A beautifully textured romcom with flesh-and-blood characters instead of lazy caricatures. Plus, a middling meta-movie about adultery.
DEC 19, 2010 – THE ALLITERATIVE ALLUREMENTS of the title aside, Maneesh Sharma’s Band Baaja Baaraat arrives with the best screen kiss in our cinema’s history – a distinction that sounds dubious until you realise how uncommon it is to witness the locking of lips as the key to understanding a relationship. The osculatory overture occurs roughly midway in the story of Bittoo (Ranveer Singh) and Shruti (Anushka Sharma), after they succeed in expanding their wedding-planning business beyond their wildest dreams – and the scene begins with a celebration. Music is played. Business partners are regaled. Champagne is uncorked. And then she ends up leaning against him, tired and happy. He tries to untangle her arms from behind him – after all, isn’t she the one who insisted, “Mere paas nahin hai love-shove ke liye time,” that she wouldn’t let personal feelings cloud her professionalism? – and she resists, and being a man of a certain age and at a certain stage, he gives in, wrapping his arms around her.
She pulls back, and they look at one another, as if seeing each other for the first time. The camera holds them in a tight two-shot, his face and hers. And then they begin to lean in. The soundtrack goes silent, and you sense the mood – fear, embarrassment, hesitation, desire – and you hear the unasked questions. What am I doing? Does this make sense? Do I want to risk ruining a super-successful professional partnership over a feeling I don’t even have a name for yet? At least for a second, they push aside these considerations and peck, cautiously, at each other’s lips, as if sticking a tentative toe into the ocean before leaping in without a lifejacket. The temperature must have felt right, for now they decide to do it the way it should be done, with lips and tongue. They kiss. They fall into bed. They spend the night in wide-eyed contemplation – she’s happy, he’s confused. And then they face the morning-after awkwardness. She bustles about as if nothing ever happened, as if their small world hasn’t just shifted on its axis. And he prepares to drop her home, hilariously strapping on his helmet even before stepping out of the room, as if to prevent the possibility of anything else. After the rom, here’s the com.
The actors, here as elsewhere, are excellent – his scruffiness clashing perfectly with her marble-moulded poise; after all, a romcom wouldn’t be a romcom if the attraction weren’t between opposites – but what makes the scene really special is the director’s decision to draw a curtain on their lovemaking. We break here for interval point, which, instead of typically rising to a high-pitched clamour and leaving us hanging with what-will-happen-next breathlessness, chooses to leave us with what is happening there and then. The future can wait, the film seems to be saying – let’s savour the present. Think Esha Deol in Yuva, still woozy-headed from Ajay Devgan’s impromptu proposal, unwilling to let go of the moment and walking around with a silly smile in dreamy slow motion – that’s the sense the audience is left with. When we leave Bittoo and Shruti in bed and in each other’s arms, it’s still night – the cold realities of the morning are a few hours away.
Band Baaja Baaraat is the rare romcom that remembers why we like watching people in love on screen, and it never forgets to present Bittoo and Shruti as people. In the doleful romcoms from Hollywood, these days, we see template-designed men and women who all but have post-its slapped on their foreheads – Stuck-up Career-minded Bitch, and Stubbled Charmer Who’ll Thaw Her. One look at them and we know who they are – the only suspense left is how they’ll end up together, even if we often wonder why they bother to end up together. When Bittoo and Shruti first meet, he’s crashing the buffet line at a wedding he’s not invited to, and she snatches his plate away. You expect colourful fireworks – the “I hate you-s” before “I love you-s” – but these clichés are quickly sidestepped. With a video camera, he records her spirited dancing, and he makes a DVD and arranges a run-in just so he can start something with her. She’s not interested, but she doesn’t shoo him away. She tells him about her plans for a wedding-planning business, and they munch on bread pakodas and settle into an easy friendship.
At times, the director reminds you of a pastry chef who knows that his sweet-toothed clientele wants only the icing – the cake is just the container. And so he dispenses with the batter and the banter and gives us only the sweet stuff. He doesn’t waste time making his leads hate each other before they learn to like and then love. (The hate, refreshingly, kicks in only later.) There is no learning-the-ropes-of-the-business montage, no failing before succeeding. (When a piece of audio equipment doesn’t work, Bittoo fixes it the old-fashioned Indian way, by slapping it hard.) When Bittoo and Shruti, tired after a long day, end up sleeping in their office, on the same bed, there’s no will-they-won’t-they tension. They’re exhausted. They sleep. They get up and go to work in the kind of Delhi that Dibakar Banerjee might have made a romcom in. (In Bittoo’s world, “business” comes out as “binness” and he explains that his name comes with a “da-bal T, da-bal O.”) The class system is highlighted by a snooty competitor – a wedding planner who caters to high society, as opposed to Bittoo and Shruti who preside over “Minki weds Binni”-type Janakpuri weddings – but this rival is never allowed to become a villain. She serves as a catalyst – she expedites Bittoo’s and Shruti’s business and she makes a graceful (if unceremonious) exit.
With these traditional conflict-rearing situations jettisoned by the wayside, it’s up to Bittoo and Shruti to create their own chaos – and that they do almost too well. After they make love and as the helmeted Bittoo drives Shruti home, we see her taking in the sights and the sounds of the morning, her face scrubbed free of makeup. She’s as unadorned as her emotions. She looks like the happiest person on earth, so transparently in love. Her happiness grows a hundredfold when Bittoo, after dropping her, offers a ride to her overweight father – the latter is unable to sit astride, so he seats himself “ladies style.” (If there’s a complaint against this generally irreproachable film, it’s that these genial supporting characters aren’t given more to do.) But when Bittoo espouses her theory that business and romance should not mix, she snaps and so does their partnership. It’s hard to say what she’s more upset about, Bittoo’s casual dismissal of what she feels their relationship has become or her own stupidity for allowing this relationship to become something in the first place. (The scene where she casually probes Bittoo about his feelings is a gem.)
Both halves of the film open with a pair of pigeons fluttering away from their roost, but the detailing of character is really why Band Baaja Baaraat soars above what passes for romcoms these days, either from here or Hollywood. The business was Shruti’s idea, and Bittoo, at first, is just someone who joins her because he doesn’t want to return to his village, to his family’s sugarcane business. (One of the many uproarious, yet slyly observant, lines in the film has Bittoo’s male relation comment about the inappropriateness of a profession as “feminine” as wedding planning: “Hamaare gaon ke baalak janaaniyon ke kaam nahin karte.”) And yet, it’s Bittoo who becomes more professional than Shruti. She’s happy she’s made something of her life before she gets married to the man her family arranges for her, but his ambition is greater – he wants to keep the partnership going, he wants the business to expand, and so he does not want the complications of love. Part of Shruti’s frustration is also the realisation that her dreams come with an expiration date while his are boundless. Simply put, she’s become him, he’s become her.
And now that they’re divorced in business, can they go about coordinating the marriages of others? How easy is it being around people in love when you’ve been burned? Shruti turns brittle, Bittoo becomes the proprietor of his own wedding-planning business – but it’s clear as day that they work better as a couple, both professionally and personally. The ending announces itself from a mile away, but getting there is almost sinfully pleasurable. And once we get there, we get one of the great declarations of love in the movies. We know that Bittoo has spurned Shruti and it, therefore, falls upon him to convince her that their partnership is worth a second shot. And he rises magnificently to the occasion. He’s not convent-educated, so there’s no lazy “I love you.” He’s not especially romantic, so no purple-prose declarations either. He’s a simple bloke, and he says, simply, “Tere bina koi bhi cheez mein mauj nahin hai,” that he doesn’t delight in anything in life anymore without her by his side. The disarming directness of this confession brought a tear to my eye. Used to romcoms treating love as a taken-for-granted plot contrivance, how startling this realisation that it’s still an emotion that can move mountains, if only in New Delhi.
WITH MIRCH, VINAY SHUKLA hints at a meta-movie. On screen, a struggling filmmaker (Maanav, played by Arunoday Singh) abandons his dream script – and you know what kind of script this is when Maanav’s house is plastered with posters of Pyaasa and The 400 Blows, and when his idea of reading is Bergman’s Images – and cobbles together a portmanteau of spicy, adultery-themed stories so that a producer (Sushant Singh) will bite. And off screen, this is what Shukla does as well, cobbling together a portmanteau of spicy, adultery-themed stories so that a real-life producer will bite. (Besides, what is the artist if not the ultimate adulterer, forever cheating on his integrity?) One of Maanav’s tales harks back to the Panchatantra, but it’s really the Arabian Nights that Shukla has in mind, with the writer-director as Scheherazade spinning spur-of-the-moment fantasies to survive in a realm ruled by heartless (and artless) moneymen. These episodes are uniformly dismissive of men as fools and cuckolds, but these aren’t strident feminist tracts either. Shukla aims for a lighthearted tone that come and goes, and it’s his lamentably little-seen cast that grabs and holds our interest – Raima Sen, Shahana Goswami and a particularly piquant Boman Irani.
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