2 December 2014

Every trick in the book

My Mumbai Mirror column from Nov 23rd:

Writers are at the centre of Krishna DK and Raj Nidimoru's Happy Ending. One wishes one could say the same of the writing.

Saif and Govinda in a still from Happy Ending
Happy Ending, the latest offering from Krishna DK and Raj Nidimoru, will be a sad let-down for fans of the wonderfully talented writer-director pair who gave us 99, Shor in the City and Go Goa Gone. One part of this disappointment is Saif Ali Khan. Think about it: in his previous collaboration with Nidimoru and DK, he played a Russian zombie hunter in a dystopic Goan rave-party-gone-wrong. In Happy Ending, he plays a handsome, commitment-phobic slob, whose air of supreme confidence is rooted in never having had to try too hard, especially with women. It's the same Saif who celebrated his break-up with Deepika Padukone with a 'break-up party' in Love Aaj Kal, and the same one who was perpetually sprawled on the sofa in Cocktail, who when asked by a disbelieving Diana Penty what he was doing replied through a mouthful of popcorn: "Oozing charm". In Happy Ending, too, Saif's character Yudi is so convinced he has a way with women that he thinks nothing of following them around, sometimes stopping to offer unsolicited advice in his self-declared role as "friend, philosopher, guide, stud". Unfortunately, the act has worn very thin indeed.

What I was particularly looking forward to about this film was the fact that its protagonists are bestselling writers. A bestselling writer featured in one marvellous strand of DK and Nidimoru's best film, Shor in the City (2011): the film's central trio (Nikhil Dwivedi, Pitobash Tripathy and Tusshar Kapoor) are book pirates who kidnap a Chetan-Bhagat-type and insist, at gunpoint, that he hand over to them the manuscript of his latest unpublished novel. What Shor did so astutely was to locate its characters in terms of class, and more crucially, in terms of their varying degrees of cultural capital. The writer is picked up from a fancy-shmancy book launch, where our street-thug heroes stick out like sore thumbs: there's a fun scene where Pitobash insists on downing a whiskey (or preferably two) from the tray of a befuddled waiter. In another superb scene, Tusshar Kapoor, faced with a suspicious shop attendant at a large chain bookstore, asks him which books are doing well, and buys a whole carton-load. Later in the film, we realize that none of the three are fluent enough readers of English to be able to read the books they pirate. It is Kapoor's discovery that his newly-wedded wife (Radhika Apte) actually can that finally melts the ice between them; their differential English literacy seems set to become, in some ways, an equaliser in what might otherwise have been a 'traditionally' unequal marriage.

From a filmmaking team so sharply attuned to the talismanic power of English in India, Happy Ending's bizarre depiction of publishing and writers comes as a bit of a shock. I completely understand that unlike Shor, for instance, this is not a realist film. So let us leave aside the fact that our desi hero and India-based heroine write books that are both bestsellers in the US market. Not to mention that Yudi has apparently made so much money off his single book that he hasn't needed to publish anything else in five and a half years. He just sort of hangs out in his posh California pad, and no, he doesn't have a day job. Or even a part-time job on weeknights. Meanwhile his 'bestselling' book is no longer even on the shelves, so he can't be getting any royalties. This is the writerly life as no writer I know has ever lived it - except in their dreams.

But it is not the logical leaps that I baulked at so much as what the film seemed to be saying about writers. We have here Aanchal Reddy, a bestselling female writer of sappy romances who's in fact completely cynical about love and relationships. So why does she do it? Well, if readers are such suckers for lovey dovey claptrap, she's happy to supply it. "Mere likhne na likhne se koi farak nahi padta hai," is her ridiculous disclaimer. Her smug self-sufficiency is a good set-up to break down Yudi the stud's smug self-sufficiency. But the film never questions her motivations, or even really gives her any. It's a tragically flat role, and Ileana D'Cruz suffers through it by smiling so fakely at everyone, including Saif, that one worries she's going to turn out to be a secret psycho a year after the film ends.

Meanwhile, we have Yudi the stud, who without any proven experience of writing either comedy or romance, lands himself a gig to write a "kickass romedy" for an ageing Hindi film hero called Armaan ji, whose generosity is expressed in piles of dvds for Yudi to steal scenes from. Govinda as Armaan ji, written as the film's greatest caricature, rings far truer than Yudi or Aanchal.

Nidimoru and DK, who (deservedly) see themselves as hat ke writers, have made a film to mock Bollywood's disregard for writing - but via a thinas-ice film about two writers who seem to have no integrity themselves. Saif Ali Khan has cast himself as the hat ke writer, but in fact he's veering dangerously close to becoming the self-indulgent star, making a living off playing himself. It's all a bit of a pity.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

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