Manish Jha loses little time letting us know that he’s made a quirky film. Over the opening credits of The Legend of Michael Mishra, we hear this song: “Film shuru hui hai, kursi pe set ho jao…” Jha wants us to be aware that he’s aware, that he’s not taking any of this seriously. So we move to tourists who stop by a house and are welcomed by a beaming Boman Irani. He plays the narrator, and he narrates his story to, among others, a Caucasian woman he calls “Emily ji.” It’s time to introduce Michael (Arshad Warsi). “Kaat ke phenk dena kaam tha uska,” the Irani character says. Turns out, Michael is a… tailor. He’s also a kidnapper who feeds his victims green chillies. In case you’re not laughing yet, Varsha Shukla (Aditi Rao Hydari) auditions for a show titled ‘Bihar is Full of Talent’. She tells the judges, “Me myself Varsa Sukla.” They ask her to sing an English song about a cow. Varsha obliges. Sitting down, she unleashes a raga-styled melody with these lyrics: “The spay-ling of cow eej C-O-W…”
The rube’s attempt to master English can be amusing on screen, as Kishore Kumar demonstrated so memorably in Dilli Ka Thug, serenading Nutan with the fact that “C-A-T” is “cat.” But here, you’re not sure who the joke is on. Is Michael Mishra milking easy humour from “village types,” or is the film really trying to depict a slice of society that’s not seen much in Bollywood these days? As you make up your mind, let me leave you with this: the public toilets are labelled “Jants” and “Ledis.” And we slip back into more quirk: a brinjal holds a skeleton key. The story is about Michael falling for Varsha and deciding to turn himself in when he gets a letter from her that ends with the words “Sudhar jao.” Hydari tries to convince us that she is not a fish out of water. Warsi tries to convince us not to give up on him. The director tries to convince us that all of this is funny, all of this is going somewhere.
It does, but in a completely unexpected direction. Post interval, we are deposited in a film where Michael is tortured by the prison warden, and Varsha is kept under house arrest for not agreeing to an arranged marriage. We cut from the lock outside her door to the lock outside his. This made me laugh louder than any of the quirkiness that came earlier. Then, Michael discovers a sewing machine. He makes uniforms for prisoners. Varsha becomes a film star. It isn’t until late that we get the love story we were promised in the initial portions, when the younger Michael saw the younger Varsha dancing and, smitten, gave her a heart-shaped locket. Once the quirk goes, we see it’s actually not a bad story after all, but you cannot jump from spelling “cow” in Bihar-ese to a Bhansali-esque romance where temple bells are rung until hands bleed. Varsha would have said, “No thanks you.”
- “Film shuru hui hai, kursi pe set ho jao…” = Sit down, the film has begun…
- “Kaat ke phenk dena kaam tha uska,” = His job was to cut things and throw them away.
- “Sudhar jao” = Become a better man.
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.