Ajay Devgan plays a psychiatrist, and makes a solid directorial debut. Plus, yet another comedy that can’t be bothered with niceties like rhythm and timing.
APR 13, 2008 – FIRST OFF, THERE’S THAT OH-SO-CUTE, SMS-ESE TITLE: U Me Aur Hum. If that isn’t enough to send shudders down your spine as you seat yourself for Ajay Devgan’s first outing as director – he also stars as a psychiatrist named Ajay – there’re the Hallmark-card opening credits; the names of cast and crew appear alongside musings about love (from Einstein and Gandhi and Thoreau and a half-dozen other notables) that are inscribed on a clear-blue sky. Even Emily Dickinson (“That Love is all there is / Is all we know of Love”) sounds banal when quoted amidst puff-white clouds, and when scored to syrupy, angel’s-choir music. And yet, the minute the first scene begins to play out, you somehow know you’re in safe hands. I think it was the staging that sold me. The camera peeks at the goings-on at a restaurant from behind stacks of plates. It gazes at faces from interesting angles, and these faces are sometimes obscured by the fuzzy people in the foreground and in the background, just as the conversation we finally tune into is coloured by the low buzz of ambient noise. You get a complete sense of the busy-ness of the surroundings, the fact that what we’re witnessing – Ajay chatting up Piya (Kajol) – hasn’t been isolated and scrubbed clean for our viewing pleasure, but is instead being presented as it would have occurred in that place, in that time.
As selling points go, I realise this is not unlike (considering we’re in a restaurant and all) raving about a dish simply because it’s been salted right – but this sort of staging is only rarely found in our mainstream cinema. Typically, we’d have seen a cut to Ajay Devgan’s face, then a cut to Kajol’s, then a cut back to Ajay – because that’s what we’re used to, staring at star faces, full-frontal, klieg-lit. But here, Ajay and Kajol are in old-age makeup, and they’re shot in a way that almost – almost, because let’s not forget that this is, after all, a commercial film – reduces them to mere people. There she is, a dab of white in her hair, a vacant expression in her eyes, and he’s got these creases in his forehead – and as soon as he begins to flirt with her and recount a young-love story (his young-love story), you think this is going to be a straightforward rehash of The Notebook, which was about an older man reading out a love story (his love story) to an older woman afflicted with Alzheimer’s.
But Devgan surprises you again by taking from the book (or perhaps the film version) just the barebones of the narrative framework, and around this, he builds an unexpectedly mature romance – unexpected because it’s driven as much by the plot as by the people in it. U Me Aur Hum is as much the story of Ajay and Piya as it is of friendship and commitment and relationships and family, and Devgan draws out the latter aspects with the help of two couples that are friends of Ajay – Nikhil (Sumeet Raghavan) and Reena (Divya Dutta), and Vicky (Karan Khanna) and Natasha (Isha Sharwani). It’s been a while since we’ve seen such a well-adjusted, close-knit bunch on screen, and it’s entirely believable that they’ve known one another long before the film began, and will continue to hang out long after it ends. They’re loud and obnoxious and profane and they drink a lot and make stupid jokes and do all the fun things that friends do, but they’re also there for one another when it really matters. When Ajay runs into Piya wandering about in the rain – she’s forgotten where she lives, and this is her first major incident of memory loss – Devgan expectedly trains his camera on the showdown between Ajay and Piya, but he also opens his frame wide enough to show Ajay’s shoulder being squeezed supportively by Vicky. And later, when Ajay takes Piya to a colleague for diagnosis, we see Nikhil standing in a corner of the room, as if reminding us that he may not be immediate family, but he’s the next best thing to that there is.
This receptivity to the people around the people whose story drives the plot is something rare, and this appears to be an extension of the way Devgan shot that restaurant scene early on. Had he narrowed his focus to just Ajay and Piya, the story may have still worked – but only as melodrama, perhaps even a good one. But when you see the ever-bickering Nikhil and Reena sign their divorce papers and still continue to be civil in each other’s presence – with their superbly empathetic performances, Divya Dutta and Sumeet Raghavan walk away with the film in their back pockets – it’s a much more layered take on the way men and women fall in and out of love. One of the highlights of U Me Aur Hum is a rambling scene – this is not a film for people with no patience for dialogue – where Ajay admits to seeing Ek Duuje Ke Liye eleven times during his childhood, when he first fell in love, and as he keeps drinking, he becomes more honest about his feelings about the film (and about himself). He remembers loving Hum bane tum bane, and declares now that it’s the fakest song ever – because no one’s there ek duuje ke liye, for each other; everyone’s really looking out for their own interests, which is why Ajay feels he sent Piya off to a (super-palatial!) care facility. He wasn’t thinking about her, but about the problem of taking care of her. How many mainstream romantic movies have you seen where the hero confesses that he’s pushed away the woman he loves, the woman he married, because she was becoming a burden?
These dark moods bring out the best in Devgan, and it’s a good thing that a lot of U Me Aur Hum is serious stuff – for the lighter moments don’t work as well. For what’s essentially a love story, Ajay’s falling in love with Piya is oddly the weakest stretch of the film. Trite beyond belief – and especially when compared to the emotional heft of the latter portions – these scenes are hampered by the star’s discomfort with breezy romantic contrivances (none of them terribly original, in any case), though Kajol does what she can to put things back on track. (After this – and after his performances in the likes of Sunday – I think there can be no further doubt that this is one actor who’s destined to shine only in heavy-duty parts.) But both stars come into their own as the film progresses, as love gives way to marriage and mental illness – the scene where Ajay drops Piya off at the care facility is a heartbreaker – and their conviction tides you over the odd overheated bits (like the scene where their kid almost drowns), or Devgan’s general tendency to overcook his visuals. (When Piya is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the special effects guys helpfully highlight her symptoms by having her fiery-orange brain cells cool down to a dull grey.)
But these miscalculations are minor and easy to brush aside, considering what Devgan has accomplished, which is to take a one-dimensionally sappy story and give it shading and texture within a commercial context. You could point out that the song that Piya breaks into to cheer up her downcast husband is not really necessary, but it’s so delightfully composed (by Vishal Bhardwaj) and so delightfully written (by Munna Dhiman, whose Gulzarian wordplay results in conceits such as Piya’s wishing for a saheli jaisa saiyaan, but landing up instead with a paheli jaisa saiyaan; she wanted a lover who’d be a pal, and she got herself a puzzle instead) that you surrender effortlessly to the moment. Devgan has worked with top directors, so I wasn’t particularly surprised he transitioned so easily into a directing role, but I was taken aback by his sentimentality, for instance. I would never have put this actor down as someone who’d structure a key moment around a wall on which husband and wife have written out their cutesy things-to-do, things like having a baby boy and going on a cruise on their twenty-fifth anniversary. A bigger surprise is how interested this typically taciturn actor is in the rhythms of speech – whether alliterative (he calls himself a “smart, single, sexy, sensitive psychiatrist”) or simply allusive. “Tu ne zyaada pee li hai,” Ajay admonishes a smashed Nikhil, who replies, “Peeli nahin, neeli hai,” looking across the room at his soon-to-be ex-wife, who’s dressed in blue. How someone so attuned to language could title his film thus shall forever remain a mystery, but as another person attuned to language said, what’s in a name!
THE MINUTE RAJPAL YADAV CHARGES FRANTICALLY into an office room at a mental rehabilitation centre, distraught at the recent news that General Dyer has opened fire on hundreds of innocents, you know what you’re in for with Jaideep Sen’s Krazzy 4. An outlandish broad-stroke character delineation such as this one can only point to yet another madcap comedy. (And since it’s the hyperventilating Yadav and not, say, Anupam Kher, we can safely rule out an excursion into Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Maara-style drama.) But thanks to Ram Sampath’s brave move of going to court, accusing composer Rajesh Roshan of stealing his tunes, and after Sampath’s vindication, it’s an air of tragedy that hovers over this film – especially for those of us who associate Roshan with Tumse mila tha pyaar and Pal bhar mein yeh kya ho gaya and those lovely Priyatama numbers. What a way to cap off a career that, if not exactly path-breaking, was – at least through the late-seventies – studded with the kind of easy-listening beauties that they rarely make anymore. Why do they do these things? Laziness? Complacency? The gradual leaking away of talent over time?
But no such angst is likely to be expended over the fact that Krazzy 4 is itself stolen from The Dream Team. Yet another Friday, yet another lazy, complacent, talentless Hollywood remake – so what’s new? The film, features, in addition to Yadav, Arshad Warsi (as a man given to violent rages), Irrfan Khan (as an obsessive-compulsive) and Suresh Menon (who’s apparently seen a few too many Marx Brothers films and has decided to channel Harpo; he won’t speak). Their psychiatrist (Juhi Chawla) takes them out for a cricket match – on a 15th of August, to teach them the value of team building (yes, really!) – and mayhem ensues when she’s kidnapped and the foursome finds itself loose on the streets of Mumbai. The timing is flat, very little of the comedy is funny, and to make things worse, the film suddenly decides to turn serious, what with sentimental love angles, patriotic proclamations, and asking us to empathise with these men who’re each a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic (and this, after prodding us to laugh at them). There’s one standout sequence – a song where our not-quite-heroes need a one-rupee coin to make a call, and they try their luck with a banker, a professor, and a beggar who bursts into an impromptu qawwali. That this inventively staged musical stretch is lost amidst the general inanity of the proceedings is the other tragedy about this comedy.
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