There's nothing I can tell you that will prepare you for Kites. Anurag Basu's gloriously entertaining mash-up combines elements of spaghetti westerns, Japanese gangster flicks, musicals, chase movies, and '80s action movies, squeezing them all through the sieve of the Bollywood romantic melodrama. It's goofy pulp nonsense, but there's more cinematic energy in 12 seconds of Kites—any 12 seconds—than in the vast majority of pictures being cranked out of the American studio machine these days.
Kites is something of a milestone for Bollywood cinema. It's a multicultural, genre-bending production specifically designed to make Indian films more palatable to Western audiences. Set and filmed in America and Mexico, Kites bounces from English to Hindi to Spanish and embraces film conventions from any part of the world you care to name, all while remaining essentially faithful to its roots in the traditional Bollywood romantic adventure. It's being released stateside in two versions: Lucky markets (like Knoxville) will get the original Hindi cut that clocks in at 130 minutes, while other cities will be stuck with a 90-minute edition cut by Brett Ratner (perpetrator of the Rush Hour franchise). So far, it's paying off; last weekend, Kites became the first Indian film to open in the top 10 in the United States.
The film's first images give us a pretty good idea of what we're in for. Kites dance in the wind; a man tumbles, unconscious and bloody, from a railroad boxcar; a blood-slick bullet drops into a glass of whiskey. The man is J (Bollywood superstar Hrithik Roshan), and the story unfolds in flashbacks as he stumbles through the desert in search of "the love of his life," a beautiful Mexican immigrant named Linda (Mexican-Japanese model Barbara Mori). Three months earlier, J and Linda were living the good life; both were on the verge of escaping lifelong poverty by marrying into a wealthy family of Las Vegas gangsters. They're actually in love with one another, of course, and they quickly learn that very bad things happen to anyone who crosses the family they were about to hustle.
What follows is a manic string of set pieces executed with exhilarating gusto and go-for-broke visual bravura. The stunts are over-the-top and expertly staged, and the action sequences are anything but predictable. A car chase gives way to a hot-air balloon escape, while an impromptu bank robbery leads to a Mexican standoff between the heroes, the police and, for reasons that actually make sense while you're watching the movie, a redneck biker gang. If Quentin Tarantino ever decides to adapt a Harlequin romance novel, this is what it will look like. Taking cues from sources as disparate as The Searchers, Black Rain, and every perfume commercial ever filmed, Kites wears its influences on its sleeve while somehow managing to construct its own unique, and uniquely engaging, visual language.
As thrilling as the action sequences are, though, Kites owes much of its success to a different sort of window dressing. Roshan and Mori are as beautiful as human beings get, and both have the sort of charm and charisma that we usually associate with Hollywood's golden age. The comparison doesn't end there—since the cultural constraints of mainstream contemporary Hindi films are reminiscent of Hollywood's defunct Hays code, Kites revels in the sort of sexual tension usually reserved for the likes of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. American movies have long since traded sexiness for sex, and Kites reminds us that it might not have been an equitable exchange.
The movie does come with a few strings attached, mostly in the form of overwrought dialogue and some truly heinous acting by a handful of supporting players. But it's so guileless and utterly devoid of irony and cynicism that it earns heaping doses of goodwill, and its transgressions are forgivable. It offers panache and naivete in equal amounts, and puts an unexpectedly classy spin on summertime popcorn cinema.
As unabashed escapism, Kites is a nearly unqualified success. The schizophrenic genre-hopping might be disorienting to some viewers—a dance contest in the beginning is pure Saturday Night Fever, while the violent climax could have been lifted from Sin City—but it ultimately works in the movie's favor. If you're bored with the romance, sit tight and know that a fiery explosion is just around the corner.