When we meet Meeta (Parineeti Chopra), she seems to be auditioning for the part of an autistic savant. She’s clearly some sort of genius, but she looks a little unhinged. She blinks furiously. She tucks in her lower lip and sticks her tongue out. When she’s not popping a cocktail of pills, she’s scarfing down toothpaste and sugar. These traits are on display throughout Vinil Mathew’s Hasee Toh Phasee, but a little before interval point, we realise that – savant or not – Meeta is essentially a child. “Bade hokar life ko complicate karte hain,” she tells Nikhil (Sidharth Malhotra), when she finds him wringing his hands over a situation – and we see that these aren’t hollow words but her life’s philosophy. She doesn’t overthink things. She just goes ahead and does whatever she wants, without worrying about consequences. When she wants money, she steals it. When she wants a guy – Nikhil, who’s engaged to her sister Karishma (Adah Sharma) – she coolly asks him to marry her and leave Karishma. She’s slapped constantly, like a naughty child, and her annoyingly squeaky shoes are the kind you’d see on children. She even has a peeing-in-the-pants moment.
Nikhil, on the other hand, is a grown-up – at least he’s trying to be one, doing things that he thinks are the right things to do. Very early in the film, we get a couple of sequences that establish what adventurous out-of-the-box thinkers Meeta and Nikhil are as children, but while Meeta has held on to this spirit, Nikhil has lost it along the way. He meets Meeta in his teens, and she asks him to jump into an auto-rickshaw and come with her to Goa – he’s tempted for an instant but his rational self asserts itself and he declines. And now, he’s become a dull man, the kind of person who wants to conclude a business deal not because he has a passion for it but because he can tick another item off his to-do list and go on and get married. (Had he followed his heart, like Meeta, he’d have become a police officer.) He has the fears of a grown-up. At some level he knows he doesn’t love Karishma, but he’s afraid to break up with her because he says – in a touching moment – that she may not come after him and he’ll end up alone. Breaking up is easy, he says, but sustaining a relationship when the going gets tough? That, in his eyes, is the mark of a grown-up.
Seen one way, then, we have here the classic rom-com set-up of opposites attracting. But the thing is, they’re not really opposites, and Hasee Toh Phasee isn’t exactly a rom-com. Part of Mathew’s agenda is to tell a coming-of-age story with two people who’re different in many ways and yet similar in some. Nikhil and Meeta are both the odd ones out in their traditional families (her exasperated uncle says, of her “unfeminine” ways, that she’ll bring home a bride, not a groom), and they both want to escape – it’s just that Meeta has gone ahead and escaped, while Nikhil has convinced himself that the life he’s leading is the right life for him. Meeta needs to grow up. She has to learn how to think about others, how to handle emotions without suppressing them. And Nikhil needs to find his inner child, that boy who effortlessly slipped out of a locked room many, many years ago, to get to a screening of Agneepath.
Mathew has a light touch and he pulls off the “com” part of his film quite delightfully. The conversations between the leads are loaded, yet casual, like the exchange that results in Meeta finally remembering that, yes, she has met this man earlier. The marginal supporting characters are played by good actors (especially the Anu Malik devotee) and they’re given nice bits. I liked the touch with Nikhil’s “lucky trousers,” and many of the extended comic sequences – the crazy walk through a crowded Mumbai marketplace, the search for a missing necklace, and a very funny attempt by Nikhil to help a faraway Meeta catch a glimpse of her estranged father (Manoj Joshi plays this character beautifully, a successful businessman who doesn’t seem to have forgotten that he began life in a chawl).
But the heavier scenes don’t work at all. Part of the problem is that the film, as it goes along, becomes broader and more “Bollywoody,” with wedding songs and a disgraceful computer-hacking scene and a cell-phone-era update of that old trope involving a conveniently overheard conversation. The Shake it like Shammi song sequence doesn’t really belong in the film, but it’s buried behind the opening credits. (Besides, it’s a lot of fun.) The other music videos are awful speed-breakers, and worse, they clash in tone with the film we thought we were watching. This is the problem with these films. They begin by wanting to stay far away from cliché – the characterisation of Meeta, for instance (when was the last time you saw a science genius as a heroine?) – but along the way, they get cold feet, and begin to wonder whether the first-weekend target audience, lured by that oh-so-fun title and those oh-so-young-and-yummy stars, are going to sit through something so quirky and different. The makers of Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (another coming-of-age tale masquerading as a rom-com) stuck gutsily to their off-kilter course, but Mathew, gradually, loses the plot.
The big Bollywoody scenes are too restrained. There’s an excess of “good taste” going around. (You can almost hear Mathew saying, “If we have to have these bloody scenes, let’s at least tone them down.” But these scenes just don’t work when toned down.) We see two large households (with kids), but there’s no incidental noise or movement. The air is dead. Everything is so artfully designed that even at a puja, where smoke fills the room, people cough politely into their handkerchieves. (And the near-geometric way in which they’re positioned suggests that the seating arrangements were done by an art director.) Nikhil tells the emotionally blocked-up Meeta that when normal people get depressed, they cry and scream. That must be the film’s biggest joke. We never see that kind of intensity anywhere, not even in the scene where Nikhil embraces Meeta for the first time – though this may also be a reflection of Malhotra’s inability to do much more than project a charming geniality on screen. (Would you buy him as an IPS officer?) Where’s the prickliness we were promised early on, when Meeta tries to cross over a wall and gets tangled in barbed wire? And what is this bland love triangle we seem to have landed in, where the third angle (Karishma) is so one-dimensional that we don’t feel a thing for the fate that awaits her?
The time spent on the tiresome machinations keeping Nikhil and Meeta apart till the last possible minute ends up shortchanging their romance, and – more damagingly – her character. Her pill-popping and her science-guru subplot come off looking more like a dash of colour, something to make her appear more “interesting,” than something real and rooted. And yet, Parineeti Chopra does some remarkable things with the part. At first, I feared we’d be seeing one of those mannered performances that actors resort to when asked portray an illness or a condition, but those scenes, thankfully, are kept to a minimum. The rest of the time, Chopra manages the difficult feat of making us care (at least to an extent) for a character who doesn’t project any emotion. The innate Parineeti-ness – that no-bullshit quality, that disarming directness, that ability to transform “dialogue” into matter-of-fact conversation – is reimagined with slightly newer shades, and this performance is another sign that we may be seeing the evolution of a major actor-star, one who can be others even while she’s being herself.
* Hasee Toh Phasee = If she smiles, she’s mine
* Agneepath = Path of fire.
* Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu = There’s you and there’s me.
* chawl = A large building divided into many separate tenements.
* puja = Religious ceremony.
* Anu Malik = You really don’t want to go there.
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.