At the beginning of One By Two, the screen is halved… one by two. Only, we don’t know it’s a vertical split screen. Someone with a camera is going around recording guests at party, and she calls out to Amit (Abhay Deol), who turns around and breaks into silly dance moves. By his side, Samara (Preeti Desai, who has one of those long, lovely Iberian faces we usually encounter only in Almodóvar movies) begins to dance too. He turns and moves towards her, and then we realise that he’s moving towards someone else, another girl dressed in black, and that the lamppost-like prop between them was actually concealing the fact that these are two separate events, from two separate lives. The director Devika Bhagat, carries this conceit throughout – at one point, she uses the wall dividing two stalls in a men’s bathroom – and the point is that we are witnessing one story about… two separate people. One By Two isn’t, as you’d expect, a rom-com – it’s a pre-rom-com, which doesn’t begin with the meet-cute but ends with one.
So in one track of the story, we follow Amit, a “boring guy” (a disaffected Deol plays him all too well) who hangs out with two friends who look too young to have been his buddies from school. His girlfriend has dumped him and he wants to get her back – that’s his life’s mission. And the second track is about Samara’s attempt to win a televised dance competition. In her spare time, she tends to an alcoholic mother (Lilette Dubey ) and communicates with a distant father (Anish Trivedi). How do you make a multiplex-friendly movie about two colourless people flailing about in an existential funk? Bhagat’s solution is to throw in a lot of colour and a springy Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy soundtrack, but otherwise, she lets her movie wallow in a bit of existential funk itself. In a scene towards the end, Samara jumps into a swimming pool and screams – but we hear no sound. One By Two is a little like that, like a song played almost on mute. After a while, the film begins to feel like an academic experiment: Can the lives of two not-terribly-interesting people be shaped into an interesting story?
That’s a slightly dangerous question, especially when the lively characters surrounding Amit and Samara come off as better candidates for a movie. There’s Amit’s uncle (Darshan Jariwala), a cop who likes to recite questionable poetry at gatherings. He tells he’s shot down gangsters and asks the whiny Amit what he’s accomplished. The answer: nothing. Then we have Bunty (Netrapal He-Ra Singh), a wrong-side-of-the-tracks contestant on the talent show Samara wants to win – his brief and unlikely friendship seems to shake something up in Samara, who lives in a privileged cocoon. Better yet, we meet Shishika (Yashika Dhillon), who’s delightful as the girl Amit’s mother (Rati Agnihotri) wants him to marry. She’s so wrong for him, it’s hilarious.
Bhagat does a lot of little things well. She has a talent for the offhand moment, like the one – again with a split screen – where Amit strums a guitar and sings a popular advertising jingle while Samara, on the other side, practices dance moves. (Deol sings well on screen; it feels like he’s really singing the soft numbers, though it’s a different story with the hard-rock song that comes later – completely at odds with his low-key energy levels.) I liked the fact that there’s no comeuppance awaiting Amit after his cool act of sabotage, one that all but ruins Samara’s life. When Amit and Samara meet, finally, and he repeats a line from a conversation they’ve had earlier, there’s no bell-clanging, forehead-slapping reaction, just a bit of confusion that the line seems familiar. The bits of randomness – like Amit’s encounter with Bunty on a train, or his walking past Samara, or his glancing idly through the window at Samara as she dances in a neighbouring building – are also nicely done.
Bhagat clearly doesn’t like to oversell a moment, but there’s a hair’s breadth between being subtle and being uninvolving – she goes too far in the other direction. A running gag involves Amit’s flatulence, but at times you wish Bhagat had let it rip. There needed to be more energy in the showdown between Samara and her mother. They say hurtful things to each other, but the hurt barely registers. And scenes that might have worked in a shriller narrative end up looking ridiculous here. I didn’t buy a minute of the subplot with Samara’s father, who lands up at her house in order to take her out for dinner. If he did not want to include her mother in the evening’s plans, and if there there’s all this awkwardness between them, why not simply ask Samara to meet him at the restaurant? Why have the scene where he’s forced to tell his former flame (it’s a nice contrivance that she was his mistress, not his wife) that he’s only interested in his daughter’s company? The out-of-nowhere proposal by Samara’s former friend-with-benefits (Yudhishtar Urs) – he wants her to move with him to Amsterdam – she throws a fit! – is equally ridiculous.
Eventually, we see that the film is about today’s young people who turn molehills into mountains, seeing life-crippling problems where there are none, and that the languor in the film is perhaps intentional, a reflection of the ennui experienced by Samara and especially Amit – but all this sounds much more interesting as ideas being tossed around in a script meeting than as a movie on the screen. One By Two is one of those films with a lot of little touches – while Amit is babied by his mother, Samara often ends up mothering hers; the reality of having to wade through shit in life being reflected in the many bathroom scenes – that don’t quite add up to a bigger picture.
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.