THE COMEDY OF TERRORS
A gangland-based action-comedy may be a minor movie, but it’s also major fun. Plus, a marital comedy that’s about as funny as a divorce.
AUG 16, 2009 – AS IF TO REAFFIRM THAT HE’S absolutely the best thing that happened to Gulzar after the passing of RD Burman, Vishal Bhardwaj weaves the master’s word-nuggets into wondrous tapestries of sound – but that isn’t all. He also pays homage to the Boss himself, with a glint in the eye and an evil grin to match. He stages a scene where a conman is roughed up to the strains of Do lafzon ki hai from The Great Gambler, except that it isn’t quite the sentimental opening lines that are employed. We hear, instead, a snatch from the middle – Is zindagi ke din kitne kam hain, and it’s as if we’re being asked to chuckle at the inevitability that the conman’s days are numbered. So too Yamma yamma from Shaan – the refrain Bas aaj ki raat hai zindagi is turned on its head and used to presage a sexual encounter during nighttime.
If you’re attuned to this sense of larky mayhem, Kaminey is a scream – a quasi-existential action-comedy that owes as much to the postmodern Tarantino oeuvre as the more classical gangland bloodbaths, all filtered through the plot mechanics of the Bollywood Masala and the nonchalant swagger of the Spaghetti Western. That sounds like a lot – and the film is a lot. Bhardwaj packs in so much into his two-odd hours, you could blink and miss the throwaway shot where a couple of corrupt cops are scurrying about with a guitar case in a hotel car park. (And you’ll be left scratching your head as to why the man who’s commandeered the police vehicle, where the guitar case now rests, is presently being saluted by cops at a roadblock.) We’re used to moviemakers who downsize the scope of their vision in order to reach down (and across) to the audience – but Bhardwaj will have none of that condescension. As with Maqbool and Omkara, he accords us respect, and we return the favour by viewing his film with not just our eyes and ears and heart but also our head.
With two weighty Shakespeare adaptations on his résumé, the director is ostensibly after something more fleeting this time, something more fun – and, intentionally or not, there’s a smattering of the mistaken-identity brouhaha of The Comedy of Errors. In what’s easily the best performance of his young career, Shahid Kapoor plays estranged identical twins – a vein-poppingly-muscled lisper named Charlie, and a shy stutterer named Guddu. The former is a small-time gambler who dreams of becoming a bookie, the latter works in an NGO and is saddled, somewhat unexpectedly, with impending fatherhood – and how their lives intersect, courtesy gangsters and policemen and drugs and even destiny, is the story hook we given to hold on to. What makes the film, however, isn’t how Charlie and Guddu retrace their way back to one another, but the manic milestones that dot their respective journeys.
Kaminey is almost exclusively a collection of cartoony set pieces, each of which functions at a stream-of-consciousness skit level that’s practically Monty Pythonesque – whether it’s Guddu launching into a singsong confession (the singing halts his stammering, see?), a trio of Bengali gangster-brothers fooling around with the faulty scope of a machine gun (affectionately called “AK-47 ki chacheri behen”), a couple of hoods playacting like little boys with toy guns (the weapons are real, but they’re wielded with fake “gunshot” noises), Sweety (Priyanka Chopra) losing her marbles and brandishing an automatic (all in the name of true love), Charlie prancing about in a towel to Duniya mein logon ko (the teeraa-para-para prelude of this RDB rouser from Apna Desh is perfectly reincarnated in the brassy arrangements of the chartbusting Dhan ta dan), or gangsters haggling with cops, at gunpoint, about how much of a cut of the ill-gotten gains each party should take home.
These riotously staged sketches are the reason the film works so well (most of the time), and also why it falters (every once in a while). Kaminey is best experienced as a minor movie with major, character-driven set pieces. (And what a set of characters they are, marvellously embodied by unfamiliar faces like Tenzing Nima, Chandan Roy Sanyal and Shiv Subrahmanyam.) But there are times you are left with the niggling feeling that Bhardwaj is attempting to inflate this minor material into a major movie. (He appears mildly sheepish of merely Hollywoodising the Bollywood Masala, what with the mismatched brothers on either side of the law.) Several of the over-elaborate conceits left me somewhat cold – like Charlie’s surreal dream visions of success (replete with an ethereally elegant beauty who looks like she’s wandered off the set of the Ascot race sequence from My Fair Lady), or the incessant attempts at twinning (two brothers, two railway flags, two uncut diamonds).
Some of the detailing is exquisitely thought out – and written out – but it also feels a bit much for this kind of a lark. At the beginning, Charlie muses that life’s a bitch (“Life badi kutti cheez hai”), and thereon we are deluged with a stream of canine metaphors, both visual and verbal. A gangster claims, “I like bitches,” and says he has little interest in the survival of a male employee who’s made to bark like a dog. A mongrel saunters into a scene where Guddu and Sweety are making up after a fight. And the gangster-boss (played with enormous ease by Amole Gupte) who’s referred to respectfully as Bhau, spits out, at one point, “Bhau… Bhau… bow-wow.” (Though, I must admit, I laughed loud at the utter lunacy of this latter moment.) Elsewhere, when Charlie is asked what he does, and when someone points to a sturdy bicep and comments that he’s a builder (as in, body builder), we’re asked to remember that Sweety too had connections with a builder (this time, a real builder, whose son she refuses to marry). Good Lord!
I would have preferred, instead, a few more free-association monologues of the kind where Guddu remembers his love for a girl from the sixth standard. (The speech is a beauty, and Shahid does wonders with it, imbuing the words with just the right amounts of shyness and sadness.) I also wished that the uncharacteristically sentimental (for this film, at any rate, with its too-cool-for-Bollywood DNA) “Indian” flashback – set to soaring strings that amplify the incident of the twins’ father turning out to be a thief (all that’s missing is the infamy of a tattoo along the lines of “Mera baap chor hai”) – had been axed in favour of more scenes with the brothers. Charlie, at times, is pushed towards being some sort of noir protagonist – with tentative excursions towards an existential dilemma, about getting screwed not by the path decided on but by the one discarded – but the character would have worked just as well if he’d simply been left alone, as just a studly screw-up trying to escape his circumstances.
But these nitpicky what-ifs, in no way, compromise the totality of Bhardwaj’s achievement, whose highlight is surely the empathy he lavishes on his characters, major or minor. Guddu, at first, is presented as a wimp leading life according to the diktats of a timetable, but pay attention to the campfire scene where he corrects Sweety’s utterance of “Bombay” to “Mumbai,” and you’ll see he has a hidden core of steel. (In front of Bhau, a die-hard “Jai Maharashtra” type, Guddu stubbornly says “Bombay,” even when the menacing thug insists on “Mumbai.” He’s making a point, and he’s making it in his characteristically low-key style.) And as Sweety, Priyanka shines in a beautifully conceived role that combines womanly wiles – she cons Guddu into marrying her through a sly mix of threats and tears – with manly reserves of strength. There’s no question about who wears the pants in this relationship – and Guddu himself would be the f-f-first to agree.
CRITICS ARE SOMETIMES ASKED IF their rapturous reaction to films from frontline directors is a result of their having to watch all the dreck that’s served up in between – and by way of response, I’ll offer this week’s other release, Rumy Jaffery’s Life Partner. Even if Kaminey hadn’t worked, you’d come away thrilled by the care with which it’s been shaped – the claustrophobic closeness of the cinematography, or the finely calibrated performance details that result in such wordless moments as the one where the leading lady’s tongue droops in approximation of death. A film like Kaminey makes you feel alive – while Life Partner makes you remember that you’re two-and-a-half hours closer to death. The director may argue that a broad comedy about marital squabbles (with Govinda, Fardeen Khan, Tusshar, Prachi Desai, and a screechy Genelia D’Souza) does not require precision or passionate filmmaking – but why would we seat ourselves beside potential carriers of swine flu for the kind of jokes even sitcom writers would grunt at?
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