Ranvir Shorey submits manfully to Mallika Sherawat’s whims, but their oil-water romance is more appealing on paper than on screen.
AUG 3, 2008 – FOR A WHILE, IT APPEARED THAT the reason Ugly Aur Pagli wasn’t working for me was the way the film has been promoted. The posters have Mallika Sherawat, with devil’s horns sprouting from the sides of her head, clutching at a fishing line and reeling in a hapless Ranvir Shorey. (They play Kuhu and Kabir, a hopelessly mismatched couple.) His cheeks are sucked in, around the bait, and his eyes are hilariously crossed – and the instant impression you get is that of a kooky comedy, especially with that name and with that tag line. (“99 slaps. 1 kiss.”) And as scene after scene unfolded without anything remotely funny in them, I thought that was the problem – that the writing was bad, the staging was flat, the timing was off, and the characters weren’t drawn with the depth they deserved. In short, I concluded, this was no Pyaar Ke Side Effects, that rather delightful rom-com which established Mallika as a surprisingly spry comic presence.
But gradually, I realised this wasn’t exactly trying to be another Pyaar Ke Side Effects – despite being dressed up and promoted similarly, I guess, to draw the same crowds that flocked to that movie. The tone of Ugly Aur Pagli – which announces itself as being “adapted from the original My Sassy Girl” (a first, perhaps?) – is not meant to be frantic and funny, but rather along the lines of the “sad comedies” that Hollywood used to make in the 1970s, films like The Heartbreak Kid and Harold and Maude. That’s the feel Sachin Kamlakar Khot, the director, is going for (or, maybe, that’s the feel the director of the original went for, which Khot is trying to replicate here) – the kind where the laughs arise from dark nooks of a damaged existence, and where pain and confusion are as much part of the programme as happiness and love. And that’s why Ugly Aur Pagli doesn’t end up working – because Khot can’t pull this mix off.
It’s a real shame – because, moment for moment, there’s so much that’s interesting that, after a point, you can’t look past the missed opportunities, at how things would have been if everything had fallen into place. We could have had ourselves the first Bollywood romance where the hero is the heroine, where the heroine is the hero. From the time the beyond-flaky Kuhu walks into Kabir’s life – he’s an underachieving engineering student who’s been sitting in the same class for years – she’s the one in charge. It’s not just that even simple actions assume the shape of unspoken commands. (“Try this. Last sip,” she barks, thrusting out her glass of orange juice to his face.) She’s a screenwriter whose scenarios are dramatised – as when he’s tied up and tortured by villains, and she rides in on a bike to save him, twin guns blazing – in ways that leave us in no doubt about who’s wearing the pants in this relationship.
In a sweet montage set at a photographer’s studio during the opening credits, Kabir informs us that the people posing for the picture are his parents, and that the bawling child in the pink frock is him. They always wanted a girl, but they got him instead – and as if to compensate for being born with the wrong body parts, Kabir turns out to be the “girl” in this film. Kuhu toys with him relentlessly – at times, he appears little more than a human plaything, existing solely for her amusement – and, in the mould of a long-suffering doormat housewife of our seventies’ family melodramas, he does her every eccentric bidding. And that’s why the scene where he finally asserts himself should have packed a wallop. Tired of her constantly slapping him, he catches her hands and wrestles her down and almost kisses her. But that moment, the one time that he’s on top, this film’s equivalent of the one-tight-slap scenario, doesn’t linger – and Kabir goes right back to where he was earlier, a lovesick puppy straining against the leash in Kuhu’s hand.
It’s not difficult to see why Ugly Aur Pagli is so disappointing – one easy target to point at is the large number of songs (from “Aanuu Malik”) whose rowdy exuberance is completely at odds with the delicate textures of the story – and if the film scrapes through to a barely watchable level, it’s only because of the leads. Shorey is a hoot as the victim of Kuhu’s enormous eccentricities, and there’s a scene at the beginning – where he farts loudly in an elevator and appears unbearably pleased with his accomplishment – that you can’t imagine anyone else playing. That look that says, “I may be flunking my exams and failing with the women, but, man, top this!” – that’s all Shorey. And the girl who only looks like a desi dumb blonde but is, in fact, quite a canny survivor – that’s all Sherawat (though she still can’t pull off heavy-duty drama). In one of her inexplicable fits, Kuhu pushes Kabir into a pool, and when she realises he can’t swim, she jumps in to do the hero’s job, namely rescue him – but not before slipping off her heels. See, there’s a girl who knows her priorities.
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