Monday, November 15, 2010

MIAAC ’10: Lahore

Nothing says “goodwill” like kick-boxing. Unfortunately, when Dheeru Singh the new young Indian national champion is killed by Noor Muhammad (the Drago-like great Pakistani hope) in the Asian Games, it casts a pall over the upcoming Indian-Pakistani goodwill match. When the games proceed as announced, Singh’s brother Veerender may have some goodwill of his own to spread in Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan’s Lahore (trailer here), which had its U.S. premiere at this year’s MIAAC Film Festival.

India and Pakistan share quite a bit of difficult history together, some of which involves the Punjab capitol of Lahore. Holding the good will games there would evoke certain historical rivalries under the best of conditions. However, emotions are inflamed after Muhammad kills Singh in the ring with a cheap shot. Neither the international kick-boxing authorities nor the Indian government press the matter though, so as not to jeopardize all that goodwill. Of course, Veerender has different ideas.

Originally a kick-boxer as well, he became a cricketer instead, because he lives in India and that is where all the prestige is. He still has a lot of the moves though, as we see when he lays a beat-down on a gang of toughs hassling his brother’s girlfriend Neela. Can brother Veeru get back into fighting shape fast enough to make the national team and return Muhammad’s good will with interest? He has the support of the esteemed Indian national coach S.K. Rao, as well as Ida, the patronized psychiatric intern with the Pakistani team.

Lahore’s debt to Rocky IV and The Best of the Best is blindingly obvious. Still, it mostly works as a martial arts film thanks to the completely credible fight choreography of Hong Kong action director Kuang Hsiung. Anyone with any familiarity with real world martial arts will be able to buy into his fight sequences. Singh’s tentative Romeo & Juliet romance with the Pakistani Ida is also executed relatively painlessly. Frankly, if the energy is there, the revenge-in-the-ring convention works just about every time. Yet, Chauhan deliberately tries his best to undermine it with an eye-rolling Kumbaya conclusion.

All too conscious of geo-political realities, Lahore tries to have it both ways, emphasizing Pakistan’s enormous human-dwarfing mosques and showing their kick-boxing team training in the mountains in scenes that seem to intentionally call to mind al-Qaeda camps. Yet, it also wants to assure us of our universal brotherhood, which evidently becomes clear after a few rounds of bruising combat.

Aanaahad and Sushant Singh are more or less adequate as the battling Singh brothers. Fortunately, the Pakistani villains supply the necessary color. Mukesh Rishi seethes malevolently as the hulking Muhammad and Sabyasachi Chakraborty chews the scenery with relish as the insidious Pakistani coach, who seems to have more hush-hush political clout than George Soros. He is nicely matched by Farooq Shaikh as the media-savvy Indian coach Rao.

There was a time when it would be unthinkable that India, the de-facto leader of the non-aligned nations, would receive such shabby treatment from any international body. Arguably though, Islamic Islamabad probably trumps the increasingly capitalistic India these days. Given such fundamental differences, whether or not they really can all just get-along remains to be seen. Despite its simplistic moral, Lahore brings plenty of crowd-pleasing fighting, making it a good potential fit for Magnolia Pictures’ Magnet slate of international genre movies. A big hit in India, it seems a more likely Hindi film to eventually score American distribution. While the official selection screenings of this year’s MIAAC have concluded, the Smita Patil sidebar continues at the Walter Reade Theater through Thursday (11/18).