Review: Loins of Punjab Presents / Dhol

Posted on September 22, 2007


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A wonderfully quirky dramedy about a bunch of NRIs competing in a talent show. Plus one of Priyadarshan’s worst ever “comedies.â€?

SEPT 23, 2007 – I HAD A SINKING FEELING when Loins of Punjab Presents got going, when someone explained the significance of the title. Loins of Punjab is the name of the company that’s the largest supplier of pork loins in the East Coast of America, and what they’re presenting is Desi Idol, an Indian Idol-style talent contest for NRIs. This exposition is followed by a scene that introduces the event manager (Jameel Khan) with this trying-too-hard-to-be-funny caption: Hardened supporter of the Swedish bikini team. And when Darshan Jariwala came on as a Mr. Patel who insists that his silver-voiced daughter (Ishitta Sharma) is going to be a doctor or a lawyer, and that singing is just her hoe-bee, I just slumped in my seat, awaiting some ninety-odd minutes of the kind of ABCD filmmaking we’ve all come to dread.

But soon after, something marvellous happened. The film became really funny – not just ha-ha funny (though it is that too, thanks largely to a riotous Ajay Naidu as the gay Sikh bhangra-rapper Turbanotorious B.D.G., the “galactic Jedi life-force of bhangraâ€?), but also funny in a Neil Simon-meets-Wes Anderson way. In its setup of a varied group of eccentrics converged in a hotel, Loins of Punjab Presents reminded me specifically of Simon’s California Suite, but filtered through a deadpan (and decidedly off-kilter) Rushmore sensibility and presented with the crowd-pleasing flourish of Little Miss Sunshine. (Just wait for the climax; it’s a rouser that will have you on your feet for more reasons than one.) By the time I walked out of the theatre, I was on a helium high.

I don’t want to oversell this modest little movie, but Loins of Punjab Presents is that rarest of films – well written, well made and extremely well acted by an ensemble cast, each one of whom has a different (and compelling) reason to compete for the $25,000 cash prize. Manish Acharya (the director, who also plays one of the contestants) needs the money because he’s just lost his job. (It’s been outsourced to India.) Shabana Azmi – the biggest name in the movie, yet the actor whose performance registers the least, possibly because this is a role she could have played in her sleep (which she probably did); but it is fun to see her launch into Chura liya hai tumne – wants to make headlines by donating the winnings to charity. And so on.

With this kind of motley mix, some level of stereotyping is probably inevitable – as in the case of the Patels, who, at one point, ask for vegetarian “snakesâ€? – but even this is done with great affection, and you come away remembering everyone as characters, not cartoons. For all the broad strokes, these are flesh-and-blood people who are springboards as much for comedy as commentary. I doubt we’ll see a funnier film this year that also manages riffs on the overachieving NRI (there’s a girl here who’s gotten herself into the Guinness book for playing the recorder for 27 straight hours) and the reverse racism faced by the gora who, despite loving India and knowing Hindi songs, is booed by desis when he goes on stage.

The only minor complaint I had was that the musical performances end up truncated, and I felt this especially when the Patel girl began to sing Man kyon behka (from Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s magnificent soundtrack for Utsav) and when the American got going on Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan (because he met his girlfriend in Mumbai). One of the most heartening features of these talent shows – I’m talking about outside of this film; on TV, say – is that, though the contestants are mostly kids, they aren’t simply going Just chill, chill or You are my Soniya. In an age where prime-time television showcases nothing but the new – if you’re looking for black-and-white songs, you’ll have to catch a programme at an unearthly hour – these shows are proof that you don’t need a head full of silver to understand that old is still gold.

And these shows reinforce how the songs from our films aren’t just popular music, they’re part of our psyche. They reflect the way we think and feel and act. When the terrific Seema Rahmani comes on stage after encouragement from this man she may be into, the number she launches into is Bole choodiyan. And when she gets to the line, Tere bin jiya naiyyo lagda, you realise with a smile that she’s not just singing, she’s serenading him – and this prompts him to begin belting the song back to her. It’s a joyous Bollywood moment, all the more joyous for being in a movie this un-Bollywood. Later, a bit shaken at his outburst, this man confesses, “I can’t believe I just did that. I don’t know what came over me.â€? But we know what it is. It’s simply the magic of our song-and-dance cinema.

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I’M NOT REALLY SUPPOSED TO give away the jokes in a comedy, but let me tell you how Priyadarshan’s Dhol opens. It’s yet another one of those bunch-of-losers stories, and this particular bunch of losers (Sharman Joshi, Tusshar Kapoor, Kunal Khemu, Rajpal Yadav) is seated by a roadside coffee shop when a van whizzes past. They hear the yells of a woman from inside, and their minds scream in unison: “Abduction!â€? So they give chase on their mobikes. They catch up, they pull the men out and start beating them up – until a dramatic reveal tells us why the woman was making all that noise. She’s in – drumroll! –labour.

If that’s your thing, you’ll probably enjoy Dhol – or at least be able to tolerate it; I doubt there’s anyone capable of actually enjoying this film – which is about the events that follow Tanushree Dutta’s move into the house-next-door. She’s looking for clues about her dead brother, and Priyadarshan clearly feels this material is oh-so-right for comedy. And so we have badly-shot, badly-staged (and very, very dumb) high-school hijinks coexisting with some vague sort of who- and whydunit. It’s all excruciatingly painful to sit through, not least because of the villain named – wait for this – Zikomo. Oh yeah! I’m rolling in the aisles.

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express