Film Review: Dostana

Big, colorful, delightfully dumb Bollywood "gateway" movie could be a perfect crossover vehicle for U.S. audiences. A rom-com musical set in Miami, this reverse<i> La Cage aux Folles </i>about two alpha-dudes pretending to be gay is miles above Adam Sandl

India produces thousands of movies annually, so while it's possible that some independent drama that never made it stateside has broached the subject of homosexuality in that rapidly changing country, it appears to be this big, dumb, colorful comedy from the Bollywood-musical machine that's taken Indian cinema out of the closet. And like such groundbreaking-for-the-time imports as La Cage aux Folles (1978), this big step comes courtesy of non-threatening fluff that nonetheless breaks boundaries via humorous heart and formulaic funniness that still dares some grown-up twists. Like this year's Quentin Tarantino-esque Tashan, this is a "gateway" Bollywood movie, one your average American mall-goer could enjoy, assuming they can get past the subtitles.

Dostana's unusually strong crossover potential may have helped convince Yash Raj Films, one of the two major distributors of Bollywood films internationally, to up its number of U.S. screens from 60 to 74 just before release. That relatively wide release for a Hindi-language film speaks to a growing globalization of this populist cinema, which because it has to appeal to a billion subcontinentals, from illiterate villagers to high-tech urbanites, forces actors to steer their performances toward either "heightened-reality" melodrama or sitcom-style mugging. That the best performers manage to do so with some modicum of relatable naturalism is a testament to their talent.

All these considerations, plus the usual high-gloss Bollywood polish, come into particular play with Dostana ("Friendship"), in which that broad style well serves a broad premise: Two newly acquainted Indian ex-pats on Miami Beach—super-hunk Kunal (John Abraham), a fashion photographer, and the more traditionally Indian-looking Sameer (Abhishek Bachchan), who's secure enough to be a male nurse—find themselves in dire housing straits. They luck upon a three-bedroom, luxury apartment where the gorgeous Neha (former Miss World Priyanka Chopra) needs two roommates. But her aunt (Sushmita Mukherjee, who's completely the Indian Rosie O'Donnell), will only allow female roommates for her niece. What are two alpha dogs to do? In the fine tradition of sitcom solutions everywhere—c.f. TV's “Bosom Buddies,” starring Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari as housing-starved men who dress as women in order to live in a girls' dorm—Kunal and Sam pretend to be a gay couple. What could be more harmless, Aunty?

Of course, wacky circumstances force the two to dig themselves progressively deeper into the lie, which gets further complicated when they each fall in love with Neha, a sweet stunner who works at a fashion magazine called Verve. Their competition for her pulls at their own growing friendship and, in yet another layer, at the deeply felt Three Musketeers relationship that the trio develops.

Many merry mix-ups ensue involving Neha's old boss, the flamboyant M (Boman Irani); Sam's old-world mother (Kirron Kher), who gets apoplectic when she thinks her boy's gone soft in the samosas; and new Verve editor Abhi (Bobby Deol) and his five-year-old son (Shrey Bawa). Yet Dostana never sinks to being a one-note joke. The characters' pains, joys and emotional turmoil come across as genuine, and while they skirt the sentimentality that runs through Bollywood musicals like pasta at an Italian dinner, the stars give their characters' feelings a quizzical, questioning complication.

The musical numbers are some of the best in this year's batch of Bollywood imports, with the opening song, "Shut Up and Bounce," and "My Desi Girl" both infectiously bright, danceable pop concoctions, and the novelty number "Maa Da Laadla," depicting Mom's nightmares about "the gay son," makes catchy use of Chipmunks-like sped-up vocals.

Despite an offensively mincing, retro take on "gay mannerisms," notions of acceptance and understanding prevail practically from the start. Ten times smarter and funnier than Adam Sandler's I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, Dostana is the Bollywood film to see if you've never seen a Bollywood film. Especially if you've missed Tashan.