Chris Kattan just don't get no respect. This is the launching point for Bollywood Hero. It is also the first thought that passed through my mind after the film ended. The film itself is a fun bit of fluff stretched out to miniseries proportions. Although it underscores its laughs with a message about being comfortable in one's own skin, the more salient observation is that Kattan is a funny guy who deserves to be taken seriously.
In Bollywood Hero, Kattan plays himself with a twist. He keeps his past intact (SNL, Roxbury, Corky Romano and all) but has fun subverting his present and future. You see, he's quite fed up with who he was and wants to try something different. No more funny voices and pratfalls. No more nonsensical characters named Mango or Mr. Peepers. Most importantly, no more Haddaway head-bobs. He's ready to move on to more serious fare. He wants to become the quintessential hero who somehow saves the day and the girl (necessarily in that order).
When a chance encounter with a young Indian producer named Monty Kapoor (Ali Fazal) gives Kattan the opportunity to play the lead in a Bollywood film, he approaches it with some hesitation. After viewing some footage of the female lead, Lalima Lakhani (Neha Dhupia) and with some gentle nudging from his friend Maya (Maya Rudolph playing herself), he is off to India to star in Peculiar Dancing Boy. As Monty described it to him, the film is the story of a young Scotsman who comes to India and falls in love. It is also a critique on imperialism told through the medium of dance. Kattan isn't a very good dancer. As it turns out, this is going to be the least of his problems.
As soon as he arrives on set, Kattan butts heads with Priya (Pooja Kumar), the film's producer who also happens to be Monty's sister. She questions his credentials and bankability while he struggles to pick up the dance moves and Lalima (once again, not necessarily in that order). Budgetary difficulties lead to him staying with Monty and Priya in their house. This gives him a chance to get acquainted with their grandma who doesn't speak a word of English but gets her point across quite vigorously. After granny shows Chris how to shake a leg, Bollywood style, he tries to impress Lalima but instead ends up in a PR scandal reminiscent of Richard Gere's visit to India. From there, things quickly fall apart as Monty and Priya lose their leading lady and their financial backers. It is now up to Chris to find an actress who will act with him while Monty scrambles to secure new funds. The rest of the film documents their path to recovery so that Peculiar Dancing Boy can finally see the light of day.
Bollywood Hero definitely qualifies as an exercise in fearlessness for Kattan. He puts himself out there and doesn't leave anything off-limits when it comes to having a laugh at his expense. His entire filmography is mocked mercilessly and he almost welcomes it in the hope of moving on to greener pastures. This self-deprecating tone carries through to most of the cast. Neha Dhupia boldly plays Lalima as a fame hungry opportunist who doesn't have any redeeming qualities until late in the film. Even Kattan's dad gets in on the act, presenting himself as a bit of a freeloading jerk. Although a number of recognizable faces pop up as cameos in the film, Keanu Reeves easily takes the cake with his brief appearance. He plays himself as a condescending and self-absorbed Hollywood caricature and deadpans his way through one of the funniest scenes in the film. Pooja Kumar and Ali Fazal play their roles reasonably straight but still do a great job.
Even though Kattan is clearly willing to work without a safety net, the film as a whole fails to follow suit. Rather than maintaining a sharp focus on the silly minutiae of making a Bollywood film with an ex-SNL star, it fans out to include unnecessary and clichéd plot points. I suspect the miniseries aspect of the production is to blame for this. The film was shown on IFC in the form of 3 episodes with a total running length of 168 minutes. By stretching out the material to that length, it should be no surprise that the second episode essentially sees the characters spinning their wheels. An obligatory romantic subplot is thrown into the mix complete with misunderstandings and convoluted apologies. The final episode does its best to recover some of the comedic momentum of the first episode but by then the damage is done and the film has morphed from a cheery satire to a sporadically funny drama.
For all my criticism of the film's padding, some of its great pleasures lie in its details. It gets a lot right about the Indian film industry and about the goofy process of making a mainstream Bollywood film. Off-the-cuff dance moves turn into synchronized celebrations of joy when a few background dancers join in. Surreal sequences are explained away as dream sequences which disappear just as quickly as they announce their arrival. These subtleties are unexpected and charming just like Chris Kattan in the film. His fans should definitely check it out to see what he is capable of when he isn't pulling a funny face.