In a village that’s beyond idyllic, Savitri (Padmini Kolhapure) – who’s beyond virtuous – dreams of making her son Vishwas (played as a grown-up by Shahid Kapoor) an honest policeman. Vishwas, however, dreams of becoming a movie star, a hero. In school, a teacher tells the class that the Himalayas lie to the north of the country, and when he asks Vishwas what’s in the south, the boy says Rajinikanth. He loves his mother, but he cannot see why he should grow up to be a cop when, in the movies, he can be a cop as well as an engineer, as well as a don… The lies, at first, are small. He goes to a police recruitment camp and pretends to be physically unfit. But then he goes to Bombay, where virtue won’t get you a square meal, and he’s forced to confront situations that demand bigger compromises on his soul.
Taken one way, this is the stuff of drama. Taken Rajkumar Santoshi’s way, this is high comedy. Santoshi seems to be in a happy place now. Phata Poster Nikhla Hero harks back to Andaz Apna Apna with a snatch of Yeh raat aur yeh doori (playing on the radio) and with a gag fashioned around Salman Khan (the punch line, involving Aamir Khan, is killer) – but this film is, in essence, a sequel in spirit to Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani. (We first see Shahid Kapoor as he gives a demo of this film’s title, smashing through a poster of Ajab Prem…) The expected slapsticky ingredients are there – outrageous 007-style gadgets; a bubble-gum chewing villain (Saurabh Shukla), with a henchman named RDX and a boss who calls himself Napoleon – and all of it is animated by a Tom-and-Jerry score. But what sets these films apart is a real sweetness, an innocence – there’s nothing cynical or calculated.
It’s the innocence of a long-ago India, a long-ago Bollywood. (People say things like “Log aag baboola ho jaayenge.”) I cannot think of another filmmaker, in these times, who will develop the character of the hero’s mother on par with the heroine (Kajal, played by Ileana D’Cruz). The roothna-manana song plays out not between Vishwas and Kajal, but between Vishwas and his mother, and when he’s caught in his lies, we waste no time on scenarios involving a hurt and angry Kajal – it’s Savitri’s hurt and anger that matter. And that’s because the older films always revolved around a strong moral core. Even the silliest of them was keenly attuned to the sense of right and wrong, a life conducted in deference to a higher power. (When Vishwas’s name appears in the papers, Savitri finds out about it through someone who stumbled into the news item when he went to the temple.)
There’s a reason Vishwas’s early life in Bombay is so devoid of struggle. He instantly finds a place to stay. He instantly finds a mentor in a failed writer (a hilarious Sanjay Mishra). He instantly gets to audition for a hotshot director (Tinnu Anand) and gets selected. It’s like a fairy tale. And that’s because the real struggle lies ahead, in acquiring that moral lesson, doing right by his mother and by the conventions of once-upon-a-time Hindi cinema. Of course, all this narrative detailing, all this conceptual heaviness, is carefully tucked away behind a scrim of silliness – and the film’s first half is a joy. There’s a sense of Shammi Kapoor – Vishwas, at a nightclub, is threatened by a gun; his legs begin to wobble; this transforms into a dance and, then, a fight – as well as the lost-and-found capers of Manmohan Desai, whose films were filled with heroes going astray and being drawn back to the moral core of the mother.
I was especially taken by the brilliant Tu mere agal bagal hai song sequence, which doesn’t just burst out of nowhere – as songs do these days – but is set up organically, in a way that the glamorous picturisation has a context. When Vishwas falls for Kajal, his mentor warns him that she’s one of those snooty high-society types who’ll set her dog on him – and the song positions Vishwas and assorted blue-collar types (dhobis, Koli fishermen, road-construction workers) around Kajal and her rich friends. The other songs, though, with the exception of the song about the mother, belong in another movie. They’re the kind where the leads in couture clothes pose artily in desolate surroundings, as if Antonioni had overseen a Vogue cover shoot. The action sequences, too, with their exaggerated wire-fu stunts, aren’t from the world of this movie. They’re too modern. But Shahid Kapoor holds it all together – his high-energy performance powers the story past these pitfalls.
But something strange happens in the second half. It’s meant to be as funny as what came before, but a development involving slain cops kills the mood – it’s like biting into a lemon in the midst of a dessert course – and the film never recovers. Also, it’s never a good idea, in such films, to have very high stakes when it comes to the villain’s plans. We don’t want to be faced with the prospect of millions dying. That’s too much real life to take in the midst of all this blithe artifice, unfolding someplace that exists only in the movies. Santoshi tries to make it fun. Stopping the deadly device doesn’t involve codes or passwords or red-wire-blue-wire confusion – there are just two giant buttons to activate and deactivate the thing. But this isn’t enough. The film slips into a strange zone, somewhere between earnest masala (Savitri’s tears, and so forth) and a deliberate deflation of those earnest masalas (Kajal conspiring to help Vishwas).
Still, I’ll be happy to see Santoshi continue in this vein. We see so many comedies done so sloppily that it’s a pleasure to see one made by a real filmmaker, who takes all this very seriously. Despite some unfortunate choices, Phata Poster Nikhla Hero isn’t a lazy movie. Behind the laughs, there’s always something deeper – if not a spot-the-film-reference challenge, then a solid rooting of the film’s themes, like the fact that Vishwas wants to become a hero and is confronted with various types of actors, including a hammy friend who just may be the funniest priest in recent times. Vishwas puts on a performance in front of his mother, the villains, a police chief – and key events are even replayed on a television set, reinforcing the sense of being up there on the screen. A scene at a shooting spot seems a one-off, until we see it being paralleled in a flashback, life imitating movies imitating life imitating movies… Does a comedy need all this? Probably not. We really only care about the laughs. But what Santoshi’s making aren’t just comedies. They’re reverential homage. They’re tongue-in-cheek throwback. They’re a love letter to the movies. They’re utterly one-of-a-kind.
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