Lights, Camera, Conversation… “A lesson from last year”

Posted on January 6, 2012


The best resolve for 2012? Don’t expect anything, especially from the movies.

If it’s customary to welcome a new year not only by resolving to do right in the forthcoming months but also by learning from our wrongs in the months flown by, then the lesson is this: do not expect anything from any movie. Walking into a screening with a clean slate is one of my cherished ideals, which is why I strive not to hear, see or read about a film ahead of its release. The best thing, the only thing to do, in my opinion, is to step into the theatre and let the film speak for itself. And yet, there are times we are seduced by earlier accomplishments, which cling to the film like a damp fog – the haze of anticipation is unshakeable. Had Don 2 been made by a well-intentioned newcomer and not by the director who gave us Dil Chahta Hai and parts of Lakshya (which was a letdown in comparison, but seen from today’s vantage, very much a solid accomplishment), would we have been so crushed?

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But even Don 2, to me, wasn’t last year’s biggest disappointment, the film that wagged a pointy finger and cautioned me never to expect anything ever again. That film was Maneesh Sharma’s Ladies vs Ricky Bahl, which brought over most of the team from Band Baaja Baaraat, not just one of the best films from India in 2010 but one of the best rom-coms released, that year, in the world. The rom-com is a tricky thing to negotiate – you cannot have too many surprising turns of events, and yet, the film has to surprise; you have to tell the story of boy and girl getting together as if we thought they never would – and it was thrilling to witness such a well-conceived, well-executed instance of a genre, a type of film, that isn’t even our own. (Our emotion-saturated style of filmmaking lends itself better to rom-drams, romantic dramas.) If someone could pull off something so phenomenal, the next film arrives with a fair amount of expectation, with its own patina of damp fog, however much you tell yourself that every film is its own beast and has nothing to do with what came before it.

But Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl has almost nothing going for it, save for a few swatches of richly embroidered detail, mostly in the early portions involving a nouveau riche Punjabi family in Delhi, where the father prowls about his mansion in a velvety robe draped over a furry chest, and the mother pleads with the strange boy carrying in her daughter – his girlfriend, who’s passed out from a night of revelry – to deposit the girl in her bed upstairs. (The moment is so scary, yet so right – you have to laugh.) There are a number of talismanic carry-overs from Band Baaja Baaraat – a moment involving the hero and his helmet; the employment of “kaand” in a line of dialogue, a word we rarely get to hear in this context in Hindi cinema; Ranveer Singh’s confessional speech in front of Anushka Sharma; an ending whipped up from just the right kind of mush, sentimental and yet not too sickly sweet; and a terrific supporting cast populating the minor parts, the pick of whom is the actor playing a smarmy hotel employee named Shankar.

But after a promising beginning, almost nothing goes right. The audience is always two steps ahead (and this includes cottoning on to the real name of the identity-shifting con-man hero, which is bafflingly given away in the title). Perhaps the fault lies with the story. Do some types of narrative – like this con man being out-conned plot – defiantly resist the razzle-dazzle Bollywood treatment? In The Thomas Crown Affair, we go lightheaded with anxious delight watching hero and heroine, cold professionals who fall in love despite themselves, turning the screws and upping the ante on each other. Ladies vs Ricky Bahl follows a similar trajectory, but with songs that kill the mood and with unconvincing emotions. (Unlike The Thomas Crown Affair, we know that our heroes and heroines will not be allowed to become too heartless, too predatory). The team that succeeded beyond our wildest dreams with one non-Bollywood genre flounders about desperately with another. It shouldn’t matter. It’s just a movie. But somehow, this betrayal feels personal. Hence this resolution that, like most others, is likely doomed to failure. Do. Not. Expect. Anything. From. Any. Movie. In. 2012.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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