"In that direction," the Cat said, waving its right paw round, "lives a Hatter: and in that direction," waving the other paw, "lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad." "But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked. "Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad." "How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice. "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."
It's right around the time when you see that the only man who can see Mahatma Gandhi, who can live Gandhigiri as it were, is a hoodlum who's been diagnosed with a chemically imbalanced brain, who is -- in the parlance of Munna and Circuit -- yeda as it were, that it begins to dawn on you that what confronts you onscreen is not simply a side-splittingly funny film (though it is that), or a merely sunny, feel-good film (though it is that too), but a bonafide classic-in-the-making. I'm not one for hyperbole, but there is simply no other word to describe the grinning subversiveness, the sheer cleverness, of Lage Raho Munnabhai, the second instalment in the adventures of Munna and Circuit, two of the most lovable Bombayites God (or director Raj Kumar Hirani, who might well deserve deification if the projected third instalment is as good as this one) ever put on this earth.
But let me back up: there is, after all, a plot: when the film opens we are told -- through the medium of Circuit, played so fabulously by Arshad Warsi that he quite outdoes his turn in Munnabhai M.B.B.S., not easy to do; a juxtaposition with Seher reminds one that Circuit isn't the only role Warsi knows how to play, which makes his performance all the more creditable -- that Munnabhai is in love, with joyous radio jockey Jhanvi (Vidya Balan), on the verge of a Mahatma Gandhi quiz on the occasion of the great man's birth anniversary. One thing (genial strongarm tactics generously laced with murderous threats) leads to another (Munna wins the quiz contest), and pretty soon Jhanvi is under the misapprehension that Munna is a street lingo-spouting history professor. I won't give away too many plot details, but suffice it to say that's just the tip of the iceberg: you see, in the process of studying for the quiz Munna begins to see and speak to the Mahatma himself (or "Babu", as Sandy reminds us :-) ). Crazy, you say? Indubitably. But not as crazy as Munna, Jhanvi, and a bunch of dispossessed old folks deciding that the way to make an unscrupulous builder see the light is by means of satyagraha, including over the radio airwaves. In today's world, Lage Raho Munnabhai teaches us, the practice of Gandhigiri is a symptom of madness. Whatever it is, it's catching, a necessary illness in an India where Mahatma Gandhi is in rapid danger of remaining nothing more than the face on a currency note, the permanent statue of parks and memorials.
Sorry folks, can't say more without giving too many funny moments away -- which brings us to Sanjay Dutt. One might cavil that he looks too old for the part, that Jhanvi looks young enough to be his daughter, that he has put on weight. One would be right about all of these things, and yet none of it seems to matter, so lovable is Dutt in this film. I can think of no higher praise than to say that I'd rather not see any other actor essay this role, indeed it is difficult to even imagine another doing so, as Munna fits Dutt to a T (and I'd say the same about Circuit, who actually has more of the crowd-pleasing jokes in this instalment). Sanjay Dutt is one of those actors it's hard not to feel affection for, and Hirani knows that full well, even including a scene wherein Munna talks about his dead father, a guaranteed heartstring tugger given the recent death of Sunil Dutt.
The rest of the cast is well-chosen: Vidya Balan is a natural actress, and demonstrates that her assured performance in the windbag Parineeta was no mirage; Boman Irani plays the over-the-top and nasty Punjabi builder superbly, and I completely agree with those who have said that Boman is perhaps at his best when he is unpleasant. Diya Mirza and Jimmy Shergill aren't required to do much (which is probably a blessing where the former is concerned), and they perform adequately in the job they are given. Marathi actor Dilip Prabhavalkar is superb as the Mahatma, and although he does not look much like Gandhi his gesturality, timing, and chemistry with Sanjay Dutt are impeccable. Appeal to all Bollywood filmmakers: we have a talented character actor in the house! The sold out theater I saw the movie at erupted in hoots when Abhishek Bachchan's thirty-second cameo was on ("dude", as Abhishek's Rishi Talwar might have put it in Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, would it kill you to shave once in a while?). In general that's a problem with the film: one often ran the risk of missing a dialog here and there, because laughter from the previous scene hadn't yet died down. You know you've got a winner on your hands when that's your complaint (the only other time I've encountered such enthusiasm was when I saw the Telugu-dubbed version of Vikram's Anniyan in Secunderabad last summer, when every second dialog the Tamil superstar uttered was greeted with cheers, hoots, and catcalls -- and Anniyan was the biggest hit in its industry last year; I am no crystal ball gazer, but Lage Raho Munnabhai might well be headed the fifty crore way).
So is the film perfect? Well, I do have certain criticisms, but these are more in the nature of personal reservations rather than any failure on the part of the director in achieving what he set out to achieve. Namely, I find it odd that a film that is ostensibly steeped in Gandhigiri has not a word to say about communalism, surely one of the Mahatma's more pressing concerns over the course of his long career. And one can't shake the impression that the Mahatma Gandhi of this film runs the risk of being a Mahatma for the well-heeled, more a lifestyle guru a la Deepak Chopra than the radical crusader and political revolutionary who strode across the Indian landscape for nearly three decades. But those are cavils, and do not detract from Hirani's achievement: he is quite literally the only Bollywood director ever to have had the psychological insight to intuit that Gandhian tactics are a form of coercion, and operate by rendering one incapable of reconciling one's self-image with the objective fact of one's tyranny and/or callousness. In short, satyagraha simply confronts one with the brute fact of one's cruelty or indifference, holding up a mirror as it were. In realizing this and representing it on screen Hirani goes a long way toward rescuing Gandhi from the clutches of the maudlin. If cinema has hitherto given us the Jesus-like Gandhi (in Richard Attenborough's Gandhi), the mewling vacillator of The Legend of Bhagat Singh, or the oily politician of Hey Ram, Hirani gives us an earthier Gandhi, one with a sparkling sense of humor and seemingly infinite patience (and affection) for his errant countrymen.
In a nutshell: if you tell me you don't intend to see this movie, even an ahimsa-lover like yours truly might be moved to violence. And you wouldn't want that on your conscience would you?