Sometimes I wonder if we react badly to films because of the way they are promoted, the way we are programmed to think they’re going to be. Take Nikhil Advani’s Katti Batti. The trailer promised us a teddy bear; the film is a porcupine. We thought this was another rom-com – perhaps with a few more frayed edges than usual. The girl, Payal, after all, is played by Kangana Ranaut. But Katti Batti is three movies rolled into one. One part of it is that cutesy rom-com. The film opens with a pretend-wedding in which boy (Maddy, played by Imran Khan) and girl do their pheras after tossing a match into a trash can filled with papers – later, he squeezes out some ketchup and smears it on the parting in her hair. The awwws can be heard all the way to the moon. Another part of the film is an inward-gazing (500) Days of Summer-style anti-romance, with a mopey Maddy looking back on his relationship after being dumped. There’s also a melodramatic soap opera in here, with kkkkismet waiting in the wings with the world’s largest spanner.
Katti Batti is essentially Tanu Weds Manu plucked from Anycity, North India, and transplanted into Zoya Akhtar’s apartment complex – and as with that film (and its sequel), the biggest challenge is to accept that these opposites would attract. Maddy meets Payal in college and a day later, he wants to marry her. I kept thinking: Why? This is the kind of film where the characters are defined more by what they wear than how they are written. Maddy wears a pair of spectacles, which is basically movie-ese for “I prefer books,” or “I’m not comfortable with crowds,” or “I wouldn’t be played by Kangana Ranaut.” As for Payal, the costume designer was basically given the brief: “Loco Chanel.” When Maddy talks of marrying her, she’s wearing denim shorts, a fedora, and her red shirt is pulled down over a shoulder to expose a bra strap. Their romance is like one of those ‘soft news’ stories about a hamster and a grizzly found cuddling in a zoo.
A film faced with such a couple should spend time making us believe that they could be a couple. We need to see how he smoothes her edges, how she juices him up. We need more scenes of them in love. We get a nicely done song sequence styled like a live-action comic strip made with stop-motion animation – but while it’s fun to watch, it’s less an answer than a statement. It just tells us they are in love, instead of telling us why. Or maybe the problem is Imran Khan, whose gamut of emotions can be counted on one finger. We spend a lot of time looking at him, and he just doesn’t have what it takes to hold a movie together. He’s a timid presence. At one point, Payal accuses Maddy of eating junk food and farting. I thought: Imran Khan can fart? He’s so pretty and airbrushed, he seems constitutionally incapable of something as robustly earthy as farting. A tiny burp concealed by a fist, followed by an “Excuse me?” Maybe. He works well in generic rom-coms (Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na) and low-key coming-of-age dramas (Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu) – but he’s not who you call to do drama, and certainly not melodrama. Towards the end, we are treated to Imran Khan’s version of a Shah Rukh moment – Maddy screws up his eyes and expresses great distress. It gets worse. It’s a close-up.
The other misfit is the director. Nikhil Advani has very Indian sensibilities – if you thought last week’s Hero was bad, just imagine how much worse it would have been under another filmmaker. He looks lost in this story about a live-in relationship gone wrong. He has Maddy inform us, some three seconds into the movie, that this is a live-in relationship. (Does anyone in a live-in relationship actually use the words “live-in relationship?”) When a girlfriend talks about Payal, she doesn’t say, “she’s moved on” – she says “Woh aage badh chuki hai.” In the ‘70s, this line would have referred to someone who’d found success in a business enterprise. How things change. The worst example of over-explaining is with regard to a pet tortoise. It’s named Milkha. That’s it. We smile. The joke is over. But a character then says: Flying Sikh. He adds: That’s really funny. He’s not just hammering the joke home. He’s driving it six feet under.
This character is part of a band that calls itself FOSLA – for Frustrated One-sided Lovers’ Association. That’s clever, but neither this character nor the band amount to anything. They’re just there so we don’t have to keep looking at Maddy all the time. Other such characters include a pneumatically endowed knockout of a colleague who sets out to prove her feelings for Maddy by placing his hand on her chest (doesn’t anyone normal ever fall for him?), and a ‘South Indian’ boss named Ramalingam who keeps screeching and bouncing around like he just sat on a frying pan. I would be offended if this were a better movie. Advani proves he just cannot stage physical comedy. There’s a bit about Maddy urinating in a water closet that costs five lakhs. At least it sounds funny. Even worse are the efforts by Maddy’s friends to clean him up after a night of booze before his parents arrive. Rarely has so much frantic activity resulted in a stretch so dull.
Late into the second half, the story turns into a weepie – there’s a twist that made me gasp, then laugh. But small mercies, Advani finally finds his groove. There’s an airport scene featuring a twenty-rupee note that has a phone number scrawled on it – I blubbered a bit. And this twist results in the film’s only interesting bit of writing. Early on, we see Payal sobering up in Maddy’s house when his father offers her the bangle Maddy made for his mother. We think back to older melodramas and their shagun ke kangan. We think things are getting way too serious for Payal, who just wanted a “time-pass” relationship. But now, we see why she reacted the way she did. Kangana plays this scene well. Whatever little pleasure there is in Katti Batti comes from watching her. She has great instincts – she’s always a second or two off with whatever she’s doing, she catches you unawares. She affects the most unusual inflections in her line readings. And she’s completely comfortable with her body. It all adds up to a singular screen presence. The way she lights up after coming home and setting eyes on Milkha – you could rub your hands over that look on a cold night. I first kept thinking she deserved better. But without the likes of her, how would we ever make it through these bad movies?
- Katti Batti = the kiddie-world equivalent of fighting and making up
- pheras = see here
- (500) Days of Summer = see here
- (Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na = see here
- Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu = see here
- Hero = see here
- shagun ke kangan = wedding bangle
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.