Bluffmaster (2005) Directed by Rohan Sippy.  Abhishek Bachchan, Priyanka Chopra, Ritesh Deshmukh (137 min)

The Argentine con man movie, Nueve Reinas, spawned global imitations (Hollywood’s starred Nick Cage) but the Bollywood version sports vivacious comic performances, scintillating music, and, as proof of ineffable style, a 60s Ford Mustang. “Tongue-in-chic, ultra-cool and nobody’s fool, Bluffmaster achieves that strange synthesis of spoof and caper which our audiences are not quite prepared for” (

Tonight’s screening is a tribute to the 1960s Ford Mustang a rare car in India. Ford is forever indebted to Steve McQueen and Bullitt for making the car a timeless avatar of cool. This screening is also a tribute to the Galaxy Cinema.  I learned to love Bollywood cinema because of the Galaxy, and I miss it dreadfully. Would my feelings towards it be the same if it was showing the mostly tepid Bollywood films that have come out over the last few years?  Maybe not.  But, for me the Golden Age of Bollywood will always be 2002-2006, with its great stars, catchy tunes and just a hint of international glamour.

Abhishek Bachchan as Bluffmaster

Last year’s Galaxy Cinema auction was held pretty much in secret, perhaps a good thing since I was in Cleveland dealing with family issues when it happened.  A speculator who knew nothing about what he was buying bought the pile of films remaining in the projection booth for $1 apiece.  I knew that the theater found it too expensive to ship the films, in their custom made burlap boxes, back to India, and that many remained on site.  I showed several of them at the NCMA during the Galaxy Cinema’s existence.  I found out from the auctioneer who bought the remaining films, and called him to offer him twice what he had paid for the films (not knowing it would have taken a giant truck to haul them away).  He told me curtly that he was going to make $10,000 from his economical purchase, and I could buy them from eBay like anybody else.  He put each one on the website for 100 times his invesstment (plus shipping).  He did not know which films he had, and did not care about them in the slightest. I felt pretty certain that the market for unsubtitled 35mm Tamil and Telegu movies was rather small.  There were a lot of terrible Hindi language films in his cache, too.  But, I stalked his on-line sales for months, pouncing when a favorite film appeared and waiting patiently for some second choices to come down in price.

I lost a couple of films I would have liked to have bought, like Devdas, the Shah Rukh Khan film that made me and my daughter fall in love with Indian cinema in the first place. My previously friendly UPS man began to hate me, when the gigantic boxes with a dozen or more reels in metal cans would be delivered at my door.  I still kick myself for missing a couple of films I probably should have bought (especially when two titles in particular appeared on Best Bollywood Films of the 2000s lists, even if I didn’t agree).  I purchased what I could afford, and donated them to the UNCSA Film Archive, so they would be available for loan to whomever could show them.  What happened to the rest?  Well, Devin Orgeron from NC State brought me a single can, reels 1-2 of a South Indian movie whose title I cannot read, purchased from a Cameron Village (Raleigh NC) antique store.  Well, perhaps the remaining films did not end up in the landfill as I feared.  But, I suspect few of the hundred or more titles I did not purchase have ended up in any archive or collection.  They languished on eBay until they were taken down.

In 2005, Adrian and I were so excited to see Bluffmaster, starring one of our favorite stars, that we drove from Durham to Cary to see “first day first show” like they do in India.  It was dark and rainy, and we got stuck in horrendous I-40 rush hour traffic  on our way to the theater.  When we reached the Galaxy, we were told the print had not yet arrived, and shows were cancelled.  What to do?  Because it was the Galaxy, we could opt for Kiera Knightley in Pride and Prejudice, and so, we did.  We returned the next day to see this very print.

Bluffmaster has the title of an earlier film, a common and confusing trait of Hindi cinema.  The previous Bluff Master, which was two words, starred Shammi Kapoor, a big star of the 1960s, whose kooky and impulsive characters, and pioneering Hindi language rock songs in the era of Elvis, made him a national heartthrob.

Shammi Kapoor in the older Bluff Master

This film has absolutely nothing to do with the previous one.  Abhishek’s Bluffmaster is based on an Argentine film called Nuevas Reinas (Nine Queens) and, if it was released in the US, I doubt it played anywhere near here.  It is a cult favorite, though.  When a friend’s son went on a study abroad to Buenos Aires, he came home with a DVD of this local favorite.  In a recent interview with Harrison Ford, promoting Ender’s Game, when asked what his favorite films were, he short listed Nuevas Reinas.  There was a Hollywood version starring Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell, directed by Ridley Scott, called Matchstick Men.  Does every country have its own version of this con man story?  There is clearly something quite appealing about it. The Hindi version differs not only because of the songs, but the focus on comedy and the heart tugging appeal to embrace life. Actor Boman Irani’s speech, “How many days of your life do you really remember?” represents the emotional heart of Hindi cinema.

Boman Irani and Abhishek Bachchan

The film stars Abhishek Bachchan, who starred in some of my favorite Bollywood films of the mid-aughts.  He is the son of Amitabh Bachchan, India’s greatest movie star, who is revered as a god in India.  When Amitabh was injured in an on-set accident in the mid-1980s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi came to cheer him at his hospital bedside.  It’s not surprising that Amitabh’s son, Abhishek, has gotten some flack for the impossible task of being as talented as his legendary father, so much so that he makes few films these days, content to live life somewhat out of the spotlight with his wife, Aishwayra Rai and their baby.  I heard an interview with him once, where he was asked if he read his reviews.  He said that he once saw one that said he had as much expression as a block of wood.  “A block of wood!” he moaned, hurt by the insult.

The film is directed by Rohan Sippy, whose father, Ramesh Sippy, directed Abhishek’s father and his mother Jaya Bachchan in Sholay, the landmark spaghetti Western, samurai flavored action movie that made Amitabh a star in the 1970s. In fact, Jaya was pregnant with Abhishek when she filmed Sholay.  So, Abhishek and Rohan grew up together (as they did with other Bollywood actors and directors in their age group) playing at each other’s houses and attending each other’s birthday parties.  When two characters do a deal in a movie theater showing Shaan another film directed by the director’s father and starring the leading man’s father, it is an in-joke everyone in the Indian audience could appreciate.

Priyanka Chopra, Abhishek in his embroidered shirt and director Rohan Sippy (in glasses).

Priyanka Chopra, the leading lady, is a former Miss World who has recently been making a play for Western crossover stardom.  Her “international” looks have landed her a high profile advertising job for Guess, in one of their Sophia Loren styled photo layouts in Vogue and other prominent fashion magazines.  She recently released an album with music videos, in which she sings and dances moderately well.  “In My City” the first single from her album “Exotic” was used as a theme for the 2013 season of the NFL Network’s Thursday Night Games, making her a fixture in sports bars across the country.  A veteran of 40 Indian films, she went to high school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and like Abhishek (who went to Boston University for a while) is comfortable with both English and Hindi, as well as crossing over between Indian and Western culture.

Bollywood films need music, and this one has a catchy score mostly by Vishal and Shekar.  The title track and some of the background music, though, is by a British South Asian group called Trick Baby, they sample classic Hindi film music from earlier days.

The clothes in this film, by Aki Narula, are an eyecatching combination of Indian and Western clothes. Towards the end of the film, Abhishek wears a shirt with an asymmetrical embroidery design that I was obsessed with for a while.  His hip hop wardrobe in the last song was bought in NYC, for extra authenticity.  Priyanka wears her watch on a band of fabric wrapped around her wrist, a style which my daughter, Adrian, who is allergic to metal jewelry, still wears, changing the fabric as the mood suits her.  We bought a watch face at the mall, and she put it on the fabric band in the hallway, rather than have anyone at the watch store steal her (and Priyanka’s) style.

Nana Patekar plays villains so often that when he takes a straight razor in his hand, the audience cringed. You can see Priyank’s watchband, here.

For a while, Bollywood films subtitled the song lyrics, which they didn’t do much before the mid-2000s and have now often stopped doing for some reason.  Many Indian studios have been purchased by Hollywood studios, and it’s not surprising to see Fox Searchlight, or Walt Disney’s name before a big budget Indian movie.  These new overlords seem to think, once again, that we don’t need to know the words of the songs, even if they are funny, sexy or move the plot ahead.

Every once in a while, George Holt, the Director of Film and Music Programming at the NCMA, indulges me with a Bollywood film. Although the audience was small (as it always is during ACC basketball tournament season) it was most appreciative. Everyone laughed at the jokes, enjoyed the music (staying all the way through the song played over the end titles) and some approached me after the film to say they had never seen a Bollywood film before and that they had really enjoyed themselves. Mission accomplished.