Ranbir Kapoor pursues three women in a romance with surprising flashes of depth. Plus, a watered-down remake of a watered-down comedy.
AUG 17, 2008 – WE’VE GOTTEN SO USED TO laying the ills that plague our cinema at the doorstep of Karan Johar and Yash Raj films that we often overlook a simple reality – that their highly imperfect creations have, of late, been quietly reshaping the boundaries of what constitutes “mainstream.” I still remember how startled I was when Preity Zinta planted that fat slap on Shah Rukh Khan’s unresisting cheek in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. Big male stars aren’t supposed to take slights to their manhood so meekly, even if they’ve selfishly trampled all over the lives of the ones they love, the ones they’ve pledged their commitments to. And now, in Siddharth Anand’s new film for Yash Raj, Ranbir Kapoor (who plays Raj) undergoes a mortifying series of humiliations. He’s reduced, at one point, to a tuxedoed waiter at a chic soiree, a holder of umbrellas, a fetcher of coffee and dry cleaning, a carrier of shopping bags, and a cleaner of swimming pools. And he bears these trials willingly because he agrees with the assessment of the person who’s assigned him these jobs, that he’s “the worst kind of human being.”
Bachna Ae Haseeno wasn’t supposed to be all this – was it? With that ladies-beware title, with the high-voltage brass of RD Burman’s nostalgic hit blaring across the promos, with Vishal-Shekhar’s addictive score (with the irresistibly funky Ahista ahista), and with the cast of three pretty girls (Bipasha Basu, Deepika Padukone, Minissha Lamba) swooning over one pretty boy, we got the impression that this was going to be a lollapalooza of a date movie, Teen Deviyaan retooled for the teen generation – nothing less, and certainly nothing more. But here’s Raj repenting his life’s decisions – which caused one of these girls to become trapped in the kind of loveless marriage where she’d rather reorganise the kitchen shelves than open herself up to a loving husband, while another ex has made sure she’ll never get hurt again by evolving into a scary diva-bitch. A hero in penance mode is supposed to suffer for grand follies – like Rajesh Khanna in Dushman, who mowed down the breadwinner of a family. But the leading man of a romantic trifle making mistakes, owning up to these mistakes and facing the consequences (or even understanding that there could be consequences) – that’s not done, is it?
That’s the kind of less-than-ideal love story that Ranbir Kapoor has, once again, chosen to star in. (Well, it’s either that – or he just signed up because big names like Bhansali and Chopra were involved, and lucked into yet another interesting project.) The essence of Bachna Ae Haseeno isn’t new. The theme of a man revisiting his past loves was already seen in Broken Flowers and Cheran’s Tamil film, Autograph, and the conceit of a boy having to earn a girl’s hand – prove worthy of her, and, indeed, of love itself – found some sort of shape in Maine Pyar Kiya. (There, Salman Khan had to divest himself of his family fortune, his gilt; here, Ranbir has to divest himself of guilt.) And the way this story is spun doesn’t bear close scrutiny, what with the overarching motto of grand entertainment straining against the dark tone of individual scenes. (The climax, in particular, has a pat rom-com cutesiness that feels forced and frustratingly underdeveloped.) But as with Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, there’s so much good writing here, and so many nicely drawn characters, that the overall film is a pleasant surprise – one that shows that a big glitzy commercial entertainer needn’t be entirely devoid of heart and soul.
Aditya Chopra puzzles me. Just a few months ago, he threw our way a soulless piece of plastic trash called Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic – and here too, there’s so much shameless self-referencing that the effect is almost parodic. (There are nods to plot points from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, the music from Dhoom and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, the Main aur meri tanhayi sequence from Silsila, and even the flashing mirror bit from Bobby; the latter is, presumably, a bit of self-referencing from Ranbir Kapoor’s side.) It appears that Chopra wants to keep pushing our faces into the glories (such as they are) from his past – like how Karan Johar reuses bits and pieces of his films all the time – and yet, he’s willing to greenlight a Chak De India or a Bachna Ae Haseeno, which features a character so complex and so riddled with insecurities that she forgives Raj not so much for his sake as hers, so that she can move on. Just who is this man, really?
The women in Bachna Ae Haseeno are a treat to watch – and not just for the obvious reasons. (Deepika Padukone, especially, is such a radiant mix of innocence and sultriness, you can see why Ranbir Kapoor looks at her and sighs, “Khuda jaane… main mit gaya.” Hers is the kind of Madonna-whore screen presence that can fell grown men to their knees. With those looks, who needs “acting”?) One of these girls is so independent, she’s practically a “guy” (in Hindi movie terms) – and yet, she sulks that she has the right to change her mind without warning because she is, after all, a woman. Another one is the very personification of “hell hath no fury…” She’s not one to easily forgive past transgressions, and in that way, she’s very “Western” (again, in Hindi movie terms) – and yet, there’s still that little Indian girl in her, who feels that her unconventional choices (like living in with a boyfriend) might have hurt her salability in the marriage market. Understandably, the heroines, here, walk away with the film – particularly Bipasha Basu, who’s rarely cast in parts she’s suited for (did you believe her in latter portions of Corporate?) but is so right in this instance that you feel she may be playing herself.
The male supporting characters don’t do too badly for themselves either. When the father of one of the heroines faces Raj – his daughter had gone missing, and Raj helped her find her way back to her parents – his hesitation suggests that as grateful as he is to this young man, did it have to be a young man, especially when overnight travel was involved? It’s humour, with heart. And Kunal Kapoor, who plays the husband of one of Raj’s loves, has a moving scene where he sees Raj leave his wife in tears and fishes around in his pockets for a handkerchief. There, in that flash, you catch a glimpse of the innate decency of this man. But surprisingly, the one male character that could have used some building is Raj himself. For a story that’s all about a rake’s progress, Raj simply doesn’t come across as that much of a rake. The character is certainly an improvement from the days of Aap Ki Kasam, where Rajesh Khanna played a college student (yeah!) who took offence at the mere fact that a petulant Mumtaz accused him of teasing her – because, you know, he’s the hero and such heinous acts are usually the handiwork of villains like Ranjeet (who, in fact, did the actual teasing in this case).
Raj is someone who, refreshingly, talks dirty and wants women without the pesky commitment issues. (Even his definition of “forever” is endearingly warped: “Hamesha wala ‘hamesha’ nahin,” he clarifies. “Thodi der wali ‘hamesha’.”) But the director pulls his punches when it comes to depicting this aspect of his hero – because, I guess, this isn’t an ultra-realistic art film and we still need to like the guy. Raj’s contrition, therefore, doesn’t carry the weight that it should. He doesn’t seem to have fallen enough in our eyes in order to warrant this penance – and considering this is the crux of the film, it comes across as a huge failing. Then again, this is something I noted only in retrospect. After a somewhat shaky start, Bachna Ae Haseeno rolls onward with such well-oiled poise, its charms are hard to resist. I wish the same could be said of Ranbir, though. He’s an affable enough screen presence, but he works just too damn hard to please us, especially in the lighter scenes. (I was reminded of the kind of taut-muscled performance Hrithik Roshan used to give in the early days.) But it doesn’t really matter because he’s playing someone quite unusual – a hero who’s, mostly, a foil for his magnificent heroines. In other words, he, too, is doing his bit to quietly reshape the boundaries of what constitutes “mainstream.”
IF OUR FILMMAKERS ARE GOING TO INSIST on looking westwards for inspiration, I wish they’d insist on being inspired by the running times as well. Even at a little over an hour-and-a-half, Bruce Almighty seemed way too long – some thirty minutes of genius slapstick tossed into a vat of icky, inspirational goo – and at a good hour more, Rumy Jaffery’s God Tussi Great Ho appears interminable. Salman Khan (playing Arun) steps in for Jim Carrey as the self-centred, whiny loser who blames God (Amitabh Bachchan) for all the injustices in his life – the girl of his dreams (Priyanka Chopra) looks at him as just a friend, and a rival at work (Sohail Khan) quickly becomes a mortal foe – and when the latter grants him His powers, he realises omnipotence isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
The original film may not quite have delivered on its promise of full-frontal blasphemy, but it did feature a few razor-sharp lines – like the sarcastic retort Bruce tosses off when the man in the white suit claims he’s God: “Thank you for the Grand Canyon, and good luck with the Apocalypse” – and it had some sweetly anarchic fun with Christian imagery (as when Bruce wreaks vengeance with the help of a Biblical plague of insects). I hoped Jaffery would do something similar with our own legends, many of which are ripe for a punch line, if not biting parody. But God Tussi Great Ho has no teeth. Salman is hilarious in a blink-and-miss gag where he’s a TV-station weatherman and Anupam Kher scores some laughs as Arun’s cantankerous father – but these funny bits are buried under a tedious love triangle, and almost nothing significant is made of Arun’s higher powers. It’s all expended on inanities like sending a villain flying through the air with a mere look. You don’t need to be God to be able to do that – you just need to be Rajinikanth.
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