KNOT AND CROSSES
The disagreements surrounding an impending marriage add up to a fresh, fun rom-com.
SEPT 17, 2006 – THE AIRILY-AFFABLE PYAAR KE SIDE EFFECTS begins with a scene of Trisha (Mallika Sherawat) asking boyfriend Sid (Rahul Bose), “Do you love me?” in the middle of an India-Pakistan cricket match, and a little later, they’ve had a tiff and a cheeky little scoreboard – like the ones used in boxing – pops up at the bottom of the screen, chalking up points for both as they go about trying to patch up. These sporting references are probably no accident, for the film itself is a marathon bout of Boy vs. Girl, Mars vs. Venus. We’ve seen this sort of thing a thousand times in Hollywood before, and if something like this had come along with, say, Matthew McConaughey or Kate Hudson or Luke Wilson or Reese Witherspoon, we’d have just rolled our eyes and said: “Not again!” But with the same basic idea transposed to a desi setting – with brown-skinned people and smatterings of Hinglish (though no one’s actually “Indian” in a sense; these folks may live in New Delhi or Bombay, but with their attitudes and their lifestyles, they may well be from New York or Boston) – it all seems fresh and interesting again.
You could trace the building blocks of this movie back to one older film or another. You could say that the smart-alecky Delhi vs. Bombay riffs owe their existence to the NY vs. LA shtick that Woody Allen wrote so memorably for Annie Hall. The observation that Nanoo (Ranveer Shorey, a riot as Sid’s roomie) makes about weddings being the best place to land horny women, we saw that most recently in The Wedding Crashers. And the character of Nanoo itself – the slob roommate from hell – isn’t terribly original; we saw one of those in Notting Hill. But the way all of this comes together is refreshingly original (and by that I mean, not readily traceable to this film or that one as a whole). I think the reason Pyaar Ke Side Effects works so well is that it’s not exactly story-driven. It’s about Sid overcoming his commitment issues before marrying Trisha – “I know that she’s the one,” he says and stops short, leaving hanging in the air a huge “but…” – and it’s essentially a series of no-fuss vignettes. There’s no thunder and lightning in the drama; there’s no slapstick violin run underscoring the comedy. Everything is so light and easy, whenever a dramatic segment – or a comic one – falls flat on its face, the film just picks itself up and moves on to the next bit. (I think this is the slapdash feel Sujoy Ghosh was going for in Home Delivery, though he messed up the execution.)
But I kept thinking about Ghosh’s first feature Jhankaar Beats while watching Pyaar Ke Side Effects. That one’s a superior film, because it had a more organic structure, and because it used its music far more meaningfully – the tunes here, by Pritam, aren’t half-bad, but the song sequences are speed breakers – but Pyaar Ke Side Effects is the first “multiplex movie” after Jhankaar Beats that delivers on its promise of hip entertainment, the kind that leaves you with a good feeling but also the kind that doesn’t ask you to take it too seriously. Well, you could – if you wanted to. Early on, just after Sid has met Trisha, director Saket Chaudhary gives us a quiet moment of Sid sitting on a bench with a flower in his hand, doing the old she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not (or, perhaps, I-love-her-I-love-her-not). This is usually the sort of thing the girl does, and there are several pointers later on that suggest Chaudhary could be making a case for the male being the weaker sex – namely, the “female” – in his scenario. For one, Trisha is taller than Sid, she earns more than he does, and it’s she who proposes marriage. Then, at a disco, it’s a woman who asks Sid if he’d like to dance. When Sid’s brother-in-law suggests a name for his newborn daughter, his wife – this couple is played with a great deal of lived-in charm by Aamir Bashir and Taraana Raja – vetoes the name and goes with the one she’s thought of. The men here are afraid to marry (like Sid), or afraid to become a parent (like Sid’s brother-in-law), or afraid to stick on in a marriage (like Sid’s father), and even the one non-wimpy, red-blooded male around – Trisha’s father – is projected as a full-blown nutcase (in the mould of Robert De Niro’s overbearing, overprotective daddy-of-the-girl in Meet the Parents).
But these are things that struck me only in retrospect because Chaudhary keeps his film chugging along so breezily, you don’t feel you’re watching anything important. (And that is nice, because not every movie needs to change your life; sometimes, it’s enough that it fills up a couple of hours rather pleasantly.) Besides, why would anyone take seriously something where a man is reduced to having a conversation with his penis? Or something with such look-ma-I’m-funny title cards (one of which reads “saali bewdi”)? Or something with the sidesplitting observation that women like to train their men to behave in ways that suit them, and the fact that Trisha has spent three years in “training” Sid means she’s unlikely to dump him (or else she’ll have to waste three more years training a new man, all over again)? There are times when Chaudhary asks Sid to do things like talking to the audience – a self-conscious technique that almost always never works, except maybe when a hyper-neurotic like Woody Allen does it (again, Annie Hall) – and I wish some of the supporting characters had been directed better. (They come off like performers in a low-rent high-school production, especially Sophie Choudhry, who plays a hottie who falls for Sid in an unbelievably half-baked subplot that goes on far longer than necessary.)
But the director does well by the leads. Rahul Bose doesn’t seem particularly comfortable with the comedy – partly because he’s not really a loose actor, and partly because you’re not convinced he would do things like suggest playing a remix of Babul ki duayen leti jaa at his wedding. (He doesn’t appear the kind of person who’d have even heard of that Rafi weepie!) But as a foil for Mallika, he’s just about right. When I saw the promos, I thought that was why she was cast, because she’s this sex symbol, this masala-movie oomph goddess who’s the complete contrast to everything an actor like Rahul Bose stands for. I thought this would be one of those films that would play these two off each other, and sit back and watch the opposites-attract sparks explode. But that’s just the half of it. Chaudhary has done the seemingly impossible; he’s made us see that Mallika Sherawat is more than just a giant pair of breasts with a face. She plays around winningly with this image of hers we carry around in our heads – “Sweety, yeh chest kaisa hai?” she coos out to Sid, off camera, and then we discover she’s talking about a piece of furniture – and she’s sweet and funny and vulnerable and, yes, sexy as hell too. (That scene where she takes off her bra from underneath her shirt in one neat, practiced move, it’s not in-your-face sexy, but that apparent lack of making a big deal of the moment makes her all the more hot.) She still can’t do the soulful Big Actor things, but thankfully there are very few of those. Till yesterday, she was just this glorified item girl who titillated the frontbenchers, and here she is, slipping easily and confidently into an upmarket rom-com – that’s just one of the many happy side effects in Chaudhary’s feature debut.
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