Ayushmann Khurrana acts with his hands, his eyes, his entire being. In Rohan Sippy’s Nautanki Saala, he plays Ram Parmar (aka RP), the director and lead actor of a smash-hit stage show named Raavanleela. (It seems to be scored, rather oddly, to Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain.) Khurrana is the least interesting while on stage, where he’s declaiming lines – and anyway, the film is more concerned about his life offstage. In one of these moments, at a restaurant, RP finds himself having to walk up to a perfect stranger and pretend to know him enough to engage in a casual conversation. Khurrana’s timing is exquisite. He hams it up just enough to let us in on the joke, so that we’re laughing with him, at the victim of this joke (and also at RP’s situation). Later, at a hairdresser’s, he describes how the woman he’s fallen for does up her hair. Looking at his hands move and listening to him, we can almost picture her the way he does.
The character of RP is what they call an actor’s showcase, but not in the typical sense. There’s no extravagant histrionic possibility rising from a having to portray a disability or being beset by great tragedies. RP needs to be played as a normal guy, but with a touch of the manic – befitting his theatrical profession, there’s always some drama in his life – and Khurrana plays him beautifully. There are scenes requiring deft physical comedy. There are scenes, like the one involving a letter being read out with improvised contents, that need a kind of touch-and-go rhythm in the dialogue delivery. There are scenes built around a combination of both, like the one where RP resorts to mime in order to prompt an audition candidate who keeps forgetting his lines. (In a charades contest, you want RP on your team.) Khurrana makes everything look so effortless that he hardly seems to be acting. He seems to be doing something that’s simply an extension of his personality.
We could tire of this quickly if he keeps doing the same things, picking the same kind of parts – but at this stage of his career, he’s a joy. From the moment we first see him, clutching a teddy bear, his feet snuggled in fluffy slippers shaped like Angry Birds, Khurrana draws us into the film. He keeps us watching. And Nautanki Saala needs the infusion of energy an actor like Khurrana can provide, because without him there’s nothing. (Well, there’s a promising bit about a Malayali hospital worker who has framed photographs of Mammooty and Mohanlal on her desk and who speaks Hindi so rapidly that she needs a translator, but it’s never really developed.) This film left me quite frustrated because I really wanted to like it. There’s so much good taste, so much evidence of high-mindedness, of wanting to do something different, without taking the easy way out – these aspects may remind you of Sujoy Ghosh’s Home Delivery – that when something like this doesn’t work we feel more for the filmmakers than we do for ourselves, as we would in the case of a lazily made film.
The opening credits inform us that Nautanki Saala is based on the French film Après Vous, and the plot is something like this. RP prevents Mandar (Kunaal Roy Kapur) from going ahead with his suicide plan, and he then takes responsibility for picking up the threads of this stranger’s broken life – by trying to reunite Mandar with his ex, Nandini (Pooja Salvi), and by casting him in the all-important part of Ram in his play. (This man, naturally, knows nothing about the theatre.) I haven’t seen the French film, but looking it up, I saw that it was set in a restaurant. The protagonist is the maitre d’ and he gives the man whose life he’s saved the job of a sommelier. (This man, naturally, knows nothing about wine.) This somehow seems a more plausible set of circumstances – it’s easier to believe that someone can fake it with wines (even if it is Paris) than in front of an unpredictable live audience. Nautanki Saala is based on the premise that the actor-director of a hugely successful show would risk jeopardising his career in order to help a stranger he feels responsible for. I didn’t buy it for a second.
Mandar is the world’s biggest baby, constantly whining for attention. Even when he’s in the hospital and RP is applying some kind of salve on his posterior, he wants more. “Meri ek help karoge?” he asks RP, as if massaging the exposed buttocks of a strange man isn’t help enough. How can anyone see this bumbling, self-pitying loser as someone who belongs on the stage? Kapur plays this character as well as one could, but Mandar is like a lead balloon – he weighs down RP’s life and he weighs the film down. The strangeness of the premise might not have been such a problem if the gags kept coming. But Sippy tries to do too much. He layers his comedy with arch conceits, like the constant allusions to “nautanki” whenever something ultra-dramatic is about to occur, or the attempts to mirror the Ramayana unfolding on stage in the events of RP’s life. (RP’s falling for Nandini is compared to Sita’s apaharan; the Hanuman-equivalent character delivers a signet ring, and so forth.)
And so we discover that there’s a reason the protagonist is named Ram. He may play Raavan on stage and even adorn the steering wheel of his SUV with stickers of ten heads, but at heart he wants to play God. He does that in the theatre, as a director, and now he wants to do direct Mandar’s life. This is too much metaphorical weight for a farcical comedy, and Nautanki Saala fulfills neither promise – it’s not funny enough, and it’s not deep enough. (The rom-com contrivances towards the end don’t work either, and going by this film, apparently anyone can perform on stage.) The quirky and eclectic soundtrack helps – a remix of So gaya yeh jahaan that sounds like something dreamed up by a DJ in an Egyptian nightclub; a commenting-on-the-happenings track, Dil ki to lag gayi, that’s infused with a sultry, made-in-France vibe – but not nearly enough to make us forget that the cheeky title promised us a much funnier film.
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