Bollywood Bad: Toward an Aesthetics of the Failed Future

Curator's Note

Love Story 2050 (dir. Harry Baweja, 2008), despite massive promotion and glitzy special effects, flopped hard—it was, to steal a joke from another film, a veritable “floppel-e-azam.” Designed to launch Harman Baweja to A-list stardom, this sci-fi romance returns its NRI (Non-Resident Indian) leads to mother India via a time machine. Karan (Baweja) meets Sana (Priyanka Chopra) at a dirt-bike race in Adelaide, Australia. He falls in love, stalks her, woos her, wins her—and then watches her get plowed down by a city bus. Recalling Sana’s offhand remark that she would like to see what Mumbai looks like in the year 2050, Karan rushes to the Sydney mansion of his eccentric scientist uncle Dr. Khanna and persuades him to test out his newly completed time machine by taking the two of them to Mumbai 2050. There, in Tomorrow-Land India, the two acquire a kooky entourage of androids and commence stalking Ziesha, Sana’s rock star reincarnation. Their mission: to remind Ziesha of her past so that, in love with Karan once again, she will escape with him to Adelaide.

In diagnosing this film’s “badness,” reviews typically cite the weak screenplay or Harman Baweja’s failure to stack up to Hrithik Roshan, the star he is said to resemble. I would venture that the film’s failings are less aesthetic than ideological: it fails to produce an Indian future that could be believed or even desired.

Love Story 2050 amplifies ideologies of Ascendant India. Like many hit films since the 1990s, it celebrates transnational elites; but, unlike these films, it interrupts the fantasy of a cosmopolitan modernity returned to family, tradition, and motherland. Love Story 2050 implies (and not so subtly) that the only India an NRI would want to return to is a sci-fi India—the hypermodern future predicted by so much contemporary discourse.

This sci-fi Mumbai proves unrecognizable. Love Story 2050 makes literal the promise of neoliberal futurity: India will be transformed, and it will be transformed very soon. But in visualizing this science fiction, it undermines the consent secured by market ideologies. Mumbai 2050, complete with flying cars and robot servants, is implausible; it’s hokey; it bears no apparent connection to Mumbai 2008. If Mumbai could ever look like this—and we’re not sure we would want it to—it would take a heck of a lot longer than 42 years.


Great post, Bart.

We've made an interesting move from paracinema to mainstream commercial cinema here - from The Grusome Twosome of yesterday to a major studio endeavor today. There's more to say about that, especially in relation to Sconce's piece on "Trashing the Academy..." perhaps.

Following Jameson, maybe, I wonder if LoveStory 2050 presents a utopic future (which would fail because nobody would ever live in its Mumbai) or a dystopic future (which would fail, perhaps, because that's a whole of lot of moral decay to happen in 42 years). I've said before that it's dystopic - too messy, too dark, too crowded - but I think that ignores some scenes like this one and those awful pans of the underwater houses off the coast of Malabar Hill. Those shots of Mumbai, I think, are meant to illustrate a utopic NRI-return. At the same time, however, our heroes are eager to get back to Adelaide 2008.

So perhaps the film stumbles on a significant point: it can't make up its mind. Mumbai 2050 is great! No! Mumbai 2050 sucks! We look to Bollywood to help us decide this about Mumbai today, so it's even more disappointing to see that, when Bollywood can entirely invent a future-Mumbai and still not make up its mind, we just leave frustrated, wishing we'd seen Hrithik Roshan.

Bart, this is a great a piece. I was really looking forward to it, and you've really hit the nail on the head with your description of how futurity ends up operating in a lot of fiction. What passes itself off as simple escapism in fact has a lot to tell us about the sorts of desires, wishes, and claims that ideology projects. Jumping off of Daniel's comments, I think it's safe to say that, as far as this aspect of future projecting is concerned, one ideology's utopia is inevitably another ideology's dystopia.

Also, for a film with high production costs like Lovestory 2050 (which everyone should see if only for the scene where Sana gets hit by a truck, which turns out to be hilarious despite its best efforts at tragedy), part of the "badness" is simply how generic the future is. As you point out, there's not a trace of 2008 Mumbai here--no lingering landmarks, no identifiable past to this future. Instead we get flying cars (a cliché), evil media corporations (another cliché), and the inevitable assurance that heterosexual love plots can always transcend the petty limitations of spacetime. In fact, the only thing memorable about this future, for all its glitz and glamour, is the animatronic servant Boo, a strange combination of Teddy Ruxpin and R2D2, who ends up doing little more than getting smacked around and telling fart jokes.

In short, this is a future that doesn't ask us to take any leaps of faith into its "unreality" because, well, all its imaginative moves are already so clearly choreographed. Literally, in the case of this clip. It's a future as transparent as the film's efforts to capitalize on the attractiveness (if not the talent) of its star. This isn't any kind of future that makes us anxious, hopeful, or distraught so much as it is one that makes us, well, bored.

Wonderful post, Bart (although I'm not sure whether this clip makes me want to see the movie or not). To follow up on Daniel and Kaelin’s comments, I too find the concept of a dystopic boredom to be pretty interesting—how the future’s failure comes not from being smog-drenched, violence-ridden, or controlled by evil machines run amuck, but rather from being completely obvious.  Regardless of paracinema’s general “badness,” any obviousness it might show us tends to be couched in the paraphernalia of the unexpected, from a head-scratching line reading to an over-the-top spangled costume to the motel room masquerading as dormitory from Gruesome Twosome.  The contract of good faith that (low-budget) bad cinema enters into with us is based upon the promise of finding some sublime weirdness in the insipid; if we stick it out through the drudgery, we are rewarded with an experience assuredly unlike anything we could find in the multiplex.  I think that some bad film offers a kind of productive boredom, but it can’t find room to thrive if the frame is calculatedly filled with sparkling dancing robots, shiny and well-made-up performers, and highly stylized expensive lighting.  The gloom of overdetermination makes one long for decay; from the standpoint of a present that’s already obvious enough, we don’t really want to be able to predict the future with such accuracy.

Thanks to all for your responses. I think that the comments, taken as a whole, suggest the way in which LoveStory 2050 projects a futuristic Bombay/ Mumbai somewhere in between utopia and dystopia. On the one hand, it offers consumer fantasies like those underwater bayside bungalows that Daniel points out (a utopia for the aspirant global classes); on the other hand, it sucks out all the soul from the city of today.


When monuments of the past do appear in this futurescape, they feel almost betrayed by their hokey sci-fi surroundings-- the architectural past lingers uncannily in this future, and I wonder whether if somehow the indexical trace of the Bombay that is refuses to be subsumed diegetically by the Mumbai that would be. One scene springs immediately to mind in this regard: Ziesha descending the steps of the Asiatic Society amid a throng of screaming fans. This colonial landmark building is too iconic, too anachronistic, too squarely neoclassical. It just doesn't fit in this rock star sequence (how did she get here from her stage in the sky anyway?), and Ziesha feels like she's pretending to be a movie star (cf. Sconce's comments yesterday). The neoliberal future comes grinding to a halt on the doorstep of the colonial past.


I keep coming back to a line from "Milo na Milo": "dono ke haathon me yaado ki kuch zanjeeren hain." Both the lovers have chains of memory on their hands. Through photographic traces, time machines, and reincarnated lovers, the past keeps jerking at our chains, determined to bring a stop to the future.


Bombay-- still ill at ease with the erasure of memory signified by the name "Mumbai"-- might produce especially acute visions of future utopias we can't quite want. But the overall ambivalence, the delightful badness of this film, is something anyone caught up in the anxious desires of the present can relate to.

I haven't seen the film yet, but I'm curious if this particular set is supposed to be Mumbai or some giant nightclub/airport hanger the actors have entered.

I think one of the reasons Bollywood cinema in general has such an odd look to westerners is the absolute saturation of style--it's hard to find a single shot in this sequence that doesn't contain a camera move, a framing trick, a lighting effect, etc.  Since Hollywood gave up so long ago on both the musical and this kind of anti-naturalist stylization (except in the 'blockbuster'--see Joceyln's post), I wonder if our fascination with Bollywood (good and bad) doesn't issue from a desire to see the cinematic arsenal once again fully unleased, to see movies that are once again purely about a celebration of sound and image.  And "over-stylization," much like Lewis' "zero-stylization," is the royal road to camp--a betrayal of artifice/theatricality that can take us out of a diegesis.

That said, I agree that these versions of the future have become virtually interchangable.  In this respect, however, perhaps "the future" has simply become another stock historical period carrying certain signifying expectations-- I'm sure ancient Greece has nothing to do with the various ways it gets presented (from "I Claudius" to "300"), but movies need a visual/generic shorthand that allows this exposition to be handled quickly so that film's true mission can proceed (in this case, dancin' and romancin').

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