CON BANEGA CROREPATI
An easy-on-the-eyes romp says there’s more to life than just get-rich-quick schemes. Plus, Gurinder Chadha returns to (relative) form.
MAY 9, 2010 – IT TAKES A BIT OF CONVINCING TO BUY the Mumbai of Badmaash Company as the Mumbai of the mid-nineties – if only because of the spiffy styling of the characters, each one looking like they’ve never heard of a bad hair day. The India of then was different. Even on screen, the stars (those arbiters of the latest and the greatest in styles) were different, very “Indian looking” and hardly the plasticky puppets of the screen today, who could fit right into any movie being made in any part of the world. But that ornery detail apart, you recognise the signposts of Old India, like the father (Anupam Kher) who’s spent a quarter-century slaving for the same employers (and looks forward to the trophy he’ll be bestowed with, for his loyalty), and who wants his son Karan (Shahid Kapoor) to pursue an MBA. In the latter, we glimpse the first stirring of the New India, the newly liberalised India. “Meri mehnat ka faayda sirf mujhe hona chahiye,” he pouts, that the fruits of his labour shall fall only into his hands. The only company he’s loyal to is his own, the one inside his head, the one he dreams of being listed on the stock exchange.
Karan is a man with big ideas and bigger balls. Along with Chandu (Vir Das), Tenzing (Meiyang Chang) and Bulbul (Anushka Sharma), he becomes, at first, a carrier for a smuggler. And as he reaps the rewards of their risk-taking, it’s an unsurprising (and inevitable) segue to a life of soft crime, involving customs auctions and insider trading. The director, Parmeet Sethi, isn’t interested in showing us a fumbling foursome at the verge of tricky transactions, mopping sweaty foreheads with nervous hands, never sure when they might wind up behind bars. He wants, simply, to entertain us with the thrill of the con. (He borrows the satiny textures of the Ocean’s Eleven films. He also borrows the feel of David Holmes’s compulsively propulsive soundtrack, which made us feel there was nothing so stylish, so fun, as swindling the sucker born this minute.) Sethi, for a while, makes us delight in rooting for these young Indians forging their futures in ways their forefathers could have scarcely imagined. He makes us vicarious amoralists.
And then, sadly, morality strikes, and the carefree “New India” story turns into a cautionary tale worthy of any number of films from Old India, films like Tere Mere Sapne, where people who were blinded by power and money were punished, apparently, for simply coveting success. Early on, we see Karan making out with Bulbul in a car. (It’s pouring outside; the radio, appropriately, bursts into the chartbuster of the moment, Tip tip barsa pani. It’s a nice touch that this romance is treated very matter-factly, folded into the larger story with little fuss.) Like a typical American teenager from the movies, his lips are on hers and his hands keep fumbling on the strap of her dress. When he reaches home, however, he finds that his father has had a heart attack and needs to be admitted to a hospital, which means that his mother has to pawn her gold bangles. Karan, in short (as in Old Indian movies), is being punished for being “Western,” for not following his father’s footsteps, and perhaps even for thinking of sex outside of marriage.
And thus the film – which, for an entertaining stretch, seemed to showcase the triumph of New India over the Old – turns into the exact opposite, an old-fashioned morality play replete with a much-deserved comeuppance and a tiresomely overextended redemption arc. Karan’s descent to darkness isn’t convincingly charted, and Shahid, with his boyish behaviour, which includes cutenesses like crossing fingers each time he hopes for a positive outcome, is barely believable as a grownup, let alone a representative of a shining India who needs to learn lessons from an India that was not so shining. But he, like his film, has style and spirit, and that makes Badmaash Company an easy watch. The cast draws us in, especially Anushka Sharma, who’s very good in a part that calls, again, for a mix of Old and New India. She has no qualms about sleeping with her boyfriend or seducing a potential customer, but when Karan begins to stray over to distinctly un-Indian territory (namely, disregarding close friends, or desiring too much money, as opposed to wanting just enough), she draws the line. By the end, she’s even pregnant, a Mother India for a new generation – more liberal than Nargis, perhaps, but every bit as unyieldingly moral.
SEEING THE TRAVESTY THAT WAS Bride& Prejudice, a lot of us took to wondering how the director of Bend It Like Beckham, that sweet all-Indian fable, could have turned so tone-deaf to the rhythms of that honorary Indian Jane Austen (whose marriage-mad characters might well be set in the subcontinent). But after the enjoyably batty It’s A Wonderful Afterlife, I suppose it’s time to wonder how Gurinder Chadha was drawn to an empowerment saga like Bend It Like Beckham in the first place. Her talents seem to be those of a natural-born farceur, evident right from the opening minutes that detail a series of grisly murders, in London, by the “Curry Killer.” Newspaper headlines are ablaze with puns like “Police Dahl-lemma,” a victim ends up suffocated by chapatti dough, and there’s a great gross-out gag on an operating table that, literally, makes for an explosive beginning. Later, too, Chadha (with the help of the wonderful Sally Hawkins, playing a Brit who wants to be a Bharatiya nari) orchestrates a terrific send-up of the prom-night sequence from Carrie, except that this version involves flying food.
These highs, unfortunately, aren’t sustained in this story of an Austenian mother (a superbly harried Shabana Azmi) who wants to see her daughter (Goldy Notay) married off to a nice Indian boy. Also, in matters of satire, there is the difference between someone like Chadha, an outsider looking in, and, say, Dibakar Banerjee, an insider looking around and about. With the latter, we feel included in the joke, a part of the proceedings, whereas with the former, we feel as if on show, as if exoticised for a world audience. And yet, a healthy sense of the ridiculous helps us hang on. Even the supposed “moral” is endearingly daffy, especially as stated by a ghost whose pallor is beginning to peel, leaving behind the most unsightly of scabs: “Even fat people can find love.” It is then that you wonder if this director, with her unapologetically zaftig zeal, felt a kinship to her full-bodied heroine, described as having a “bottom like a buffalo.” Perhaps, beneath all the gags, this is an empowerment tale too. Perhaps Bend It Like Beckham wasn’t all that much an aberration.
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