It must be strange being a producer’s kid. You see daddy whipping out his purse and making stars of others, and you think “Why can’t that be me?” And so you set out in search of stardom. And then you discover that all of daddy’s money can only get you to the point where you’re projected on a movie screen – whether the rest of the theatre is filled with people, you have no control over. Two such actors, this week, are taking their umpteenth shot at a hit, Jackky Bhagnani with Youngistaan and Harman Baweja with the ridiculously named Dishkiyaoon. These aren’t terrible films – at least Youngistaan has its moments. But the thing that holds films together, the whole point of a star, that’s what’s missing. Baweja continues to look and act like a faded photocopy of Hrithik Roshan, and Bhagnani, when he smiles, seems to be following the advice of fashion photographers who shot aging heroines: don’t stretch your lips too wide or else the lines around the mouth will show. His smile never reaches his eyes. It’s the blandest approximation of happiness you can find outside a political photo-op.
Youngistaan, directed by Syed Ahmad Afzal, is a political rom-com in the mould of The American President. It has at its centre an endearing what-if. The premise – also reminiscent of Shankar’s Mudhalvan/Nayak – is that of the 28-year old Abhimanyu (Bhagnani) drawn into the chakravyuh of politics when he becomes the nation’s Prime Minister. What if we got a really young leader, who goes gymming in track pants, and what if he had a live-in girlfriend (Anvita, played Neha Sharma)? Can someone from today’s generation, with all those notions of “personal space,” cope with the media’s obsession with public figures? The early portions have a sweet, unhurried feel. As Abhimanyu is sworn in, Anvita weeps in bed, tucking into a tub of Baskin-Robbins ice cream. Slowly, she gets used to the reality that he is the country’s leader first, her boyfriend only later – still, she calls him at work and says she loves him and wants him to say it back, never mind that Abhimanyu is in a meeting with his advisor Akbar (Farooq Shaikh), whose mouth is twitching, suppressing a smile.
Bhagnani and especially Sharma make us care about this couple, who find it increasingly difficult to be the kind of couple they used to be. Among the first things done when Abhimanyu assumes office is the deletion of all his Facebook photos. We feel for them when their privacy is violated. And Farooq Sheikh, in what looks to be his last performance, radiates the kind of avuncular affection that bathes the film with a special warmth.
The problem is that Youngistaan has no teeth. The American President wasn’t exactly the last word in realism, but it got its bite from Aaron Sorkin’s sharp writing, which expertly balanced the political and the personal. (The magnetic central performance by Michael Douglas didn’t hurt either.) Youngistaan, on the other hand, barely generates a sense of conflict. Anvita, after some initial adjustment issues, slips too easily into her new role as the PM’s arm candy, and the mudslinging about their relationship – which could have yielded juicy drama, given that he promised her once that he’d never enter politics – is deflected with a few scenes with moist eyes and there-there dialogue. This couple is too good to be true.
As is the political scenario. There are no scenes of Abhimanyu reading up about the complicated issues that need his signature. He is shown to be a natural, adept at appeasing politicians and wily in his own way. He doesn’t even get a rousing speech to deliver, even when he addresses delegates at the UN headquarters. These situations needed texture, quirk. Still, with elections around the corner, things could be a lot worse than this story about a Prime Minister who inaugurates a hockey tournament not with a boring speech but by scoring a goal. When the reality is so depressing, even okayish fantasy can be a balm.
Sanamjit Singh Talwar, the director of Dishkiyaoon, has an eye for the twist. He has a good one at interval point, where we see where Viki (Harman Baweja) and Lakwa (Sunny Deol) are holed up. There’s another not-bad twist at the end. The trouble is with everything else. This is one of those Goodfellas-type stories where a kid announces that he wants to be a gangster. But there’s no edge, no danger. What should have been a great tragedy feels fatally lightweight, swinging between an unsatisfying love angle (with Ayesha Khanna’s Meera) and a sometimes confusing rise-to-the-top crime saga. And it’s hard to take all this seriously when there’s such an abundance of unintentional laughs. When Viki meets Meera – she’s a musician, one of those wizardly guitar players who can summon up chords without moving a finger – she asks him what he does. He says, diffidently, “I’m a gangster.” I don’t think I’ve heard a gangster announce himself as one quite this way, as if he were a lawyer or a chartered accountant. Deol is even funnier, with his unibrow and a tendency to spout fortune-cookie wisdom, like some Confucius of crime. Prashant Narayanan has some nice scenes as Viki’s mentor, though it’s never a good sign when a supporting character evinces more personality than everyone else.
* Youngistaan = Young India
* Dishkiyaaoon = gunshot
* chakravyuh = a spiral battle formation from the inside of which it is impossible to break free
* one of those wizardly guitar players = see here (8:40 onwards)
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.