Halla Bol: Pros and Khans

I love movies that get all meta about the film industry, be it The Player or Soapdish or Om Shanti Om. Rajkumar Santoshi’s Halla Bol (Raise Your Voice) is one such film, telling the story of superstar Sameer Khan (Ajay Devgan), who must confront the soul-less Bollywood machine he’s become when he witnesses the murder of a young woman at an exclusive industry party.

Through the use of an extended flashback, viewers learn that Sameer was once a struggling actor named Ashfaaq, who raged against social injustice with his street theater troupe. A passionate young man who adored his mentor, the charismatic Siddhu (Pankaj Kapur), and romanced  his childhood sweetheart, Sneha (the luminous Vidya Balan), over the course of his meteoric rise to stardom Ashfaaq gets trapped in the hype. Product endorsements, awards and accolades, “auditioning” would-be heroines…somewhere in the middle of it, Ashfaaq loses himself, and his voice. An actor with his power and influence could so easily speak out against atrocity, but silence is the name of the game in Bollywood.

Halla Bol is gorgeously directed, with a tight script. And much like Om Shanti Om, there is industry cooperation and actual Bollywood stars playing themselves. Kareena Kapoor, Sridevi, and producer Boney Kapoor are just a few of the cameos, and constant references are made to Salman Khan, Shahrukh Khan and other real Bollywood figures. That actually gives the film a haunting amount of authenticity. You get the sense that, on some level, the secret keeping and back room deals and self-serving behavior is absolutely true. That the fiction of this film is nowhere near as compelling as the truth of it.

And along with the inside view into the industry —showing us how actors book “dates” in Mumbai for various films and come in to dub dialogue — there is also the message that you have to fight for what you believe in. Ashfaqullah Khan was a celebrated freedom fighter during the Indian independence movement. He was hanged in 1927, when he was only 27 years old. That Ashfaaq in this film is named for him, and that this name is changed to Sameer when he breaks into the movies, is incredibly significant. At one point, the character even rails at his father, “You forget again and again that you aren’t Ashfaaq’s father anymore, you’re Sameer Khan’s father!” So much of this film is about reclaiming your identity and your beliefs and what you’re willing to sacrifice everything for.

The second hour sort of devolves into typical Bollywood melodrama, with mob goons threatening Ashfaaq and his family and such, but the intensity of the film remains intact. I actually got chills when Siddhu resolutely tells Ashfaaq it’s now up to him to fight for the murdered girl — when he says, simply, “Halla bol.”

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