When I was recently asked for my recommendation for the most underrated Bollywood film of 2015, I didn’t go with the high-profile, high-intelligence, period piece flops from big-name directors that I loved even though very few critics did (Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! from Dibakar Banerjee and Bombay Velvet from Anurag Kashyap).
Instead, I nominated this gleefully B-grade film that nails trope after Hindi cinema trope: orphans, good and evil brother pairings, romantic love, fate, revenge, and reincarnation. It romps through the familiar yet also handles the reincarnation angle in a way I’ve never heard of another film doing, demonstrating some great creativity among the writers (Jojo Khan and first-time director Bobby Khan). To take a plot element as classic as that and actually do something different with it, especially while still playing it earnestly rather than with a smirk, is quite a feat. Many established film industry players have taken a crack at it without coming up with the newness that Ek Paheli Leela has. In the last ten years, reincarnation has figured in major Indian hits like Magadheera, Eega, and Om Shanti Om and in major disappointments like Dangerous Ishhq (an unsuccessful return of the 90s star Karisma Kapoor) and Teri Meri Kahaani (starring Priyanka Chopra of Quantico).
Born in India, living the party life in London, supermodel Meera returns to India for a fashion shoot in Rajasthan and finds herself drawn to the local prince. Rock musician Karan in Mumbai is terrorized by frightening dreams and finally seeks the advice of a sage, who tells him a story in his past has been left with no conclusion. Compelled to find the answer, Karan travels to the prince’s palace, where characters are tangled in a centuries-old story of an artist’s ego, doomed love, and reincarnation among the splendor of Rajasthani ruins.
Maybe because they knew no one expected much of the film, the makers clearly had fun taking standard gaudy or garish Bollywood elements and pushing them further to their logical, usually tacky extreme. “You like eye-scarring costumes?” it asks. “We raise you ripped leggings, gladiator sandals, and a giant popped collar.
“You enjoy double-entendre dialogue? Suck on this.”
“You want your hero to be a modern bro? Here’s an apartment we decorated in an occidentalist fever dream.” (Bonus points for finding the Confederate flag guitar.)
Setting the bulk of its action in Rajasthan is an age-old Bollywood device for introducing bellowing royals in palaces full of weapons and bright costumes among camels and sand dunes, serving as exotic even in much of India. Ek Pahlei Leela revels in all of this too, including a full-tilt musical set piece with historic architecture, hundreds of brightly-clad dancers, huge drums, and blazing torches. This song could have come from any movie made in the last 70 years, helping to cement Ek Paheli Leela in a long line of Bollywood spectaculars, some of which succeed at an aesthetic grasp well beyond their budget or star power.
Ek Paheli Leela features a cast and crew made of nobody of particular note except its villain (Rahul Dev, who just has that kind of look and has made a career out of playing bad guys) and its lead, Sunny Leone, who is not only female and foreign (Canadian) but also a former porn star. All three of these traits make Leone an incredibly unlikely player in conservative, macho Bollywood at all, let alone someone to hang a film on. But here she is, wide-eyed and wriggly-tailed, ready to be a star and somehow choosing a role that is more progressive than women with far more industry clout. Her characters ( Meera in the “now” portion and Leela in “then”) are fantastic at being sexy and actually having sex without anyone in the film calling her a slut in either time period. She is physical with the men she likes and not with the men she doesn’t, and when she says no she means it. There’s nothing coy about her. She sleeps with her fiancé before they marry, but that’s a completely reasonable update of the Bollywood lines of “women can’t have sex before marriage” and “this character has been living abroad and thus doesn’t quite have traditional values.”
The online Indian magazine The Ladies Finger has a great discussion of why Leone’s career is so peculiarly successful. She is both unapologetic about her earlier porn career (a freedom that someone from North America can claim a little more easily in the Indian movie industry than a home-grown woman could) while also demonstrating some traditional values such as marriage. That’s basically how Leela and Meera behave as well: they’re not ashamed of desires and deeds, and they refuse to be shamed by anyone else either. True love and fidelity, which are more or less the family values of the world of this film, are upheld in both the flashback and present-day arcs. Meera’s sweet nature is basically rewarded despite the outer trappings of her life in the fast lane of modeling and a fondness for booze. Say what you want about this film, it soars through the Bechdel Test immediately when films that would no doubt claim to be smarter fail. Ek Paheli Leela shows that women can be professional and ambitious without also being emotional and psychological train wrecks, an idea completely foreign to higher-profile “woman-centered” films the drag their heroines through the muck before letting them emerge humbled and more movie-world pure.
Everyone, please welcome our new Screen Editor, Beth Watkins! We couldn’t be more pleased to have her here at the Gutter. Beth and alex will be alternating Screen Editor duties on a monthly basis. Beth has written some great pieces for us here at The Gutter, and you can read them here. Beth has also written about film for TimeOut London, The Wall Street Journal; India Real Time Blog, FirstPost, and The Hindustan Times. She also keeps up the Paagal Subtitle Blog, does podcasts and has her own blog, Beth Loves Bollywood. You can also find Beth on Twitter at @BethLovesBolly.