DIAL B FOR BOREDOM
We keep complaining that we don’t make enough movies from novels – and then they turn out like this.
OCT 12, 2008 – SOME TWO HOURS INTO ATUL AGNIHOTRI’S HELLO (which is based on Chetan Bhagat’s bestseller, One Night @ the Call Center), my eyes – so far numbed by the tedious writing and filmmaking – began to perk up. Finally, it appeared, something was about to unfold that would not involve glib wisecracks about Americans or equally glib excursions into soapy drama. Shyam (Sharman Joshi) has been after something all through the film-so-far – and moping because it’s been eluding his grasp – and this is when he gets what he wants. But an instant later, he chooses to spurn the offer – because he wants to be a new man, and because he’d rather begin his new life without these old dreams. He launches into a fairly eloquent stretch of dialogue (for this movie, at any rate) detailing this development, and I found in myself a smidgen of respect for his character. A little later, however, he denounces his decision as mere speechifying. “Yeh dialogue sirf bolne mein achche hain,” he scoffs, and speculates that he needn’t settle for one when he can have both – a new life, plus his old dream.
You get the feeling that Agnihotri suddenly realised that Shyam, had he made good on that speech, would have turned out to be a genuinely complex character – or put in other words, a real character, from the real world, someone to whom things don’t always come easy and who, therefore, realises he has to work towards a happy ending. And such a character has no place in Agnihotri’s scheme of things, where happy endings aren’t the result of conflict so much as convenience. In fact, his entire film plays like drama for those who don’t have the patience or the inclination to work their way through real drama. It’s drama served up ultra-lite – with zero-percent depth or dimension. What could have been a fascinating look at modern urban relationships in the vein of Life in a Metro – this film, as the book’s title handily explains so we don’t have to work too hard at what it’s about, revolves around six call-centre employees on a fateful night – becomes a laughable hotchpotch of issues and situations and a bizarre self-help coda that, put together, sound awfully topical and trendy, but really have been a part of the movies ever since the screen began to speak.
A young wife (Amrita Arora) whose husband leaves her at home with a nagging mother-in-law for the long stretches that he’s away on work? An aspiring model (Isha Koppikar) who sleeps with a cad who promises her a big break? An older man (Sharat Saxena) whose son, away in America, wants nothing to do with his father? I mean, come on. I haven’t read Bhagat’s book, but a casual Wiki-inquiry told me that Military Uncle (the character played by Saxena) isn’t all that blameless, for he wasn’t happy that his daughter-in-law used to work hard and party harder – meaning, she wasn’t the ideal Hindi-film bahu, but again, a complicated real-world person – and that’s why his son broke off ties. Why not slip this into the film, then? Wouldn’t it give us something to hold on to whenever we saw Military Uncle with moist eyes? We might even have felt sorry for this old man, left alone due to his own doing. Or did Agnihotri feel that audiences weaned on Baghban would find it easier to shed tears over a senior citizen abandoned by a Heinous and Heartless Westernised Son Who Doesn’t Know The First Thing About Bharatiya Parampara?
The romantic track with Sharman Joshi and Gul Panag is similarly glossed over to the point of meaninglessness. We learn that they’ve been lovers and that his lack of upward mobility has caused their relationship to cool off – the flame is now a flicker. So when he discovers that she’s been talking to an NRI about getting married, and when sizzling honeymoon destinations (the Bahamas, Paris) are bandied about in the office, wouldn’t you expect him to show a spark of… something? But why expect dramatic showstoppers like sexual jealousy in a film that can’t even be bothered to work on its more general-audience-pleasing aspects like humour? Hello is so lazy, it wants us to buy Dalip Tahil (who plays the manager of the call centre) as a funny guy because he’s practically become a resident of the country his employees service night and day. When we first meet him, he’s throwing a baseball into a mitt he’s slipped on. The tie he wears is decorated with stars and stripes, and when at the urinal, the tune he hums is the theme from Scorsese’s New York, New York. And that’s supposed to have us rolling in the aisles?
Among the numerous cheap shots taken at the Americans who drive this industry – the ones who force Shyam to become Sam and Radhika to answer as Rebecca – is the training montage, where an instructor insists on the 35=10 rule, which says that a 35-year-old American has the intelligence of a 10-year-old Indian. And to reinforce this notion, we’re shown vignettes of a clueless American who tries to wash her bra in a dishwasher, and another who takes the top off an oven because the dish that needs to be cooked won’t fit in otherwise. Hyuk, hyuk – those dumb Americans! But what about the dumb Indians behind this movie? Who’s to laugh at, say, the scene where much indignation is expressed at the fact that the Americans call themselves the First World and label us the Third World? Someone fumes, “But that’s not right,” and Sohail Khan chimes in with rhyme, “But they’re white.” Sadly, that’s not the only attempt at profundity via wordplay. When Military Uncle attempts to send some pictures by email to his grandchild, his son replies that he cares for neither these “attachments” nor an “attachment” with the sender. It’s times like these you feel our films are made by the equivalents of 35-year-old Americans.
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