27 February 2012

Jodi Breakers: No laughs or romance in sexist fantasy

Ashwini Chaudhary’s Jodi Breakers takes only a few minutes to establish that it’s set in a universe that doesn’t exist except in the Indian male imagination. This is a world in which every Indian man who’s gotten divorced is instantly provided with an unending supply of well-endowed white women in bikinis who throw themselves at him while dancing suggestively. All it takes for the ladies to line up, it seems, is for our hero Madhavan – expertly named Sid – to declare himself kunwara.

Having thus clarified the particular fantasy world it’s located in, Jodi Breakers gets easier to deal with. We’re not in the least surprised, for example, that Sid has a group of friends who seem to hang out with him pretty much every day, juggling this collegiate conviviality with their work lives as – among other things – surgeons. Or that they do their hanging out in a space that’s probably meant to be like the iconic café in Friends, except that it’s a bar. How many bars do you know in India which are laid-back enough and yet posh enough to function as your permanent-office-to-meet-clients-in? Or where a single upper middle class women could walk in, buy herself a drink, and hang out by herself at the counter, without being made to feel extremely uncomfortable? But no matter, this is at least a fantasy I am happy to share.

The beginning makes it only slightly easier to digest the constant stream of juvenile sexual and scatological jokes that come our way: Sid’s favourite car is called Horny, a heart-shaped Valentine’s Day cake looks to Sid like a fleshy pink bum, “aur bum mein se sirf … nikalti hai” – you get the picture.

And in case you had any other questions about the role of cool women friends in this fantasy universe, well, first of all, they laugh at these jokes. Then they help cheer their male friends up by buying them ‘Happy Divorce’ presents that include (a) condoms and (b) an inflatable life-size female doll. If they are doctors, they also provide names of medicines to induce vomiting bouts in unsuspecting strangers – all for a good cause.

After all this, it’s depressingly predictable that Sid’s post-marriage career move is to become a ‘divorce specialist’. And that while his avowed brief is to get couples “uncomplicated divorces”, his clients are all inevitably male. All the wives we hear of are either alimony-hungry bloodsuckers, or actually trying to murder rich husbands for the inheritance, or demand so much sex that their husbands can’t keep up. And if a wife sticks by her husband through a series of disasters, then she’s the one who brought him bad luck!
In the garb of these supposedly humorous ‘cases’, it’s always the men who’re victims and the women who are demonised. This is the trouble with so many Hindi movie comic riffs on marriage: they’re desperately misogynist while couching their misogyny as humour. If in a earlier Hindi cinema universe misogyny took the form of melodramatic tragedy – eg. it was considered perfectly normal for (male) psychiatrists in an insane asylum to insist that (male) patients could only be cured by having beautiful nurses conduct love affairs with them (think Rajesh Khanna in Khamoshi) – today the more usual genre for Bollywood misogyny is comedy. Film after film invites us to laugh at the supposedly comic spectacle of middle-aged Indian men on the lookout for some ‘action’ outside their boring marriages. I suppose we should be thankful that Jodi Breakers at least does us the favour of having the men in question be technically single.

Oddly, about halfway through, the film suddenly metamorphoses from bachelor flick into soppy romance. This isn’t too bad while Sid and Sonali (Bipasha) start to figure out whether they want to be more than just business partners: Madhavan always manages to be fairly natural, and Bipasha displays a hidden talent for drunken coochie-cooing. But unfortunately we spend the movie’s second half watching a remarkably boring millionaire businessman (Milind Soman) and his equally boring modelesque wife (Dipannita Sharma) being made to break up – in Greece – and then reunite – in Goa.

Greece and Goa are important here, because otherwise this is a desperately dull tale, enlivened only very slightly by the presence of Helen as the businessman’s grandmother. There are plenty of saccharine-sweet moral and marital lessons on offer, but it is hard to take anything seriously when it involves watching a wooden Milind Soman repeat his marriage vows to his estranged wife, as well as sing, “Mujhko teri zaroorat hai” as a means of wooing her back. No actual apologies for his misdemeanours are apparently needed.

“You guys make marriage look good,” pronounces Bipasha at the end. The fantasy is complete.

25 February 2012

The Artist: When tragedy imitates silent farce

The Artist, as most of us know by now, is a French film set in Hollywood’s silent movie era. Nominated for ten Oscars, the film tells the story of a silent movie star called George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who is suddenly pushed off his pedestal by the arrival of the talkies. Director Michael Hazanivicius’s brilliant innovation is to marry content to form.

The Artist is not just about black-and-white silent pictures. It is a black-and-white silent picture,” Anthony Lane wrote in the New Yorker last November, when Hazanivicius’s charming gamble of a film hit US theatres. But as you watch the movie, it begins to feel like a carefully calibrated gamble.

The Artist is a black-and-white silent picture, sure – but it is a black-and-white silent picture made in 2011. It takes the sound and the look of silent pictures, but stops short of trying to recreate the feel of those films. The great films of the silent era – GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, FW Murnau’s Sunrise, or even the great Chaplin films – had depth, atmosphere, grandeur, and pain. Even when funny, they were not cute. The Artist is.

Yet, here’s the odd thing: the story it tells – of a man’s unstoppable fall from the heights of fame into the abyss of depression and self-pity – is the undeniable stuff of tragedy. And like all true tragedies, it is not just the story of one man, but a universal account of a star’s fall from public favour; an irreversible change of popular mood that seems capricious and inexplicable. One moment, our moustachioed hero is the darling of audiences, mobbed by people in the street, and the next moment, no one even recognizes him. The historical context makes the tragedy irreversible – no-one wants to see silent films any more.

Running parallel to Valentin’s decline is the meteoric rise to stardom of Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). The unknown girl – who earns her first five minutes of fame by giving Valentin a chaste peck on the cheek, much to the delight of press photographers – is catapulted to fame and fortune by the rise of the very talkies that drag him down.

Hazanivicius takes this unhappy tale and makes of it a light, fluffy confection of a film, where the terrible things that happen are never quite explained, and never allowed to weigh us down. This quixotic artistic choice is most striking in his depiction of Valentin’s crumbling marriage to Doris (Penelope Ann Miller). We first see Doris without quite seeing her: her face is hidden behind a newspaper which carries the photograph of Peppy kissing George’s cheek. And her character remains that way throughout the movie, as invisible to us as she clearly is to her husband. We’re never told why their relationship is the way it is.

Peppy’s love for George is also ineffable, especially as he sinks deeper into a self-aggrandising self-pity. Berenice Bejo’s fresh-faced, incandescent performance manages to almost make us believe in her lasting attraction to the actor she had once worshipped on-screen. But even her sincere tears, as she watches Valentin’s silent movie swansong Tears of Love in a near-empty cinema hall, cannot make that film’s supposedly tragic climax feel anything but funny.

In fact, none of the snatches of the silent films we’re shown in The Artist can be taken seriously. The world of silent cinema is reduced to a string of ridiculously theatrical costume capers. It is as if The Artist is saying to contemporary audiences, silent films were darling little things, sure, but we’ve come a long way since then. And that is a pity.

The pleasures of watching Hazanivicius’s film lie in the sly gags about sound and silence: inter-titles in silent pictures in which tortured men say “I won’t speak”; George’s dreams in which he finds he can no longer speak at all: silent picture as a nightmare world. And there is the undeniable, unexpected reward of watching virtuoso old-style physical acting. The scene where George places his dog (the marvellous canine actor Uggie) on the breakfast table and imitates his gestures; another where he adopts a deliberately stiffened gait and theatrically raised eyebrow to shoot a scene with Peppy – these draw brilliantly on traditions of mime and vaudeville.

Both Dujardin and Bejo fully inhabit their roles, often in a heartfelt fashion that transcends this frothy, clever spoof of a movie. Perhaps we should not ask for more.

Published in Firstpost.

21 February 2012

A Kapoor by Chance

My tribute to Rishi Kapoor, published in Open magazine in 2012:

Rishi is the least Kapoor-like of the Kapoors: shorn of the family mannerisms and preoccupation with their image. Now, on the eve of turning 60, he is getting the roles of a lifetime and relishing them, too.

On 26 January, 2012, India’s Republic Day, Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions released Agneepath, a much-trumpeted remake of the 1990 cult classic of the same name. Among those who watch and wait for Hindi films, there was a buzz of anticipatory questions: what was Karan Johar thinking, remaking father Yash Johar’s most beloved movie? Could debutant director Karan Malhotra’s vision ever live up to the memories of Mukul Anand fans? How could the too-beautiful Hrithik possibly step into the impossibly large shoes of Bachchan’s caustic, sneering Vijay Dinanath Chauhan?

By afternoon, however, as the first-day-first-show folk got to their computers, everyone was talking about something else. Trending on Twitter was not #HrithikRoshan, #KaranJohar or even #Agneepath, but #RishiKapoor.

After a lifetime of being typecast as a baby-faced love machine, the 59-year-old actor’s concentrated villainy as Rauf Lala has surprised Hindi film fans. Both gloriously filmi and entirely convincing, Rishi Kapoor’s performance is not only Agneepath’s biggest talking point, but also the one thing about the film on which everyone agrees.

As proprietor of an empire in which meat exports form a front for a sleazy business of underage female flesh and cocaine, Kapoor’s Lala has the task of embodying unmitigated evil while also being the father-substitute under whose watchful eye our hero grows to full gangsterhood. He must be both the ruthless kasai (butcher) with glowering eyes and the portly Muslim patriarch, mai-baap for the poorest of his community. At one point in the film, Rauf Lala is double-crossed and loses his son, and despite the terrible things his character does in running his unsavoury empire of business, Rishi makes you feel, for a moment, something akin to grief. I cannot think of anyone else who could have done it.

There is something about Rishi Kapoor’s face that makes you believe. It was true in 1970, when he was the slightly overweight teenager in Mera Naam Joker who made his entry by falling clumsily into the middle of a ring of expertly-skating classmates—and falling as clumsily in love with his sophisticated young teacher Miss Mary (Simi Garewal); it was true through the 1980s and 90s, when he managed to convincingly romance a long line of nubile actresses who kept growing further away from him in age. And it is more true than ever today, when he seems increasingly able to transform himself from Rishi Kapoor into the charming Sardar uncleji of Love Aaj Kal (2009), the anxious producer Romy Rolly of Luck By Chance (2009), or the hapless maths teacher of Do Dooni Char (2010).

Perhaps Lata Mangeshkar was onto something: she once called Rishi the most talented of the Kapoors, because his performances came without the baggage of mannerisms—without the bombast, melancholic excess or ada (stylish charm) so integral to the star personas cultivated by his grandfather Prithviraj, his father Raj, or his uncle Shammi. But despite his fine, often nuanced work, many of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s simply took it for granted that this man, whose cherubic face retained an uncanny vulnerability despite the legendary Kapoor kilos having begun to fill out his Fair Isle sweaters, should continue to dance his way through the hearts of younger and younger heroines. After all, he was the original loverboy.

Rishi Kapoor’s indisputable-and-eternal claim to that title was established with Bobby (1973), in which his father created for him a persona which was to last him for decades: the boyish, vulnerable young man who suddenly finds himself terribly, irredeemably in love. Love just happened—often at first sight—and then there was nothing you could do about it except summon the courage to tell the girl. And then the families. Despite the grandness of the romantic ideal—especially when, as in Bobby or Prem Rog (1982), love demanded full-on rebellion against all social and familial strictures—there was always an endearing artlessness to Rishi’s wooing of the heroine, and a light, frothy, friendly sort of relationship thereafter. Think of Monty in Karz (1980), announcing his love in song almost as soon as he meets Tina Munim, or Ajay in Khel Khel Mein (1975), where he and Neetu’s friends-as-much-as-lovers relationship was exemplified in the song Khullam Khulla Pyar Karenge Hum Dono.

Growing up, though, it was the ragged, edgy angularity of Amitabh Bachchan that had my exclusive attention. I only registered the aching, intense beauty of Raja in Bobby as a 20-something adult sitting in the US. I found myself—because of all the Rishi-love arising from an emergent Bollywood blogosphere dominated by White female fans—in possession of an inexhaustible stack of images of Rishi in all his technicolour glory: the wine-red bellbottoms, the blue bobble-cap, the oversized sunglasses, the sideburns, and oh, the lips.

Even in a cinematic culture known to make heroes of fair-skinned men with red lips, one would imagine that if you looked as delectably baby-faced as Rishi, it would have been a huge concern not to be thought of as what Enid Blyton might have called namby-pamby.

And yet, Rishi has never seemed insecure about his non-macho looks. He is happy to play innocent, though he often belies that first impression with an act of  daredevilry. In the first scene of Khel Khel Mein, the reigning college dadaVikram (Rakesh Roshan) rags the baby-faced new boy so relentlessly and successfully that Neetu Singh and the other girls beg him to stop. Just when you aren’t expecting it, though, the ‘so sweet’ new boy turns around and matches the bully blow for blow. (Later in the same film, he gives a perfect rendition of stage fright before delivering an impromptu performance, complete with guitar and trademark muffler.) So secure was Rishi about his prettiness that he spent at least one film largely in drag: Rafoo Chakkar (1975). In this silly and rather charming adaptation of Some Like it Hot (1959), Rishi alternates between two fake identities. He’s wonderful as the bumbling millionaire in a red-and-white chequered blazer who walks a wide-eyed Neetu Singh onto someone else’s Srinagar houseboat with an “Aaiye, aaiye, sab mera hai—bagh, phool, pani, scenery”. But he seems even more ridiculously effervescent when he’s camping it up in mini-skirts and feathery headdresses as Neetu’s fellow dancer and confidante Devi. 

That’s the other thing about Rishi: he always managed to give the impression of having a rollicking good time. Dancing seems to have come naturally to him, and it is remarkable how often he actually plays a performer in his early films: a small-time musician in a band, an enormously successful pop star, a qawwali singer. He was an entertainer actually playing an entertainer.

There’s a self-referentiality there which may or may not be deliberate. But Rishi Kapoor’s roles over the last few years have contained much cannibalising of his cinematic persona: singing Main shayar toh nahi with screen-son Saif Ali Khan in the Yash Raj production Hum Tum (2004), or doling out advice on how a proper love affair ought to be conducted— again to Saif Ali Khan—in Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal.

The most remarkable self-referential role of all, though, is in the tragically under-watched Chintuji (2009), a wishful parable about modernity, corruption and the nature of celebrity in India. Director Ranjit Kapoor (a Hindi theatre veteran whose previous association with the film industry was as a dialogue-writer for such memorable films as Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Bandit Queen and Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa) casts Rishi as a semi-fictitious version of himself. The filmstar Rishi Kapoor, affectionately known to his fans as Chintuji, is invited to the charmingly unspoilt town of Hadbahedi, where—according to the film’s narrative—he happens to have been born. The townsfolk hope to make their town better-known, while Chintuji, accompanied by a likeable young PR agent called Devika (Kulraj Randhawa), wants to make Hadbahedi the first rung of his future political career. But the more the good people of Hadbahedi try to please their honoured guest, the more unbearably Chintuji behaves: insisting on airconditioning when there’s no power, demanding desi murga (chicken) and whisky of his vegetarian, teetotalling hosts, and only looking happy when he’s told that the painted wooden cut-out of him that’s been created for the occasion is a full 35 feet (higher, he is assured, than the 25 foot one of Amitabh in Allahabad and the 30 foot one of Rajnikanth in Chennai). The actor who apparently refused Yash Chopra’s Darr (later made with Shah Rukh Khan) because he felt his audience didn’t accept him in negative roles has clearly come a long way.

Among the odder pleasures of Chintuji is a sequence where a B-movie director (Saurabh Shukla) shoots a song with Rishi as a feather-bedecked tribal chieftain thumping happily away to lyrics that go: ‘Tarantino, Wilder, Capra/ Ozu, Bertolucci, Peckinpah…’. But Chintuji also contains the filmic reunion of Rishi Kapoor with Kseniya Ryabinkina, the Russian dancer who played Marina, the second love of Raj Kapoor’s life in Mera Naam Joker. The coming together of the two actors 40 years later is so spectacularly unlikely that it cannot but be affecting. But the real purpose of Kseniya’s appearance is to create a self-referential cinematic moment, one in which the lying, cheating Chintuji of the film is transformed because an old Russian woman—a character from another film—exhorts Rishi Kapoor to become as ‘good’ a person as his real-life father. It is a point at which the real and the imaginary come together to create a true Hindi cinema moment, a moment at which one cannot but wonder what it is like to be Rishi Kapoor.

In a wonderfully unusual 1975 Filmfare profile of Raj Kapoor and his sons, the well-known non-filmi columnist Behram Contractor (better known as Busybee) described the beginning of the interview thus: ‘Rishi was nervous, tongue-tied and timid, and Daboo was respectful. Raj Kapoor is known to have this sort of influence on his sons… Seeing them sitting together opposite me, I had the strange impression that I was the principal of Campion School and Raj Kapoor had brought his two sons to be admitted.’ Later, Busybee asks ‘the boys’ if they had ever thought of doing anything other than being in films. The responses are revealing. ‘Daboo said, ‘I was destined to be in films. Therefore I was born in the Kapoor family.’… Chintu said, ‘Same’. And he looked at me with eyes which said, Why-don’t-you-stop-pestering-me-with-questions-when-my-father-is-here.’

Growing up in the shadow of a legend is never easy. Even the otherwise sympathetic Busybee thought Rishi was a bad actor, ‘except when directed by his father, when he is super’. But what Busybee’s sharp eye caught was not just a shyness in front of his father, but a refusal of braggadocio remarkable for any actor, especially a Kapoor.

Rishi Kapoor has spent a lifetime refusing to spin grand narratives around his work. “I didn’t make a great effort. I just did what I was told,” he says in The Kapoors (Penguin, 2005). “My father used to show me what to do and I did it.” But his father has been gone for nearly 24 years, and he had established himself independently of his father’s films many years before that. Now, watching him in Agneepath, an amiable patriarch presiding over a qawwali-carpet-chandelier song of the sort his younger self made so energetically his own, one feels the grand narrative has been spun for Rishi Kapoor.

Published in Open magazine, 2012.

18 February 2012

Ekk Deewana Tha: Yet another failed love story

There’s a nice moment early on in Ekk Deewana Tha that sums up what this film could have been. The aspiring filmmaker hero Sachin has just laid eyes on his upstairs neighbour Jessie, and the bells have already started ringing in his heart. So, of course, he walks into the street and breaks into (an AR Rahman composed) song.

He’s in the throes of an appropriately expansive love-song-accompanying gesture when he is interrupted by the arrival of his very Marathi, very middle class parents, who want to know what the hell he’s up to, dancing in the middle of the road. “Oh, romantic scene likh raha hoon,” says an embarrassed Sachin, following his parents in.

But Rahman’s song (and Brinda’s choreography) pauses for only a moment before carrying on into another stanza, another gesture. Before we know it, we’re soldiering our way through a film which takes the grand, expansive sort of love very seriously indeed: the possibility of self-reflexive laughter seems aeons away. (And when self-reflexivity about filmi-ness of this romance makes a reappearance in the film, it’s too much, too late. And not funny.)

Ekk Deewana Tha is Gautham Menon’s Hindi remake of his own 2010 Tamil superhit Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa (Will you Cross the Skies and Come?). Like its Tamil inspiration, Ekk Deewana… revolves around a Hindu boy who falls in love with his Malayali Christian tenant, and woos her with increasing desperation until she finally starts to reciprocate.
Or does she? Ostensibly at the heart of the film is the conceptualisation of Jessie as a woman who can’t make up her mind: first, if she’s in love or not, and later, whether she’s willing to give up her family and everything else about her stable and sorted – and as she actually says in one revealing moment, boring – life and make that love the sole basis of her future existence.

But halfway through the film, I began to think that the depiction of Jessie’s confusion, her seemingly inexplicable changes of mind and heart – through the brilliant device of her SMS-es to Sachin, for instance – does not reflect who Jessie is but how Sachin sees her. Gautham Menon’s film is so deeply embedded inside the mind of the angsty young male hero that Jessie’s actions can only appear as either completely unpredictable, exploitatively fickle, or just irrational.

Here’s a bigger question: Why do we never ever stop to reflect on the utter irrationality of the kind of love celebrated by Ekk Deewana Tha (and pretty much all of Indian filmi romances): the love that simply appears out of the blue and hits you on the head? Seen from Jessie’s perspective, how insane is it that someone you’ve barely met suddenly announces that his life is yours to do with as you will? And how perplexing to have the onus put on you to respond to this overpowering wellspring of emotion, and know your mind while you’re doing it? As Jessie says in what to me is her defining dialogue in the film: “Why did you fall in love with me? Maine toh kuchh kiya nahi tha.”

The limitations of perspective aside, the film simply fails to recreate the feeling of intoxication that falling in love can produce. There are some well-conceived moments that reveal the sensuous excitement of first love: the kiss in the train, the caressing of Jessie’s feet, all the watching and waiting and then pretending not to notice. But somehow Prateik – although less annoying here than in his abysmal Dum Maro Dum and Aarakshan performances – isn’t able to bring the requisite intensity to his role.

Jessie is played by the latest firang entrant to the Hindi film industry, British debutante and ex-Kingfisher calendar girl Amy Jackson. Jackson looks luminous when she isn’t being subjected to awful reddening make up to make her look more Indian. Her halting Hindi delivery, however, is unable to move us. In this respect, she is like another recent firang import, Giselli Monteiro, who was fine as the silent object of love in Love Aaj Kal, before she followed it up with an insufferably coy act in the godawful Always Kabhi Kabhi. Jackson does much better in silent sequences, like the moment when she sees Sachin in church after she’s made an important declaration to her parents.

The other character who gets the most screen space is Manu Rishi of Oye Lucky fame, playing an older cameraman who not only gets Sachin his first break assisting the great Ramesh Sippy but also – somewhat inexplicably – accompanies him on romantic missions to Jessie’s Alleppey home. Rishi’s character could have been an interesting one: a quasi-father figure who is young enough to offer romantic advice. But their interaction never rises above the most banal level of repetitive chitchat.

The film is nice enough to look at, and both the Mumbai and the Kerala sections attempt to establish a sense of place. But even in this area, there is neither consistency nor the detail required. The detailing remains mostly confined to the houses in which Sachin and Jessie live; we whizz through Alleppey’s canals in montages that seem quite unsuited to the pace of the backwaters life. The Mumbai song sequences in particular seem fake and jerky, entirely failing to add any depth to the shallow romance.

First Mausam, then Rockstar, and now Ekk Deewana Tha. This is the season for failed epic love stories.

(Published on Firstpost)

11 February 2012

Film Review: Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu

This week's review column for Firstpost.

Rahul Kapoor is the depressing sort of good boy who wears the ties his dad tells him to. Worse, he works at a job that his dad picked (an architecture firm in Las Vegas) and dates a girl his mom thinks is good for him (the daughter of one of her social acquaintances). For 25 years, he’s been plodding obediently along the track his parents have laid out for him: never quite aceing it, but never really falling sufficiently behind for them to notice. Until now, when in the space of a week, he a) loses his job; b) spends a drunken Christmas Eve with a talkative girl he met at the supermarket; and c) wakes up on Christmas morning married to aforementioned girl.

They part after breakfast, having agreed that it was all a silly mistake and that an annulment is the order of the day. But next thing he knows, the girl is back at his doorstep, and soon thereafter, sleeping on his drawing room couch. The next two weeks are a whirl of job interviews, relationship advice, dates with exes and birthday jamborees, during which, predictably enough, love happens.

But debutante director Shakun Batra (who was Second Assistant Director on Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na in 2008, First Assistant Director on Rock On the same year) has made a rom-com that is also a coming-of-age story – more so than Ayan Mukherjee’s Wake Up Sid (also a Karan Johar production), Ek Main… is less about finding love than it is about finding life. Alright, finding life through love.

In this classic ‘opposites attract’ narrative, Batra’s decision to cast both Imran Khan and Kareena Kapoor completely according to type is a very wise one. Imran, though never a scintillating screen presence, shows yet again how tremendously likable he can be in the right hands. As the guy who confesses to ironing his socks and underwear, brushing his teeth three times a day, and “liking things clean”, Imran is suitably stilted, bumbling and overwhelmed. He brings a quiet, understated honesty to the emotional moments that fits his character far better than high-strung histrionics.

As for Kareena, it’s fun to watch her return with full enthusiasm to the bubbly girl act she perfected years ago as Geet Dhillon in Jab We Met (2007); even more so after a worrying year spent playing Mrs Shah Rukh Khan and potential Mrs Salman Khan. Best of all, the role isn’t quite as cookie-cutter as it may read on paper: Riana Braganza is bubbly, yes, but also a little older, a little less oblivious, and with just a little more life experience under her belt than Geet.

Riana is a hair-stylist, a vocation that is clearly a nod to Ayesha Devitre, who co-wrote the screenplay and dialogues with Shakun Batra, and has been the hairstylist for films such as Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, Rocket Singh, F.A.L.T.U and Mere Brother ki Dulhan. The movie adopts a light-hearted tone right from the opening montage of four types of parent-child relationships. And the plot unfolds like a diary, starting each day with a title that reads like an entry by Rahul, as in, ‘Day 5: I am Wild’.

But the film never overdoes the cutesy onscreen scribbles or faux-family photos. It’s clever enough, but never overly so: a bit like the film’s protagonist whose moment of self-realisation comes when the girl he’s fallen in love with says to him with disarming honesty, “You’re perfectly average. Tum koi bhi cheez kam ya zyaada nahi karte”.
For the boy who’s spent his entire life trying desperately to win medals for a father who’s “still waiting for the gold”, this is a life-altering revelation. Ek Main… is the rare Hindi movie where the hero is average, and is okay being so.

The movie strikes a blow not just against heroic heroes but also against pushy parenting. The marvelous Ratna Pathak Shah and Boman Irani, cast as Rahul’s ridiculously infantilising parents, give the film some of its funniest moments, and also its most chilling. To their credit, Batra and Devitre have created characters who are over-the-top without ever becoming pure caricature. But it’s the two actors who give these scenes a devastating recognisability, be it the steely look in Irani’s eye as he tells his son that a particular meeting is going to be “very important”, or the obliviousness of Pathak Shah as she distractedly puts off her son’s every attempt to talk to her.

The ‘other side’ is represented by Riana’s warm, constantly-ribbing-each-other family. Their ‘chilled-out’ approach to parenting is summed up by her story about her dad who — far from forbidding her to — would jump up and down on the bed with her as a child (resulting in a fracture for him and two broken teeth for her). Despite the formulaic fact that her laidback family is, what else, Catholic, the depiction never feels anything but affectionately real. Just like the film itself.