While writing my review of Jaaneman, I remember thinking what a delightful film that would have been if the entire movie had been in the vein of the first forty or so minutes. Unfortunately, commercial pressures on debutant director Shirish Kunder meant that he couldn't make the film he really wanted to make -- a rambunctious, theatrical, spectacle of a film -- and had to settle for the film producer Sajid Nadiadwala would let him make -- in the final analysis, none of the above. Nadiadwala should have known better: the result was neither here nor there, and Jaaneman hardly set the box office on fire, despite boasting a heavy-hitting starcast in the form of Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar, and Preity Zinta. But Kunder had done enough to herald a new Bollywood talent, one whose penchant for spectacle and whackiness outpaced that of his wife, Farah Khan, at least if her first film Main Hoon Na was anything to go by. Main Hoon Na itself was an enjoyable enough attempt to hearken back to 1970s masala cinema, but lacked the zaniness and singularity of the first few reels of Kunder's Jaaneman. All of which meant that I was sad when the film didn't do all that well at the box-office, because I knew what would follow. Inevitably, the media and film critics laid responsibility for the failure on Kunder's over-the-top visual style, on his irreverent observance of all Bollywood conventions, and ignoring the generous assistance of a turgid screenplay and the resort to formulaic filmmaking that led to the grafting of numerous incongruous elements onto Kunder's vision. Most important, one never did get to see what Jaaneman might have been like if Kunder had been allowed a freer hand.
So I did what all masala hopefuls ought to do: I waited a few months, and went to see Shaad Ali Sehgal's Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. There's no incongruity here: although Sehgal's film had already been launched and even begun shooting by the time Jaaneman hit the theaters, and although it might seem surpassingly odd to speak of Kunder and Mani Rathnam protege Sehgal in the same breath, so different their cinematic sensibilities appeared to be, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom is creative cousin to Jaaneman, with a melange of Baz Luhrman, Manmohan Desai, and an abiding love for the cinema of the 1970s, serving as father to both. Significantly, neither Jhoom Barabar Jhoom nor the Jaaneman of Kunder's conception are interested in simply rehashing what has gone before, or in merely spoofing it. Rather, the past is refracted through a contemporary sensibility that resorts to humor because it knows the past to be irretrievable, and that nevertheless seeks to (re)present it to us because it knows the past cannot be wished away (at least not without making the whole enterprise of a culturally-specific cinema seem empty, something Ram Gopal Verma would do well to learn). More importantly: when the past is this much fun, why run away from it?
Jhoom Barabar Jhoom is a mad film, from its oddball characters to its plot twist to its costumes to its incessant allusivness, and to say that it is entertaining is an understatement. From the moment Rikki Thukral (Abhishek Bachchan; and no, you haven't misheard/read, it isn't "Vicky" but "Rikki") appears, scamming a newsstand attendant by fobbing off Bangladesh v. Canada cricket tickets before bumping into Alvira Khan (Preity Zinta), until almost the very end, the film is one long (but at two-and-a-quarter hours, not very long) joyride, in turn subtle and over-the-top but hardly ever slapstick. I'm not sure what it all adds up to yet, but I was having too much fun to care.
The fun is a function not just of the comedy (though there is plenty here), or of Abhishek's performance(though he does own this movie with a lafanga turn that, like the best food, is probably not very good for one), but also of Sehgal's skill in putting the film together, from the pointers to cinematic moments past to the lavishly mounted musical numbers. The allusions (be it Jo Vaada Kiya Woh Nibhaana Padega from the film Taj Mahal, with the real Taj in the background, and lookalikes of Hritik Roshan -- the Akbar of Jodha-Akbar -- to follow, or a sequence toward the end that pays tribute to Jaaneman) are clever, but they also hint at something more.
The fact that so many of the film's moments are structured to remind us of other moments in other films is oddly befitting, given that we are speaking of characters who think nothing of stepping out of place as it were, imagining themselves in India, "flashbacking" to France, and when staying put in London, stepping out of role (as Alvira does) and commenting to the audience on her own "flashback." Sehgal seems to know that allusiveness is a double-edged sword, and if it is not to be reducible to mere glibness it must enable the viewer to experience -- mediated by the big screen -- that which would otherwise be terrifying, namely the suspicion that no moment means anything "in itself", but only inasmuch as it calls to mind another time (real or imagined) that one has experienced. In other words, while the inaugurator of a tradition (say, a Raj Kapoor or a Manmohan Desai) can allow himself the conceit that his words mean something in themselves, by the time one gets to the inheritors (by now, the rest) the illusion is no longer sustainable: meaning must be located in the tradition itself, and in the dislocation that the tradition itself causes the inheritor. But there is no art, no creativity, in blind repetition, and the allusion serves the dual purpose of both referring to the tradition but also looking a bit askance at it, of both grounding oneself in the tradition and yet simultaneously dislocating oneself from it. Not for nothing is Jhoom Barabar Jhoom centered on a railway station -- always on the verge of any number of terminal points and dislocations -- and presided over by the mad deity who in himself represents the ultimate masala tradition: Amitabh Bachchan. For "play" and dislocation, more accurately the "play" that dislocation makes possible and that in itself serves as a kind of dislocation or subversion, is the heart of allusiveness, and the very essence of Sehgal's mad film.
If the above sounds too abstract, let me begin with the plot: Bhatinda's Rikki Thukral, scam artist and Southall lowlife extraordinaire runs into British-Pakistani Alvira Khan (the sort of woman you believe when she tells you that she swore an oath as a six-year old never to marry a brown or black man) at the afore-mentioned London railway station. The train both were waiting for is an hour late, and some verbal sparring later, Rikki and Alvira are busy spilling their guts to each other. For both are apparently waiting for their respective fiances, Anaida in the case of Rikki, and half-British Steve in the case of Alvira. Anaida (Lara Dutta), also born to Pakistani parents, is a manager at the Ritz hotel in Paris, who falls for Rikki when he finds himself at her mercy after a scam has turned out badly. Steve(Bobby Deol) is a lawyer who's richer than Midas, and has a knack for being in the right place at the right time; indeed it is this superpower that saves Alvira's life when a giant wax Superman falls on her at Madame Tussaud's. No prizes for guessing what happens next: Rikki and Alvira are drawn to each other, and must figure out how to reconcile the fact that they are both engaged with the fact that they are falling in love with someone who is not their fiance. Throw in a hooker, an optician, Delhi's Jama Masjid, a pink limousine, Bangla Sahib Gurdwara, a woman who's had sex eleven times being proposed to by a man who's only "done it" four times, Paris, illegal immigrants, and the Taj Mahal (in red and white; watch the film, you'll know what I mean), and that's basically it as far as the story is concerned. Did I forget to mention a dance competition, for the coveted honor of Mr. and Miss Southall? Damn, the NRI-crowd has never been this crazy.
A merely descriptive review cannot do justice to this film, to the effect of watching this riot of color and quirkiness trot along, because what makes it worth watching -- its soul, if Jhoom Barabar Jhoom can be said to have something that sounds so serious -- is not its story or any twists therein (though there is one), but its stance. Sehgal's film is bemused, by its own characters, by its genre, and by itself and even its director. Sehgal's own creative debts, to Mani Rathnam and to the Yashraj banner, are fodder for the film's mill, most prominently in a brilliant Indian interlude featuring Rikki and Alvira, shot on location at various Delhi sites and at the Taj Mahal, culminating in a comical shot of the aged Abhishek and Preity, with identical twin neo-Hritik sons and their identical wives, framed by the Taj. The humor here is at the expense of Rathnam, specifically of his fondness for filming the Taj and his almost fetishistic use of duos (Sehgal himself seems to have been drinking whatever Mani's been serving: Jhoom Barabar Jhoom is centered on two couples, each member of which may plausibly be linked to two people of the opposite sex; the action is entirely London-centric, with two exceptions: an Indian sequence and an earlier one that puts the "French" in farce; and did I mention the trains?). Yashraj and Dharma Productions too come in for their fair share of gentle humor, as Alvira-in-India is very reminiscent of Preity's character in Veer-Zaara, the shot of the aged couple before the Taj simultaneously bringing to mind the concluding sequence of Kal Ho Na Ho. There's more here, including Abhishek dressed as a railway platform coolie (i.e. like the railway platform coolie his father played in Manmohan Desai's 1983 blockbuster called, oddly enough, Coolie), and a hauntingly beautiful shot of the Taj Mahal's reflection in still water into which a pebble has been thrown. In their artistry and heady mix of nostalgia, populism, and my own desi inclinations, the sequences set in India (and around the "Bol Na Halke Halke" song) are the film's highlight.
The film is not without flaws: the penultimate sequence was underwhelming, but even that was preferable to the truly idiotic final scene, about which I'll only say (in the interest of avoiding a spoiler) that it either makes the mistake of being patronizing toward the audience, or falls flat on its face. The Bachchan title song that kicks things off and recurs at various points over the course of the film is also a major let down, the very essence of bland song picturization (even in general, this is a mysterious Bachchan appearance, minus any dialogs and serving no purpose other than the symbolic -- which is not to say that it is unimportant in the overall schema of the film). Sehgal redeems himself, however, with some show-stopping numbers (even if the wicked and irresistible opening to "Kiss of Love" is a bit too reminiscent of "Jaane Ke Jaane Na" from Jaaneman), none more spectacular than the ones in the dance competition that serves as denouement to the plot. And for lovers of sadakchaap masala there is "Ticket to Hollywood", featuring Abhishek in crowd-pleasing mawaali mode.
A film like Jhoom Barabar Jhoom can be destroyed by its performances, so it is good to see Lara Dutta and Preity Zinta in good form here -- the former, in particular, delivers on the biggest stage of her Bollywood career, and it would be no exaggeration to say that her mock-French turn is one of the film's comic highlights. Bobby Deol is well suited to his part, and especially in the second half comes into his element with some restrained comedy (restrained, that is, under the circumstances). The main event here is Abhishek Bachchan, who seems to have had a blast playing the scruffy Rikki, and it shows: he even manages the difficult feat of essaying a character like Rikki without making him seem grotesque or irredeemably crude. He's earthy, expressive, and genuinely funny, and just five months after Guru underlines his versatility as a performer. Make no mistake, within the conventions of Hindi cinema Rikki Thukral is not a role that requires pure performance. Instead the need of the hour is a command over the gesturality of masala cinema, along with a starry turn, and one is hard-pressed to imagine Abhishek pulling this sort of thing off even two years ago. Preity Zinta matches up well with Abhishek as far as all the verbal sparring is concerned and is likeably natural, displaying the sort of comic timing for which our films typically do not afford opportunities to female stars. However, it is hard to take Abhishek and Preity seriously as a romantic couple: the two have no chemistry (unlike, for instance, Abhishek and Lara) and at least this viewer was left with the impression they would rather be talking than getting busy. And no discussion of the film's performances would be complete without mention of Piyush Mishra, whose Hafeez Pathan a.k.a. "Huffy bhai" and Rikki's partner in scams, is as marvelous here as he was in Dil Se as relentless policeman. Mishra has a world-weary air about him, and his dialog delivery is understated sarcasm given aural form. Heck, I'll just say it: the best couple in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom is the Rikki-Huffy jodi (not the faux Abhishek-Bobby moment reminiscent of Sholay, which seemed a bit forced to me).
The detritus of celebrity is littered throughout this movie, from references to Rikki not being good enough for a "Miss World-type" like Anaida ("But he was good enough for . . ." I hear you begin; drop it: that joke is tired) to the utterly down-market dance competition, to Madame Tussaud's, to, most prominently, the paparazzi mobbing Princess Diana and her subsequent funeral. The film hits this note enough times to make one wonder what Sehgal and writer Habib Faisal (Anurag Kashyap is one of the two people credited with "story development", whatever that means) are up to. I can't say I have a clue what the filmmakers had in mind here, but I will say that there is something affecting about the denizens of Southall here, not one of them of any especial prominence let alone celebrity: there are no millionaire NRIs here, as in so many other films set in London or New York, just a bunch of (ir)regular Joes and Janes. The Southallwalas range from the illegal immigrants testing out a squeaky bed to the kabab restaurant owner who only echoes what irate customers say, and the Sardarji who gets into an altercation at the dance competition (I won't call any of these folks "ordinary", as they seem too odd for that word, although not for reality). The culmination of this everyday oddness is the dance competition, presided over by veteran character actor and villain sidekick Sudhir (known to and beloved by at least two generations of Hindi film-viewers as just that, and wholly independent of whatever any character he played was called; Mac Mohan was perhaps his only competition on this front). Sudhir spent his career in the shadows of more famous actors, and it is fitting that he -- and not Amitabh Bachchan, who opens and closes the film -- should take center stage here, in perhaps the only film featuring both of them where he has a speaking part and the Big B, none, fitting that Sudhir's dance competition determine which of these lives lived in the shadows of the Princess Dianas of the world will be acknowledged on a Southall-wide basis. Am I getting sentimental? You bet. With regard to this film? Perhaps that's Shaad Ali Sehgal's best joke yet.