“Jagga Jasoos”… A mad, magical, parts-greater-than-sum musical that’s a total treat

Posted on July 15, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

The last time we got a musical – a musical in the genre sense of the word, and not simply a film with a few songs – was probably in Shirish Kunder’s Jaan-e-Mann, of which I wrote: “We sit there helpless, as if hypnotised, just as [a character] is in the Jaane ke jaane na song sequence. The staging for this number includes, among other things, dancing Disney dwarves, and you may ask the question: Why dancing Disney dwarves? But the more valid question is: Why not? Musical interludes are unreal in any case, so what does it matter if the backup dancers are damsels or dwarves?” Anurag Basu’s Jagga Jasoos left me in a similar place, somewhere between “what was he smoking when he made this movie?” and “please, can I have some of that?”.

Musicals don’t need a reason for people bursting into song, but Basu, charmingly, gives us one. Jagga (a remarkable Ranbir Kapoor; more about him later, and the child actor who plays young Jagga is terrific too) is born with a stutter, and the man who will become his father (Saswata ‘Bob Biswas’ Chatterjee) tells him that the stutter will go away if he sings. So Jagga sings, and so do the people around him, and so does the movie. In a loose sense, you could call Jagga Jasoos a pop-opera, closer to the Broadway musicals than even Jaan-e-Mann, because even the lines that would normally be spoken are largely sung – Pritam scores them like recitatives.

Do people listen to lyrics anymore? This question kept popping up as I watched the film, because we clearly love the big splashy song picturizations in our cinema and we hum along with the music, but what about the lines? Pritam sometimes goes overboard with the orchestration, so we don’t hear all the words, but when we do hear them, they’re delightful (thank you, Amitabh Bhattacharya), and to “tune out’ during these passages (the way one tunes out during a song) is to miss most of what makes Jagga Jasoos such a joy. The “cornflakes song,” for instance, is so adorable that you want to pinch its cheeks, but it also contains a clue.

Jagga Jasoos joins a count-on-the-fingers-of-one-hand list of Hindi films (Heer Ranjha, Thodasa Roomani Ho Jayen) whose characters converse mostly in verse. When Jagga confronts the journalist Shruti (Katrina Kaif), he raps: “Calcutta se aayi hai journalist patrakaar / You’ve come to do a story about illegal hathyaar.” (I hope I’m remembering these words right, but this is the general sense.) Later, when they land in Africa (among the many Easter eggs, a fictional country named Shundi, from Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, which is, again, a kind of musical), they look for a hotel named Agapastala. That name becomes part of a rap verse, and I chortled with glee at the rhyme Jagga comes up with: “Bikaneri bhujia wala.”

There’s an air of musicality even in the non-music bits, like the rhyming name of Jagga’s father: Tooti Footi. It sounds like a cross between an ice-cream flavour and a broken contraption in Harindranath Chattopadhyay-land. And how lyrically Jagga’s speech impediment is described: his words “so so ke nikalte hain,” they stagger out as though after a slumber. It’s probably impossible to translate this film without losing its tutti-frutti flavour, and I wondered how the subtitler managed.

I realise I’m still talking about the musicality of this movie, and that’s because that is the movie. Along with the sung “dialogue,” we get dazzling songlets. One takes off on the percussive sounds in a room, like that of a creaky fan. Another one uses the refrain “question mark,” quite literally redefining the sawaal-jawaab tradition in Indian classical music. Some of these songlets move the story forward. Some of them are there just because it’s fun to see people sing and dance, like in the post-party Khaana khaake number, which had me grinning like a goofball. I’m sorry to get all judgy on you, but you’re not alive if you don’t smile when “sannata” is rhymed with “Khambatta.”

The goofy nature of this song is borne along an undercurrent of melancholia, for amidst the conga lines and the genial hamming, we see a birthday cake for Shruti’s dead boyfriend. Jagga extrapolates the general refrain of the song (sab khaana khaake daaru peeke chale gaye) into the Meaning of Life itself, which is just one big party, where we eat, drink and leave. (In comparison to these songlets, the actual songs – even though candy-coloured and brightly choreographed – look pale.)

This sense of something… more pervades Jagga Jasoos, like an Amar Chitra Katha comic where we get a rollicking yarn plus snatches of philosophy. There’s a child’s-eye view of Big Problems, like our apathy to issues like farmer suicide and terrorism (the film opens with a nod to the Purulia arms-drop case). What if, instead of guns falling from the sky, we got cookies and cake? That’s the childlike thought that ends the film. This isn’t the “message” one usually gets from a primly noble-minded movie with a cane in its hand. It’s just a little boy or girl kneeling before bedtime and saying a prayer.

There have been musicals on “odd” subjects before, subjects we wouldn’t consider a natural fit for singing and dancing. Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone corralled a cast of children for a musical about gangsters. And just this year, at Cannes, Bruno Dumont unveiled Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, where the Maid of Orléans was transformed into a head-banging rocker. But I’ve never seen a musical where an Indiana Jones adventure is viewed through the prism of Tintin comics. The plot is a riff on Last Crusade (acknowledged in a scene featuring a circus train), where the search for a missing father turns into something much bigger. But instead of an adult hero, we get Hergé’s man-boy (acknowledged through that trademark quiff).

There isn’t another thirtysomething Bollywood actor who can pull off looking like a boarding-school student, and there isn’t another Bollywood actor of any age who can pull off Ranbir’s extraordinarily loose-limbed performance here – he acts with his entire being. Jagga is an extension of the protagonist from this actor-director’s earlier collaboration, Barfi!, another innocent with a speech impediment, and Ranbir’s long stammers acquire a musicality of their own. (Saurabh Shukla, who plays a cop, delivers priceless reaction shots whenever Jagga begins to speak.)

The age difference between Jagga and Shruti is brushed aside, and it isn’t until the end that we get a hint of a romance – but the bigger issue is whether the real-life romance between the leads was instrumental in Katrina’s casting. How else could a character who’s supposed to sing and be a klutz go to an actress who has neither a musical sensibility nor a talent for physical comedy? It’s not just Ranbir who shows her up. Every other actor – especially the marvellous Saswata Chatterjee, who embodies every child’s dream daddy, one that takes you splashing through muddy puddles – is perfectly cast, and even the extras in the Khaana khaake number are excellent. What would Jagga Jasoos have been with a heroine who matched the hero?

And with a little more focus? The energy comes and goes. I know we’re not supposed to treat this film as a real action-adventure, but even as a lighter take on that genre, the chase sequences are an odd fit. An instance where the leads escape on ostriches sounds wonderfully wacky on paper, but on screen, it looks choppy. This is either some hasty last-minute cutting, or an editing rhythm I wasn’t able to cotton on to –because even an earlier chase, with Tooti Footi being pursued by an assassin, goes by in a flash of, say, three comic-panel strips.

And I have to say that the individual bits don’t quite cohere into the grand vision inside Basu’s head. The first half is beautifully structured as episodes within a framing device of Shruti narrating Jagga’s adventures to an audience of children. This is a meta conceit, because this audience of children is really the children in the audience beyond the screen – the child in us. Hence the cheeky question Shruti poses to a little boy: “Are you bored?” The illusion that we are the children listening to Shruti’s narration is maintained even at interval point, where, instead of a card saying “Intermission” (and thus reminding us that we are actually watching a conventional movie), Shruti simply announces that there will be a fifteen-minute break.

The first half slides beautifully between Shruti’s episodic narration and the actual story, with Jagga: Adventure #1 introduces us to Jagga’s detecting prowess, Adventure #2 introduces us to Shruti. But in the second half, this structure is abandoned, and I missed it (and the eccentric characters from earlier, like the cop who struggles with five phones). We get a more conventional movie, which is no longer able to sustain segues like the one where Jagga walks through the top floor of a clock tower and right into the premises of his boarding school, as though they were part of adjacent comic-strip panels. Some of the gags (like Tooti Footi always being underprepared and underdressed when he has to flee) aren’t worked out properly. They don’t have the rhythms the film’s musical portions have.

I guess I’m saying that the how is better than the what, the form better than the content – but, really, if you like cinema as an art form (as opposed to just watching a movie), Jagga Jasoos is a constant source of wonderment. Even the failed bits make you go “I see what they were trying to do there” instead of “really!” The invention is non-stop, right till the fun reveal at the end. A giraffe’s lazy amble across the screen functions as a wipe. The similarities between Shruti and Tooti Footi aren’t just in their actions, but also in the halves of a split screen featuring them on either side, with matching ketchup bottles. Pumpkins are used in catapults. The drama of things being dropped from the sky is complemented with names like Akash and Badal.

You sense the “let’s go do this and see what happens’ spirit in the team, and it’s infectious. Given the constant change of location – West Bengal, Manipur, Africa, even the hilariously out-there settings of the videos that Tooti Footi keeps sending Jagga – light and colour pour naturally into Ravi Varman’s camera, but his work is more impressive indoors, when the film slips between theatre and cinema, with stunning contributions from the production designer (Rajat Poddar) and editors (Akiv Ali, Ajay Sharma).

For almost three hours, Basu immerses us in a warm bath of a world where goats lick a little boy’s toes and giraffes preside over a family reunion. Every second is suffused with a sense of kiddishness. When the postman sees Jagga’s disappointment on not receiving a courier package, he hands him a sweet and pats him on the cheek. Early on, Tooti Footi balls up his fists in an approximation of the human brain and explains to Jagga how it works. The left half, he says, is logical. The right half is mad, magical. Anurag Basu has made a right-brain movie. I’m not sure it can be defended logically, and I’m not sure I care when the result is so mad, so magical.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi