Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Game show turns morality play

(Published in The Friday Times, published on January 18, 2013, retrieved from

Cast: Rajeev Khandelwal, Paresh Rawal, Tena Desae, Dhruv Ganesh
Director: Aditya Datt
Rating: 1 star
When a movie that appears to be social commentary on the intrusive nature of voyeuristic reality shows suddenly turns into a very expensive public service message against ragging, there are three outcomes: (a) The plot suddenly has more holes than the heroine’s sexiest outfit (b) The film is a contender for worst-of-the-year despite releasing barely a week into 2013 (c) You understand why the producers couldn’t afford to send the female lead to the salon – or buy her a razor – before making her lift her arms in triumph.
I’m not even sure what the title of the film is a take on – Article 21 of the Constitution of India, in which one’s right to life is enshrined, the 21 crore-rupee reward that is the bait in the reality show, the 21 grams we supposedly lose when we die, or the minutes the scriptwriters spent on the film. Table No. 21 opens to a crass couple, Vimaan and Siya, of whom the crasser is Siya, as evidenced by the fact that her main concern on a free business-class flight journey is freeloading on the booze.
Vimaan is played by Rajeev Khandelwal, who recently hosted the game show Sacch ka Saamna, the Indian version of The Moment of Truth. The show was most famous for making a string of has-beens, including cricketer Vinod Kambli, and B-listed former actors weep on television, and I assumed Khandelwal’s inclusion in the film was to enhance the irony of the plotline. Turns out there’s no plotline. We’re told through the conversation between Vivaan and Siya that they’ve won the trip in a lucky draw, and have been sent to Fiji. Vivaan’s unemployed, and Siya’s vegetarian. Yes, that’s what we gather in the first ten minutes. Also, that the film was made with assistance from the Fijian Ministry of Tourism. Figures.
We realise why the numerologically-empowered Tena Desae is in the film, when she wastes no time in stripping down to a bikini for a pseudo-Sufi-inspired song, in which the leads promptly get wet. We see how happy they are, until Paresh Rawal enters, his thunderbolt-shaped streak of hair setting off a shiny scalp. “My name is Khan,” he says, to which Witty Vivaan quips, “I know who you are. Your name is Khan, and you are not a terrorist.” Witty Vivaan will further prove his spontaneity and erudition over a painful half-hour. But that gives us some relief from the rest of the dialogue, which largely comprises, “I love Fiji/you/it/her/him/this place/this necklace/this cake!”
There is little consistency in the film, but the one lesson that’s constantly drilled in is this – chicks dig poetry, irrespective of its quality. However, the filmmakers get carried away even with this theme, and throw in a song in Indian-English, which suddenly breaks off into a lament in Urdu. The film is scattered with symbolism that even the dialogue-writers seem hard-put to understand or explain – a coiled snake emblem, a series of empty canvases, which lead to a hollow exchange about thought, imagination, and art.
What I find most bizarre about the film is that for most of its duration, it’s about a reality show that no one except its dedicated millions-strong audience appears to know of. They also double as paparazzi, and we’re never sure whether they all descend on Fiji, or whether they just have extremely powerful camera lenses. When the twist-in-the-tail comes, about five scenes in the film make no sense, including a gory shot up front that’s presumably been thrown in to establish the credibility of this reality show.
As if the terrible one-liners that pass for humour in this film weren’t bad enough, the dialogue is peppered with the sort of clichés well-meaning, retired relatives forward in bulk emails – you know, “The guy who said money can’t buy happiness just didn’t know where to shop” and so on. Eventually, the audience starts laughing every time a swearword is used, thus branding the comedy irredeemably low-brow.
Aside from a cheap imitation of the style of cinematography used in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, the most jarring note in the film is Paresh Rawal’s performance. The usually outstanding actor struggles for conviction in a character written so badly that he shouldn’t have taken up the role, even as a challenge. The big reveal at the end strikes such a discordant note with the rest of the film that it’s almost as if two scripts got mixed up. None of the actors is able to handle it, and this is best illustrated when the cruel sidekick breaks down in the background, as if hoping an important filmmaker will notice his histrionics, and offer him a second chance.

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