Until I watched Raja Natwarlal, I never realised I had any affection for Deepak Tijori. I didn’t know he was in the film, and I caught myself smiling when he appeared in the very first scene, schlubby and padded around the midriff, looking very much like the kind of meek, middle-class office-goer who, in a Basu Chaterji movie, would have been the guy stooped over the manager, getting the latter’s signature on a contract clipped to a file. Or maybe it was those movies I had affection for, and that’s what made me smile. Anyway, there comes a point when you decide that, unless something goes terribly wrong, you’re going to sit back and take whatever pleasure you can from a movie – and that point came fairly early for me in Raja Natwarlal. I liked the scene set in the Irani cafe, with those checkered tablecloths. I liked the scene where the conman named Raja (Emraan Hashmi), flush with funds after pulling off a swindle, hands over a lot of that money to a homeless orphan selling cigarettes by the roadside and asks the boy to go to school. I liked the sentimental touch with the little red book. I liked the sparkle in the tawdry dialogues, with phrases like “museebaton ka mala” and lines like “Kismat chhoti si bachchi hai… Usey hide and seek khelna pasand hai.”
Raja Natwarlal isn’t a great – or maybe even a good – movie, but it serves up some of the innocuous fun we used to get from Hindi films before the industry went all global and classy on us. It’s nice to see a decently made “mass” movie that isn’t one of those deafening masala blockbusters. This is a milder flavour of masala, and the title is no accident. It harks back to Amitabh Bachchan’s Mr. Natwarlal, and the story is similar – something about an unscrupulous young man who seeks revenge. (At one point, Raja calls himself Mithilesh Kumar Srivastava, after the real-life Natwarlal who inspired the Bachchan movie.) Like this year’s Gunday, Raja Natwarlal isn’t interested in being its own movie. It’s content to cannibalise from the Bachchan oeuvre and exploit our nostalgic memories of that era. If the Bachchan character visited a kotha in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, Raja frequents a dance bar; even the names of the women roll similarly off the tongue, Zohra and Ziya (Humaima Malik).
There are also bits derived from Hollywood. Yogi (Paresh Rawal) spins a variation on the line from Heat that went “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” There’s the speech from The Prestige about the three parts of a magic trick. There’s a stretch that reminded me of Robert De Niro and the baseball bat in The Untouchables. And the film itself is reminiscent of numerous heist movies which depend on a terrifying combination of luck and timing and the villain turning out to be a bit of an idiot, all of which is the equivalent of jumping out of a plane over a desert, without a parachute, and hoping you’ll end up splashing into a spring in an oasis. For a large part, the director Kunal Deshmukh convinces us that this can actually happen. Of his work in Jannat 2, I wrote, “He isn’t out to reinvent the wheel – he merely wants to keep the gears spinning and make a solid, if not especially memorable, B-movie.” That’s pretty much what he does here as well, most notably in a sequence where Raja’s cohorts pretend to be pest-control experts and facilitate a meeting within the headquarters of a BCCI-type organisation. Raja Natwarlal, like Deshmukh’s first film Jannat, revolves around cricket, and it’s set in Cape Town. Talk about not reinventing the wheel.
The film is overlong and, at times, slack, but it keeps throwing things at you – corrupt cops, a possible twist involving Yogi, a possible betrayal, a hitman with a gun tucked into a book – and at least some of these things stick. (I didn’t see the final con coming.) And the cast is more than game. Tijori and Hashmi work very well together. You believe they share a history – perhaps even some biology, owing to their Mahesh Bhatt genes. After a long time, Hashmi seems to be working on screen instead of coasting along on his supposed charm – he pulls off the emotional scenes quite well. (After a long time, he gets to suck face too.) And it always helps when you hire pros like Paresh Rawal and Kay Kay Menon. The latter plays the villain with the panache of a silent-movie star, all raised eyebrows and downturned lips – it’s as if he’s never sure how he should be reacting at a given moment, a court jester who’s faking it as the emperor. It may be too much of a “performance” for this trifle of a film, but I wasn’t complaining. Getting good actors to participate in movies that don’t quite deserve them is its own kind of con game, but I was happy to be hustled.
* Natwarlal, aka Mithilesh Kumar Srivastava = see here, and here, and here
* Deepak Tijori = see here
* Basu Chaterji movie = see here
* museebaton ka mala = chain of difficulties
* Kismat chhoti si bachchi hai… Usey hide and seek khelna pasand hai. = Luck’s a little girl who likes to play hide and seek.
* Mr. Natwarlal = see here
* Muqaddar Ka Sikandar = see here
* Heat = see here
* The Prestige = see here
* The Untouchables = see here
* Jannat = see here
* Kay Kay Menon = see this joyous clip here
* suck face = see here
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.