The unlikely team of Raj Kumar Santoshi and Ranbir Kapoor serves up a comedy that casts a spell (well, at least for a while). Plus, the latest Madhur Bhandarkar exposé.
NOV 8, 2009 – I THINK I STARTED WARMING UP TO Rajkumar Santoshi’s Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani the moment an imperious statue of Lord Wellington came to life and commanded an onlooker, “Wipe the crow shit off my back.” It’s an odd, odd mix of moods that Santoshi is going for here – slapstick and farce in the service of a romantic melodrama whose happy ending is enabled by (are you ready for this?) the Lamb of God, and had I simply read the script, I’d have shaken my head and labelled it a desperate attempt to summon up the screwball spirit of the director’s earlier Andaz Apna Apna. (Full confession here: I think that film is a tad overrated. It has several great stretches, but not nearly enough to warrant the kind of googly-eyed adoration it’s accorded today. Then again, maybe I just caught it in a bad mood and need to watch it again.)
Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani is filled with scenes such as the one where a gang bursts into a run and suddenly screeches to a halt to ponder upon an absurdist-existentialist question: “Ruko, ruko! Hum bhaag kyon rahen hain?” (Why, indeed, are they running?) In another scene, Prem (Ranbir Kapoor) can’t stop shaking – he seems to have come down with a case of the epileptic shivers – in anticipation of a dance with Jenny (Katrina Kaif), the girl of his dreams. (According to him, he’s merely warming up the body). These are the kind of loopy, past-expiry-date gags that would appear dead on paper and you’d think they would wilt on screen – but they don’t, thanks to Santoshi’s zippy staging and his leading man’s buoyant charm. These bits remind you of Amitabh Bachchan under the stewardship of Manmohan Desai. In fact, several of Prem’s pidgin-English lines seem to have been written with that specific Bachchan in mind, the gangly clown who popped out of an Easter egg and spouted streams of concatenated gibberish. (It’s surely no coincidence, here, that the heroine is named Jenny.)
The script, too, is modelled on Desai, the merest pretence of a clothesline-plot –based on a love triangle, with a listless Upen Patel as the third wheel – on which to hang sketch after humourous sketch. But mercifully, Santoshi – fully shaking off the ghosts of the middling Family and the flatulent Halla Bol – doesn’t so much wink at those conventions (like so many Hindi films today) as channel their controlled anarchy into a film made along those lines. Yes, Jenny is an orphan. Yes, Prem confesses to suffering from one of those only-in-the-movie conditions, “Oopar se jaundice, neeche se malaria.” Yes, there’s even a quasi-drag scene, with Ranbir trying on his girlfriend’s top (yet again, after Wake Up Sid). But Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani isn’t a lazy attempt to tickle us by throwing together a bunch of nudges to a long-ago, lowbrow Bollywood. It’s a comedy made in all earnestness, and that’s the big difference.
The first half is especially delightful. It has the occasional flat patch that runs out of steam and there’s a surprisingly crude utterance (for this sort of film) from Jenny’s prospective father-in-law – but mostly, it spills over with the sort of visual pop which is quite the last thing you expect from Santoshi. (The sequence where Prem emulates a Superman-to-Clark Kent transformation during his first day at his first job is a joy to behold.) There’s so much puckishness in the air, even Katrina seems to have inhaled some of the fairy-dust – the marble-model actually springs to life, coming across as some sort of spry comedienne (or at least a game-enough imitation).
But the second-half syndrome strikes, and she transforms back into sculpture. We groan at the intermission when the love triangle is set up. (The pain is all the greater when we hear the name of the man Jenny thinks she’s in love with: Rahul. How many more love triangles are we going to be subjected to, especially the kind where the hero’s opponent in the love stakes is played by someone who’s clearly not going to get the heroine?) At first, we appear to be watching a mildly inoffensive rerun of Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (with Ranbir reprising his puppy-eyed silent-lover from Saawariya, though without the near-manic masochism) – but by the time a diamond necklace worms its way into the picture, in order to make the heroine doubt her decisions, we’ve had enough. (Such a development might have been easier to swallow had this simply been a spoof. It wouldn’t have actually been a bad plot point – merely a deliberate attempt at a bad plot point.)
For long stretches, the director seems to forget that he set out to create a comedy. We’ve now entered the realm of turgid romantic melodrama, the kind with a sentimental song where the heroine’s billowing dress is artfully arranged amidst a landscape that’s prettier than she is. Even the comic inventions begin to flag in energy. A caricatured don-figure pops out of thin air (rather, out of Andaz Apna Apna), and Santoshi can’t figure out what to do with him. There’s a setup involving identical disguises that promises much mayhem, but the payoff is rushed and disappointingly limp.
And yet, I walked away with happy thoughts. In a multiplex-fuelled cinema era where we’re presented with the Euro-decadence of Dev.D and the Tarantino/Ritchie stylistics of Kaminey and the Hollywood rom-com aesthetics of Love Aaj Kal and Wake Up Sid, it’s a relief to find a film (and a filmmaker) whose DNA is wholly desi. Santoshi has always had a good ear for old-school dialogue, and when Prem stammers, his indulgent mother assures him that he doesn’t. (“Thoda ruk ruk ke baat karta hai, bas.”) That’s the kind of line that separates the genuine article from a wannabe. The tradition of a regretfully forgotten cinema is what’s invoked in Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani, whose heroine craves not fries but moong dal ke pakodey with pudiney ki chutney. The parts of the film that work make you feel you’re coming home.
IN THE MEMORABLE FILMS ABOUT LIVES whittled away in prison (Mathilukal, Mahanadhi), you come away with a profound sense of loss that’s accompanied by an equally profound sense of redemption. These films prey on our own worst fears of a life spent in the company of them – the fearsome unknowns on the other side of the tracks – and they subsequently turn these fears around by showing how close to us those people really are. Madhur Bhandarkar, in Jail, picks Parag Dixit (Neil Nitin Mukesh, completely unconvincing) as our representative, a decent man who’s jailed on a drugs case, and the film charts his life in prison as he struggles to prove his innocence. This canvas allows the director to paint with his usual bold strokes, where he doesn’t so much tell a story as titillate us with reams of research about the seamier aspects of his subject.
Is this filmmaking? I don’t know. If a film is just about characters moved through a “topical” storyline and captured on film, I suppose Jail could be considered cinema. But shouldn’t a multiple-National Award winner also be concerned about craft? Shouldn’t there be more subtlety in the telling, instead of a judge sentencing Parag to “PC,” and a lawyer appearing an instant later to educate the audience that PC stands for “police custody?” Shouldn’t there be some restraint, a faraway shot of the nude outline of Parag (when he’s strip-searched upon entering prison) instead of a close-up of his crotch blocked out with pixels? Did we really need to follow the stream of urine as Parag relieves himself while in solitary confinement?
I suppose we should be thankful that we’re spared the kinds of sights you typically expect from this director – lunch plates crawling with maggots, or Parag being sodomised in the showers. (But since Bhandarkar can’t lay off sensationalism altogether, a secondary character is allowed to be fellated.) Jail isn’t terrible by Bhandarkar’s standards. He’s eased up on the moralising – there are only cursory glances at the corruptness of the system, and there are (thankfully) no if-then corollaries as in Page 3 or Fashion. But the setups are still juvenile, and it’s only on occasion that you catch a glint of grace, as when an inmate (Manoj Bajpai) advises Parag, “Dost banao. Waqt kaatne mein aasani hogi.” It’s the simplest of statements, but with a dark undertow of lyricism. He says that prison life will become easier by making friends, which is just another way of saying that, within those four walls, there’s little difference between us and them.
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