.
Ali Larter, of TV's “Heroes,” glows like a luminescent flare as Marigold Lexton, the initially hateful B-movie star of films like Fatal Attraction 3. She's such a self-obsessed monster that her agent's given her, she belatedly discovers, a one-way ticket to Bombay for a sexploitation epic called Kama Sutra 3 that's been shut down. Taken pity upon by smart-mouthed but saintly crew-member Rani (Suchitra Pillai), and found exotically blonde by jovial director Manoj (Rakesh Bedi), Marigold then stumbles into a role in a Bollywood film called What's Life Without Love?
Avoiding the advances of egomaniacal star Raj (Vikas Bhalla) and the ire of jealous diva Shazia (Simone Singh), Marigold falls in love with actor/choreographer Prem (Bollywood superstar Salman Khan, a notorious bad boy here cast against type as Charlie Sheen playing the Pope). The feeling's mutual, but Prem, it turns out, is of royal blood and faces a prearranged marriage to Janvi (Nandana Sen). Prem's imperious father, Mahendra (Vijayendra Sinhrao Ghatge), and dutiful mother, Nandini (Kiran Joneja), are gracious but implacable toward Marigold—and now who shows up but her boyfriend, Barry (the wonderful Ian Bohen, a sympathetic rival and no Ralph Bellamy nice-guy wimp). Through it all swim fable-like flourishes and decent if un-transcendent dance numbers that ask, naturally, what's life without love.
Larter shines in scenes of playfulness and heartbreak, though she's awkwardly unconvincing, albeit occasionally funny, playing the early, nasty Marigold. On a technical level, the film is strangely unpolished—edits in simple real-life scenes don't always match well, and the grainy cinematography is like looking through pebbled glass compared to the high-gloss sparkle of true Bollywood movies. But the story, stars and snappier dialogue than India's English subtitles ever get make Marigold blossom.
Trivia-buff alert: Helen Khan, who plays a maternal relative of the young Prem in flashback, is star Salman Khan's real-life mother, a major 1950s and ’60s ingénue of Indian film.