Some of our politicians are going to be very, very happy with Vibhu Puri’s Hawaizaada. (About that title – is it just me, or did you too feel, when you first encountered it, that you’d heard a swearword?) The film posits that an Indian named Shivkar Bapuji Talpade invented the airplane eight years before the Wright brothers did. No, scratch that. It was some other Indian, round about the time the events of the Ramayana took place, who really invented a flying machine. And the devas invented the telephone – at least, they were making the equivalents of STD calls long before some poor sod named Alexander Graham Bell came along. But back to Talpade (Ayushmann Khurrana). We may not have heard of him, but we know his story. It’s the story of every other biopic that comes our way, the story of a brave, slightly eccentric man who, against all odds, achieves something extraordinary. We saw this story most recently in Harishchandrachi Factory, which, like Hawaizaada, is about another Maharashtrian pioneer from the pre-Independence era.
The challenge Puri faces, then, is the challenge faced by all filmmakers who attempt biopics – the beats are so familiar. Someone has a mad dream. They’re mocked. The first trial is a failure. Dejection. Then hope arrives anew. This time, it all works. Time to rewrite those history books. How to make all this seem new again? Puri has a mad dream of his own. He knows there’s little he can do about the story, so he goes after style – Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s style.
Bombay is transformed into some sort of surreal Never-Never Land, with Baroque bric-a-brac bursting out of each frame. If Gabriel García Márquez were an interior designer and took to designing upmarket brothels, this is what we might get. (I mean this as a serious compliment.) The scientist Shastri (Mithun Chakraborty, all greyed up) lives inside an abandoned ship that’s often seen from the outside – its fakery is unmistakeable. The last time I saw such an obviously make-believe ship was in Hitchcock’s Marnie. The clothes on the characters aren’t “realistic,” but the equivalent of plumage on tropical birds – they’re speaking a language of their own. Even the aircraft that Talpade designs is less an engineering marvel than a delicately filigreed sculpture. It doesn’t belong in the skies. It belongs in the Louvre.
This is no accident. Puri assisted Bhansali on a few films, and in frame after lovingly composed frame, you can sense the disciple striving to make his master proud. I wish he hadn’t been so slavish about this. Sometimes, you feel he’s forgotten to make his own movie. But he’s a terrific craftsman, and his eye for detail is astounding (as is the technical team’s work.) The tone is Bhansali too – at least, that’s the attempt. In the film’s best scene, Talpade heads back to the theatre where he met the showgirl named Sitara (Pallavi Sharda). They fell in love earlier and he wanted to get married, but she knew, even before a single Hindi film had been made, that “girls like her” don’t get married. She left him, and now she’s back. Talpade runs into Sitara’s manager (Lushin Dubey), who makes him squirm – and the scene has a surprising end, a revelation about the little girl we saw hanging around Sitara earlier, and a grace note from the manager. My heart turned cold when I saw that little girl. This unsettling mix of happiness (in Talpade’s case) and sadness (in the little girl’s case) is pure Bhansali.
Unfortunately, that’s the only scene that works. It’s puzzling why so many others don’t. The pre-interval scene where the prototype plane takes off, the scene where old and loyal friends offer help when Talpade is down, the revelation of the reason Talpade’s brother resents his young son’s (Naman Jain, who’s fantastic) involvement with Talpade’s project – these are powerful plot points, and they just die on screen. We don’t tear up. We don’t feel the gooseflesh.
Puri has toiled hard to make his film look outré, but that isn’t enough – you wish he’d expended an equal amount of energy to infuse a similar eccentricity into the plot and the characters as well. The Shastri-Talpade scenes are dull. The Sitara-Talpade scenes are dull. The science is disposable. So is the romance. We see each scene coming a mile away. When Shastri says his life is in the book containing design diagrams, is there any doubt about the fate of the book, and about Shastri’s fate?
Puri’s focus is on the metaphor of freedom – Talpade’s freedom from gravity is a stand-in for India’s freedom from the British (played by a bunch of really bad actors) and the Indian woman’s freedom from patriarchy, and so forth. It’s all very heavy-handed. We’re never allowed to forget that this is a film about flight. We see pigeons, kites, the winged horse Pegasus. Ayushmann Khurrana, on the other hand, remains earthbound. He’s too busy. He’s always doing something, the way he did in Vicky Donor and Nautanki Saala!. Essentially, he plays himself and not Talpade, though I did like the casual mix of Hindi and Marathi he spoke – the languages entwine effortlessly. I enjoyed this “musicality” more than I did the songs, which are engagingly offbeat but sound too light in these surroundings. They’re drowned out by the thunder and lightning of the images.
Walking out of Hawaizaada, I felt the way I did after Amit Ravindernath Sharma’s Tevar. As directors, they are amazing. About Tevar, I wrote: “noisy and colourful… the frames burst with life… is a genuine filmmaker… His scenes are artfully lit, staged, populated with extras…” All of this applies to Hawaizaada and Puri. But a good director without a good script can only do so much. He is expending all his talent on nothing. It’s a glass-half-full thing. We sense the talent, but we also sense the nothingness.
- devas = gods
- Harishchandrachi Factory = see here
- make-believe ship was in Hitchcock’s Marnie = see the sixth in the series of stills here
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.