The newspapers have just informed us that a poor Parsi is one who earns less than Rs. 90,000 a month. By that consideration, Rustom (Sharman Joshi), employed as a clerk in the RTO, is positively impoverished. Even a cricket bat for his talented son Kayo (Ritwik Sahore) is something of a luxury – it costs Rs. 2,800, for which he has to not only ferret out the scraps of cash stashed around the house he shares with his cantankerous father (Deboo, played by Boman Irani), but also smash open the piggy bank. The latter comes in the shape of an adorable cartoon-animal, and in order to wreak violence on it, Rustom has to make it face the other way. He’s the gentlest, sincerest, most innocent creature in Mumbai, so determined to look at the bright side of life that even the helmet he wears while scootering around the city is a sunshiney yellow. (He also makes a smiley face on the roti he prepares for his son at breakfast.) And when he inadvertently jumps a red light, he seeks out a cop and insists on paying the fine. The exasperated cop demands, “Kisi ne dekha kya?” Rustom replies, “Mere bete ne dekha,” that his son saw him.
Goodness of this magnitude can become intolerable on screen after a point – and all this occurs within the first few minutes, leaving you to fear if, by the film’s end, Rustom will have graduated to making smiley-faced rotis for the destitute in Calcutta’s slums – but Rajesh Mapuskar, the director, has learnt a few lessons from co-writer Rajkumar Hirani. He knows that virtue is best served with a side of whimsy. As long as it circles this family, Ferrari Ki Sawaari is damn near irresistible. Just last week, Dibakar Banerjee showed us that we can make movies the way they do in Hollywood and in Europe, and now, Mapuskar adopts the by-now patented Hirani style, which, in turn, harks back to Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s sunny worlds without villains. (There’s a nod to Guddi, when Kayo rushes to school late and leads the choir in prayer.) At a time Indian narrative traditions, in the cinema, are represented solely in their masala avatar, it’s good to be reminded that there’s another kind, with music and laughs and tears and a hint of melodrama.
So much of Ferrari Ki Sawaari is so original, so one-of-a-kind, that part of the fun of watching the film is just seeing where it will go next. While the destination of the story is fairly predictable, the journey isn’t – and it consists of exquisitely imagined detours. The moment where Deboo, a long-ago cricketing star, is asked for an autograph by a former fan. The scene at a salvage yard where the owner demonstrates how an expensive car, like the one in this film’s title, is stripped for scrap. The flashback through faded photographs (and another flashback revealed through a curtain that’s drawn open, a surreal bit that tips a hat to producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra). Deboo using a mirror to see what’s behind him. The stretch where grandfather, father and son steal downstairs in the middle of the night to play cricket, surrounding by Christmas-time fairy lights. The casual reference to a bullock cart finding an utterly unexpected (and hilarious) echo much later. Even the mobile phone that Rustom acquires early on develops into something of a sturdy supporting character by the end.
The way the Ferrari sneaks into the story is a mad stroke of genius – it really is mad – and its presence is justified through a most satisfying screenwriting conceit. Out of nowhere, we’re deposited beside a soprano and her glass-shattering coloratura stylings, as open-mouthed locals watch in amazement. What, we wonder, has this got to do with the story we were just in, with the loving Parsi father and his cricket-crazy son? The connection comes from the fact that opera is “Rome ka music” and the Ferrari is “Rome ki gaadi,” and these accoutrements will adorn a Rome-themed wedding. (Why Rome? Because it’s the city of love. Forget Paris.) The only other filmmaker who dabbles with this kind of free-association whimsy is Jean-Pierre Jeunet, though his scenarios are a lot more fantastic and his characters a lot more eccentric. Hirani’s characters are merely oddball optimists in a pessimistic world – an India, for instance, where a PF-derived loan for a daughter’s wedding is sanctioned after she delivers her first child. (The man who narrates this somewhat sad anecdote is, of course, smiling. He is, after all, an oddball optimist.)
Priyadarshan used to tell these stories at one point, though in a very different tone and pitch. (And he too has spoken of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s influence on his work.) Like Hera Pheri (which could be this film’s title), Ferrari Ki Sawaari is about small people who undertake desperate measures to achieve their big dreams, and Rustom’s big dream is to cough up the Rs. 1.5 lakh it will take for Kayo to go to Lord’s for an under-14 coaching camp. For possibly the first time in his life, Rustom considers an illegal short cut, which involves Sachin Tendulkar’s gleaming red Ferrari (it shines like sin itself) – but where another director would have pivoted his film around nail-biting suspense (will Rustom be able to lay hands on the cash in time?), Mapuskar treats the money as a McGuffin. (Otherwise, the film could have ended midway through the second half, when the coaching fee is no longer an issue.)
Ferrari Ki Sawaari is really a story about fathers and sons, and how we are shaped (often unconsciously) by our parents. Early on, Kayo, in a match at school, catches the ball and presumes that the batsman is out. But after the initial exultation, he sees that his leg is on the boundary line and he tells the umpire, who declares a not-out – and we see that Kayo is doing what Rustom did earlier when he jumped that red light. Rustom’s simple line (“Mere bete ne dekha”) evolves into this film’s bedrock philosophy, and we’re shown, subsequently, the other side of the spectrum, where a father’s misdeeds shapes his son in all the wrong ways. It is with this second father-son pair, a local politician and his soon-to-be-married son, that the film begins to fall apart. These portions, like the rest of the film, are inventively imagined, but the uniqueness of conception doesn’t carry through to the execution. Something’s terribly off in the staging, and we begin to resent being kept away from Rustom and Kayo. (The boy, especially, is lost for long stretches, and Ritwik Sahore’s warm performance ensures that we miss him every minute.)
The too-convenient villain played by Paresh Rawal is another disappointment (though, thankfully, he isn’t allowed to develop into a major character). These jolting “cinematic” moments, like the contrivance that puts Deboo in hospital, are awfully hard to take in a film that’s otherwise such a gently paced amble. (You wish sometimes that they’d get on with it.) But there’s still much to enjoy – like the musical numbers that are wonderfully integrated into the story (though the songs themselves, by Pritam, aren’t instantly memorable). With the exception of an ill-conceived Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-type flying-car segment, the song segues are perfect. Maara re sixer is filmed like a short story with a tiny twist, exuberance giving way to tragedy, a fairy-tale ending punctured by the brass tacks of real life. And the casting is superb. The inclusion of faces we don’t usually see (like Seema Bhargava, Hum Log’s Badki, who plays an exuberant wedding planner) works very well – further proof that we seem to have entered a golden age for character actors in Hindi cinema.
Ferrari Ki Sawaari is finally a showcase for Sharman Joshi. In an engagingly idiotic scene where Rustom gets his mobile phone and Deboo helps him test it (this is not a movie where you ask how someone in these times can exist without a mobile phone; fables are not known for their employment of electronics), the father shakes his head at the son’s behavior and calls him a cartoon. And Joshi plays Rustom like a cartoon, a Chaplinesque figure who’s a little lost in this world, with a smile that’s a little too eager to please, a tone a little too deferential – and that’s why his dramatic outburst at the end is so effective (and also earned). It’s as if everything that this sweet and somewhat silly man has kept dormant all these years has risen to the surface and exploded. I misted up here, but the real lump in the throat came at the end, when Kayo walks out to play in sneakers that his father had once marked with his initial, at a time he couldn’t afford to pay for them. It’s the kind of happy ending that almost makes you an optimist.
Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.