Review: Patiala House

Posted on February 12, 2011



Underdog-cricketer story meets emancipation saga in an inoffensive-enough drama that really should have been much better.

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FEB 13, 2011 – NIKHIL ADVANI’S PATIALA HOUSE opens at a deserted playground. It’s night. A shadowy figure slinks through an imposing fence, heads towards a chest and opens it. Is this man a burglar, and if so, what is he about to steal? In an instant, we have the answer. The chest contains cricketing supplies. The man extracts what he needs and proceeds to mark out a semblance of a pitch. He plants a solitary stump, backs away to the other end, runs up to the crease and releases the ball in his hand. The stump is uprooted. But there are no witnesses, no cheers. And then we see that Gattu (Akshay Kumar) is indeed a burglar, and he’s stealing for himself a slice of a dream – one that his stern father, Bauji (Rishi Kapoor), an Indian immigrant in London, has forbidden. No son of his will play for the English team. And hence this pitiful spectacle of Gattu, an accomplished fast bowler, over this voiceover: “17 saal ki umar mein koi nahin sochta ki main chhota aadmi banoonga,” that no one, at 17, dreams of becoming a small man. Now, at twice that age, Gattu is diminished to a shadow of his robust self.

Just what is behind Bauji’s hostility towards the English? The same question could be asked of Amrish Puri’s stentorian patriarch in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. Their forefathers pushed with all their might against the British who invaded their country. And now, these men struggle with the white man in his country, which they’ve grudgingly adopted as their own. They stand breathing testimony to the sentiment expressed by Raj Kapoor when he declared Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani – away from India, they remain stubbornly Indian. Unwilling to acknowledge that the world around them has become different, they cling to their old ways from the old country, and they are so terrified of assimilation, of losing their identity, that they burden their children with their culture and traditions and hopes and dreams, unmindful that these young men and women have their own hopes and dreams. And Gattu, like the character played by Kajol in that earlier film, is living not the life he wants but the one his father wants.

Some 15 years ago, with DDLJ, it was easier to buy into the notion that a red-blooded youngster raised in a thoroughly western environment would not rebel against her father’s stranglehold on her life. Today, the conceit has frayed thin, for it isn’t just Gattu but an entire posse of siblings and cousins that is enslaved by the domineering Bauji, the “sarpanch of Southall” who rules the household with an iron fist encased in a velvet glove. It beggars belief that not one of these youngsters would seek to escape their cage. (The schizophrenic split of the life they lead as opposed to the life they want to lead is portrayed in a song that keeps alternating between traditional wedding revelry and nightclubby free-spiritedness.) Wouldn’t this story have hit its high points equally well had Gattu been a single child? Why grapple with delineating so many characters who add so little? Partly for himself and partly for the sake of his oppressed extended clan, Gattu agrees to play for England, and the family’s efforts to keep Bauji in the dark are most painful, embellished with silly graphics for no apparent reason.

These silly graphics are how we know Simran (Anushka Sharma, overplaying as if to compensate for her hero’s understatement; you wish for a little less from her, a little more from him) is falling for Gattu – she looks at him and little red hearts begin to orbit her face. It’s baffling why this courtship was so sidelined that we need to be informed about it through semaphore. Simran appears, at first, an interesting character. She ran away to become a Bollywood star, and she’s the product of an Anglo-Indian union. But these shades add nothing to her portrayal, and all she’s required to do is stand by her man. Dimple Kapadia, playing Gattu’s mother, is entrusted the same job, and she thankfully gets at least one well-written scene to bite into. When cops threaten to disrupt wedding preparations at home, and when Bauji charges at them with characteristic aggression, the others point out to her that he should calm down – the world has changed, and so should he. She retorts that if their world has changed, it’s because he’s done the changing – though once inside, she asks her husband if this aggressiveness is really necessary, and he raises his hand and silences her.

Like these others, it’s Gattu’s lot to suffer in silence – the monotony of his life is illustrated through the repetition of shots where he plays alone at nights or lunches quietly in the store room of the shop he manages for his father. (The neat rows of grains and lentils, all uniformly packed, lend to the proceedings their own air of silent conformity.) Gattu’s emancipation from Bauji (and their eventual reconciliation) is equally quiet. Patiala House is structured like a melodrama and these could have been thunder-and-lightning moments, but they ring truer due to their low-keyness. Even Gattu’s innate cricketing instincts aren’t flamboyantly depicted – here he catches a credit card flying in his direction; there he wraps his hands safely around a glass tossed in the air by his father at a celebration. All the drama is wisely reserved for his cricketing scenes, once he joins the team, despite the opinion of a selector that he’s a has-been who hasn’t played in 17 years. The film, hereon, becomes a curious mash-up of the underdog-success story and the shaking-free-from-shackles-of-tradition heart-warmer. (In a Hollywood pitch meeting, they’d have called this The Rookie meets Bend It Like Beckham.)

You wish Advani had jettisoned a few scenes with the family and allowed his cricketing sequences to breathe – there are times, Gattu, now rechristened Kaali, appears to be the only bowler on the English team. (We seem to be watching highlights of the matches put together by the Kaali Fan Club, which may be what KFC stands for in England now.) But there’s no denying the charge in these closing portions, even if there isn’t really any suspense whether Kaali will single-handedly win the match for his adopted homeland and thus prove to his beloved Bauji that the day has indeed arrived when the white man treats the brown man as being on the same side. Advani sets up a final over in the final match where Australia needs 14 runs to win, and if that weren’t exciting enough, he invokes memories of Mohinder Amarnath from our World Cup victory from 1983. With cinema and cricket, two of our greatest passions, conspiring so, how can any self-respecting Indian resist being swept away?

Star Ratings

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi