Qalandar Reviews BOL BACHCHAN (Hindi; 2012)
Ah, it could have been great: when was the last time (since Proust, anyway) that anyone had drawn the connection between a religious minority (Jews for Proust; Muslims in Bol Bachchan) and homosexuality? More specifically, the parallel between the way in which a kind of public effacement might be demanded of each: in the case of the minority, the pressure often felt is of a political effacement, in favor of the “deracinated” identity preferred by modern, liberal nation-states; with the homosexual, the effacement is of homosexuality itself, a sexual orientation that is itself experienced by the status quo as a kind of obscenity. What is revealed in both cases is the centrality of the lie to the reigning order; the lie so that everything may proceed. “Ee galiyan ka dharam alag hai,” begins Amitabh Bachchan’s own fairy-song in Mahaan (I am indebted to Satyam for tracing the genealogy between that song and Abhishek’s turn in Bol Bachchan), but the red-light area his character inhabits in the song, the distinction between “that world” and the “normal” one, sustains a whole social order.
As I said, it could have been great, but then Bol Bachchan is directed by Rohit Shetty, so the most I went in asking for was that the film not be terrible (I had forwarded my way through the director’s Golmaal (2006); Golmaal Returns (2008) couldnt be suffered through even with the aid of the remote control, leading me to skip Golmaal 3 (2010) entirely). On that score, Bol Bachchan does not disappoint: it isn’t terrible, and is probably a lot more likable than it ought to have been, perhaps because Shetty, drawing his cues from the more wholesome masala worlds of the 1970s, sets his sights considerably higher than the gutter the likes of Golmaal were pitched at. In a word, Bol Bachchan is one of the more decent comedies in recent times — you won’t find Golmaal’s rape jokes here — and Shetty backs his zany sense of humor more than he often does (it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that he made three films with “Golmaal” in the title, with none of them having anything to do with Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1979 classic of that name; here he self-consciously re-does that film’s central conceit, and so naturally the film is called, um, “Bol Bachchan” (“tall tales”). That conceit — a man pretending to be two men to get himself out of a jam, and the craziness that ensures — isn’t handled with anywhere near the finesse and subtlety that Mukherjee brought to it, but in fairness to Shetty, it must be said that his stakes are higher.
Mukherjee’s Ram Prasad has to deal with an oddball boss, Bhavani Shankar (the inimitable Utpal Dutt), who’s prim and proper enough to dismiss men without moustaches, and those who waste time watching sports — a glimpse of Ram Prasad at a game leads the hapless employee to invent an identical (clean shaven, sports-watching) twin, Laxman Prasad. Shetty — perhaps expiating for his indulgence of some rather xenophobic strains of Maharastrian nationalism in the 2011 slug-fest Singham — has his middle-class every man incarnated as the Muslim Abbas Ali, dispossessed from his late father’s property in Delhi by a usurping uncle and in the village of Ranakpur for a job with the pehelwaan, often saffron-clad Prithviraj (incidentally also the name of Delhi’s last Hindu king before the Muslim Sultanates). Prithviraj (Ajay Devgan) has his own problems: not only is he a fanatic about the truth, he also has a villainous cousin in a neighboring village, who will stop at nothing to harm Prithviraj. There’s more: a disputed temple at the boundary of the two villages; the dispute has ben settled in the rather familiar Indian way — by locking the place up, rendering it off limits to all concerned — until Abbas breaks open the door to save a drowning boy. Many in the mob that soon gathers aren’t too thrilled by this, and on the spur of the moment, Abbas’ friend Ravi (leading a troupe of actors staging an adaptation of Mukherjee’s Golmaal in Ranakpur; the role is played by an actor who is himself called Krushna Abhishek) decides to announce that his friend is really called Abhishek Bachchan (Bol Bachchan might be a comedy, but even it knows that disputed religious structures can be deadly serious). All well and good, until Prithviraj spots “Abhishek” at Eid prayers — prompting the invention of a Muslim identical sibling (from a different mother), flaming gay to boot. Watching Bol Bachchan, I had the rather odd sensation that although it wasn’t a patch on the 1979 classic, it nevertheless showed up Golmaal in one crucial respect: Mukherjee’s film was about an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation, forced to lie to keep his job by humoring a tyrant — but what if he’d made a film along the lines intermittently envisioned by Shetty, namely about the political and social lies engendered by our own rigidity, by our own insistence on our truth? Mukherjee’s unsurpassable film is also, it must be conceded, modest; Shetty’s mediocre film wonders what might have happened had Mukherjee aimed at something larger.
But Shetty does not run with the above plot; instead, Bol Bachchan never rises above the level of rather loud gags, and its plot twists are all rather predictable. Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed it: its old-fashioned charm, its homage to the far more socially inclusive aspirations of 1970s Bollywood, is infectious, and it’s hard to remain too annoyed with this film. And then, two hilarious scenes are almost worth the price of admission: the first had me doubled up with laughter, as Prithviraj’s first visit to Abbas’ home to meet his (non-existent) mother leads to a profusion of mothers (the whole scene is best understood as Shetty’s crazy riff on the best dialog Amitabh Bachchan never got to say: Deewar’s “Mera paas maa hai.” Vijay had lost his by then, but Abbas has three. The second one, towards the end, has the exasperated Shastri (Ravi’s father, played by Asrani, himself a masala archive of sorts) skewering the absurdity of the situation. It doesn’t matter even if you’re all caught, he yells, Abbas’ sister Sania (Asin) can just say that the one seen was in fact her identical twin Dania; and that guy wouldn’t be Ravi but Govinda! And heck Shastri himself wouldn’t be Shastri, but the Jailer (from Sholay, Asrani’s most famous role). The film needed much more in this vein; instead, we are given Prithviraj’s mangling of the English language (evidently, Anil Kapoor’s completely unfunny turn in Tashan has not convinced the industry that this vein of humor is just lame. Devgan tries hard, but that trick is just boring.
It would have been difficult for me to sit through this film had it not been for Abhishek Bachchan. The material here hardly tests him or demands any subtlety. But conversely, while the demands of a string of roles over the last half decade — such as the ones in Sarkar (2005); Umraojaan (2006); Sarkar Raj (2008); Delhi-6 (2009); Raavan (2011) and Dum Maaro Dum (2011) — have resulted in an interesting body of work that makes the younger Bachchan the finest under-stated male lead in the Hindi film industry today, they have also meant that viewers haven’t been able to enjoy the exuberant, energetic Abhishek of Bunty aur Babli (2005). If nothing else, Shetty must be thanked for giving us the most uninhibited Abhishek performance in years: he seems to have had fun playing Abbas/Abhishek, and it shows. Nevertheless, I did wish something more dignified than the re-hash of the flamboyant “bottom” character had been attempted. In particular, while his entry scene was well done, as the now-gay dance instructor Abbas shows up at Prithviraj’s palace, the interminable dance sequence that followed needed some more disciplined editing and simply better choreography — perhaps along the lines of the charming mock-kathak steps that kick off the “Nach Le” song.
In the final analysis, though, I can’t be too hard on either Shetty or Abhishek Bachchan. Not when I’ve heard far too many people prefer the obviousness of a Dostana (2008) or a Bol Bachchan (one gentleman in the row behind me responded to the gay Abbas’ introduction with an awe-struck “masth acting kiya hai”) to the subtler pleasures of Abhishek’s other recent roles. The failures of Bol Bachchan — and they are many — coupled with its almost certain box office success (my late-night show in Malad was sold out, and it seemed to me the audience was in splits) points really to our collective failure as a moviegoing audience, our failure to demand more from the medium of cinema. In that context, and given comedies like Kya Superkool Hain Hum are on the horizon, it is hard to begrudge Bol Bachchan, which is actually better than virtually all of the big-budget comedies churned out by Bollywood over the last few years (Housefull (2010), anyone?), its success. Certainly Abhishek needs it (most of the films I’ve mentioned in the preceding paragraph found no more than niche audiences, and it becomes difficult to commercially justify a Bollywood career absent regular super grossers); I only hope he doesn’t get trapped into the sort of routine even his father found it difficult to escape from, as Amitabh Bachchan’s more varied 1970s gave way to the far less interesting 1980s — the only Bachchan act not to follow.