Film Review: Kites

Bollywood's widest U.S. release to date, hitting 215 stateside screens, is ironically atypical: a romantic melodrama in English, Spanish and Hindi, with nary a dance number.

Bollywood enters telenovela territory in a hybrid film that takes the heightened emotions, wild tonal ranges and impeccably crisp technique of modern Hindi cinema and puts all that in the service of a tragic love story straight out of Mexican TV. It's perfectly entertaining and lovely to look at, but Kites is not what most audiences think of when they think Bollywood—which despite that industry's wide spectrum and deep output is generally synonymous with lush, opulent musicals set in almost mystically beautiful locales and running at least two-and-three-quarter hours. A romantic melodrama with as much English and Spanish as Hindi, just one dance number—set at a dance contest and so not inherently signifying "movie musical"—and clocking in at just over two hours, Kites does carry one distinguishing feature of Bollywood film: the primacy of fate.

The question is whether that makes it Bollywood enough to warrant being the widest Bollywood release to date in America, reaching 215 screens as opposed to the usual 50 or 60. Chandni Chowk to China (2009) was likewise hybridized, blending Bollywood and kung fu movies, and despite being co-produced by Warner Bros., which distributed it in the U.S., it earned less than $1 million in North American box office. Kites runs the risk of being neither fish nor fowl—Bollywood aficionados may be disappointed by the relative dearth of music and the not specifically Indian melodrama, and curious newcomers enticed by the wide opening and finding a more conventional film than they expected may wonder what all the Bollywood fuss is about.

Yet while Kites is indeed not the fizzy concoction purists might expect, it works perfectly well on its own terms. As an old-style Hollywood romance in modern dress, it delivers what people say they want when they say, "They don't make pictures like that anymore."

In Las Vegas, a dance teacher known by the single letter J. (the talented Hrithik Roshan, most recently seen here in the 2008 historical hit Jodhaa Akbar) has a side business marrying illegal immigrants in order for them to get green cards. When spoiled casino heiress Gina (Kangana Ranaut) decides she wants him, J. sees another kind of green and goes along. But when Gina brings him home to meet the family—the kind of well-connected kings of the Strip who can torture and kill casino cheats while police and judges look the other way—J. makes a stunning discovery: The fiancée (Latino-Japanese beauty Bárbara Mori, title star of the Mexican telenovela "Rubí") of Gina's brother Tony (Nick Brown), who's going by the name "Natasha," is actually Linda, the last of his fake wives. Sooner than you can say "love quadrangle," J. and Linda are on the lam, with the homicidal Tony pursuing them across the Southwest as the star-crossed lovers attempt to hide away in Mexico.

In a series of narrow escapes, punctuated by a cascade of car crashes, the doomed lovers' fateful romance creates the kind of three-handkerchief weepie they haven't made since the days of Joan Crawford. It's to Roshan's credit in particular that the completely straight-faced, non-ironic movie pulls it off. It's hard to say who its audience is, other than die-hard Turner Classic Movies buffs, but for what it is—aside from occasional lapses like the cornpone music in one “Dukes of Hazzard”-like scene—Kites flies.

Note: In an odd move that would seem to undercut this release's viability, an approximately 90-minute version, Kites: The Remix, "presented by" Brett Ratner and recut by his regular editor, Mark Helfrich, with new music by Graeme Revell, is set for release on May 28, one week after this original version.