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4 minute read
Richard Corliss

In a faraway realm rival clans play a brutal game called buzkashi, in which horsemen fight over a dead goat and drag its carcass across a finish line. Badshah Khan (Amitabh Bach-chan), noble chief of his clan, seems destined to win this fierce match, when the veil falls from the face of his main rival and–Allah be praised!–it is a beautiful woman, Benazir (Sridevi). What can our smitten hero do but let Benazir win the race and, to prove his love, lead his warriors in an ecstatic production number?

In any other national cinema the antics in the first reel of Mukul S. Anand’s Khuda Gawah (God Is My Witness) might be giggled off the screen. But Indian films are like no other: a churning blend of epic conflict and cootchy choreography, of Sergio Leone and Vincente Minnelli.

Virtually every Indian film is a musical. The songs, lip-synched by the actors but sung by “playback artists” who are also stars, dominate the pop charts. This is pop opera, dealing with emotions so convulsive they must be sung and danced, in a solemn, giddy style that critic Peter Rainer calls “Busby Beserkeley.” Production numbers, like the eight or nine in God Is My Witness, are simply a declaration of passion by other means.

Few of these “curry westerns” or “wet-sari musicals” have been released in North America, in theaters or on video. So Scarecrow Video’s issuing of God Is My Witness, in a handsome, digitally remastered print, is an event worth singing about, as any Indian film hero would.

This is the world’s busiest movie industry. In Bombay they call it Bollywood, and it puts Hollywood to shame: more than 700 films a year (roughly three times the number produced by the major Hollywood studios) in the nation’s 16 official languages. Such actresses as Sridevi, Twinkle Khanna, Dimple Kapadia, Karisma Kapoor and Chunky Pandey have their careers and private lives monitored by adoring fans with an intensity that Lana Turner would have envied. Bachchan, the God Is My Witness star who looks like a more dashing Jon Lovitz and puts a fierce majesty into his basso declarations, is so famous he appears (as Gibreel Farishta) in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.

Western viewers expecting the delicate art films of Satyajit Ray will be in for a pleasant shock. Most Indian films are closer to the populist energy and intimate audience connection of Hong Kong films. And like John Woo’s and Jackie Chan’s action thrillers, Indian cinema exotically evokes the complex pleasures of Golden Age Hollywood, with its glamour and verve, its strict codes (India’s censors typically allow no explicit violence, nudity or even kissing) and the cunning, seductive way it subverts these taboos.

The enthusiasm could be contagious. In 1994, Toronto Film Festival audiences gave a rapturous reception to the films of top Tamil auteur Mani Rathnam, including Nayakan (1987), a terrific gangster epic in the Godfather style, and Roja (1992), a terrorist Love Story. The song lyrics alone could easily attract camp followers: imagine an American star crooning, “Your sexy appearance triggers procreation in the earth…Life’s a cactus without you,” or “On your beautiful body, sweat never tastes salty.”

God Is My Witness parades the same ethnic rivalries and cinematic delirium. Spanning two generations, three hours of screen time and a dozen teeming plots and counterplots, the film is weird and enthralling enough to hook American cinephiles and leave them praying for more.

Badshah is an imposing chieftain in a land that seems medieval if not mythical. But Benazir won’t think of marrying him until he brings her the head of Habibullah, the Indian bandit who killed her father. In carrying out his pledge, Badshah breaks Indian law. So he gives his word to a kindly policeman that, after going home for his wedding, he will return to be jailed. In the ensuing 20 years he takes the rap for two murders he didn’t commit. Poor Badshah: noble to a fault.

Everyone has many terrible vows to keep, many beautiful secrets to reveal. Venal jailers stroke their fancy mustaches. The sound effects are volcanic: a slap stings like a bullwhip. Benazir goes mad, her daughter grows up to be a race-car driver, the policeman’s daughter becomes a cop and helps track down Habibullah’s brother (who spits out his evil threats on a cellular phone–suddenly we’re in today’s India), and everything climaxes in an Armageddon of gunplay. With music.

India has all the elements to be a vibrant cult cinema in the U.S.–the next Hong Kong. And God Is My Witness is a great place for Americans to start supping at the banquet that is Bollywood.

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