Shimit Amin, once again, makes a charming, minor-key movie about material that might have been better served belted out with brassy energy.
DEC 13, 2009 – IT’S PROBABLY NOT MUCH OF A STRETCH for an actor to play a salesman, for what is acting if not snake-oil salesmanship, the peddling of the patently absurd notion that the same off-screen person is any number of different people on screen? Even the tools of the actor and the salesman are the same – wheedling charm, hoodwinking wiles, never-say-die perseverance, stoic powers of persuasion, an utter lack of shamelessness – and few actors working today would appear better suited to playing a salesman than Ranbir Kapoor. It’s not that I think he’s a bad actor. He’s an appealing screen presence, and he undoubtedly possesses the basic skill-set to portray your garden-variety, yuppie, mainstream-movie hero. But his performances, so far, have had a puppy-eyed single-mindedness in overselling himself to his audience. Almost every gesture has been a tad overwrought, every line reading a mite overdone, every charming move a wee bit over-calculated to ensure that we keep renewing our AMCs for the product that’s his persona.
So it’s certainly ironic that the most unvarnished, underplayed performance of his young career comes in a film where he opts for a profession that’s typically dominated by shrill hucksters. In Shimit Amin’s Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, Ranbir plays Harpreet Singh Bedi, a Commerce graduate who just about scraped through his exams. In a beauty of an opening scene, he sits in front of his computer, scanning his college web site for his name, and when he realises he hasn’t flunked out, he doesn’t do what he’d do in another movie, which is to pump a fist in the air and rush out, with whoops of joy, to lift up his protesting grandfather (a completely charming Prem Chopra). Harpreet just leans back in his chair, digesting this most minor of achievements – and it takes a few seconds for a smile to light up his face. Even later, in a badly miscalculated scene where he’s ragged by juvenile colleagues at work, he doesn’t retaliate, choosing instead to suffer like a silent satyagrahi. Like Shah Rukh Khan’s sports coach in Amin’s earlier Chak De India, Harpreet is the very embodiment of Zen calm – an old soul in a young man’s body.
And like those old souls from an older generation – a more innocent, optimistic generation that grew up with Naya Daur and cheered uncynically when a tonga outraced a truck – his values and his choices are what we’d roll our eyes at today. Why, we might wonder, would such a self-effacing, idealistic, laidback and honest person choose to become a computer salesman? (Surely not just because his friends refer to him as HP!) In an early scene, when the DJ at a party threatens to leave, Harpreet, with a combination of conversation and persuasion and negotiation, convinces him to stay. That, apparently, is the justification that he possesses the qualities to make it in the dog-eat-dog world of salesmanship, and even when he discovers, to his disgust, the kind of underhanded practices that are de rigueur in the profession, he opts to soldier on like a peace-loving beatnik convinced that he can strum a guitar and wave a white flag and end the war.
Your falling for Rocket Singh will probably depend on how easy it is for you to buy this development, and how much you believe that the power of simple-minded goodness can overcome the hydra-headed evil that defines today’s marketplace. A director like Rajkumar Hirani would have made us believe in such a construct – a Glengarry Glen Ross without the corrosiveness and the cursing. There’s a wholesome warmth to Hirani’s storytelling, and his Munnabhai movies are steeped in an endearing brand of whimsy that renders the happenings just the right amount removed from grimy reality. Shimit Amin, on the other hand, while a far better filmmaker – he realises his effects with breathtaking precision, even in a film that lingers longer than necessary – is also a far more cool and clinical craftsman. He’s the anti-salesman, who never oversells a moment – even the last-minute speech by his wronged hero is less an eruption of righteous indignation than an expression of bewilderment at a world turned so bad.
Amin, working from a smart (though somewhat predictable) screenplay by Jaideep Sahni, isn’t one to belabour, for instance, the point that Harpreet is as middle-class as they come. We realise this from the shots of Harpreet’s home during the opening credits, and when he says he doesn’t possess the funds to pursue a degree in management. More importantly, his values are middle-class – his screensaver is a picture of Guru Nanak, and when he returns after a night out drinking with friends, a look at this floating image is enough to chastise him into at least brushing his teeth before flopping into bed. (When Ranbir played the upper-class Sid, by contrast, there was barely a mention of a higher power.) Even the world around Harpreet is the kind of middle-class we rarely see in the “upmarket” multiplex movie – the slow-dance music at an office celebration isn’t Baby I love your way but Bheege honth tere.
It’s undeniably refreshing to sink into this well-weathered atmosphere that Sahni has made his own – one that Amol Palekar would have felt at home in – and yet, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that, as with Chak De India, Amin has, once again, made a minor-key movie about material that might have been better served belted out with brassy energy. It’s like watching Alexander Payne’s take on Jerry Maguire, a comparison that comes about because, here too, the story centres on the redemption of a man who throws away his career owing to something he writes in a fit of conscience. At least the sports-movie clichés in Chak De India gave that film its lift, but there are stretches of Rocket Singh that are low-key to the point of catatonia, energised solely through Salim-Sulaiman’s jaunty background score. There’s probably a tiny thesis to be toyed with that Amin struck a perfect balance between form and content in Ab Tak Chhappan, which was produced by Ram Gopal Varma, but in his subsequent efforts for Yash Raj Films, his style has seemed somewhat at odds with the substance.
The real pleasures, therefore, come from the superb cast and their superlative conversations. (Manish Chaudhary, playing Harpreet’s conscienceless boss, delivers the film’s finest speech, towards the end; Amin, admirably, doesn’t make this man a villain, merely a representative of reality). And despite the romance feeling like a half-hearted add-on, the first real encounter between Harpreet and Sherena (Shazahn Padamsee) is a little gem, more so because it takes place in a toilet. Another lovely scene is the one where a jubilant Harpreet, after hatching a borderline-devious scheme to exploit his office facilities for his own little purpose, comes home and announces to his grandfather that they should order pizza. But a minute later, after prayer, he realises there really isn’t much cause for celebration – he has, after all, been dishonest, even if this dishonesty was spurred, contradictorily, by the pursuit of “honesty.” Almost everyone surrounding him gets a few such great moments – D Santosh as the porn-surfing tech-geek, Naveen Kaushik as a smarmy über-salesman, Gauhar Khan as a sleek receptionist hell-bent on climbing the corporate ladder – and they almost reconcile the distance between Amin’s coolness and the audience’s need to warm up to what’s on screen.
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