Kunal Kohli’s latest movie, Thoda Pyaar, Thoda Magic, seems to suggest a shift in the Bollywood aesthetic. Yes, the film is glossy and colorful, and yes it features a dancing velociraptor, but Kohli’s film stands out from the glittering Bollywood oeuvre for its refusal to capitalize on America’s caste-fascination and its conspicuous paucity of glitzy song-and-dance numbers. Instead, the bulk of the movie consists of inscrutable character psychology in (dis)service of a messy plot, all layered with a less-than-subtle comic critique of American cultural dominance.
The four plucky Walia children are orphaned when industrialist Ranbeer Talwar (Saif Ali Khan), tapping away on his Blackberry, plows his BMW into their parents’ car. A judge decides that Ranbeer will atone for his crackberry sins by caring for the children, so the kids move in and do their best to screw things up for Daddy Warbucks. The Walias—all of whom are blessed with prodigious comic timing—also cross swords with Ranbeer’s astrology-happy girlfriend, Malaika, played with delightful Valley-girl inanity by Ameesha Patel.
Much too late in the game, we meet Meeta (Rani Mukerji), an impish angel whom God (yes, God) appoints as the Walia kids’ magical nanny. In an acid-trip re-hash of Mary Poppins, Meeta descends from the heavens, riding a purple bicycle along a rainbow. Under Meeta’s care, the children warm to Ranbeer, who in turn miraculously softens in response to Meeta’s magic, wisdom, and heavy flirting—imagine a lustier version of The Sound of Music. (Kohli clearly has a Julie Andrews fetish.) But unlike the Von Trapp scamps, the Walias are helped along by huge bouts of magical intervention, and one ultimately wonders whether their happy-family vibe is genuine, or whether Meeta’s magic functions like some sort of heavenly Prozac.
Kohli is clearly jostling for a slot as a serious filmmaker—eschewing airier Bollywood themes for (often implausible) knotty emotional entanglements—but his film is most successful when it lightens up. The posse eventually travels to L.A., where the Walia kids beat up some blonde brats, Ranbeer clinches a deal, and Meeta makes the Hollywood sign read “BOLLYWOOD.” America conquered! Although there’s cultural tension aplenty, Kohli playfully asserts that his characters are quite capable of navigating the American landscape, thank you very much. The kids might be young, but even they have a handle on Kohli’s satirized America; the oldest Walia has mischief in his eyes when he avows: “Domino’s is never late.”