Meri Pyari Bindu’s attempt to merge our nostalgia for old Hindi songs with 1990s adolescence and a Calcutta childhood feels well-intentioned but muddled.
Abhimanyu Roy (urf Abhi urf Bubla) is slain by Bindu Shankar Narayanan the very first time he meets her. Bindu is perched on a pile of old boxes in the ramshackle room on the terrace of the old North Calcutta house her Tamil parents have just moved into. Abhimanyu has been sent to greet the new neighbours with a plate of keema samosas made by his mother. The year is 1983, and they are approximately six years old.
Meri Pyari Bindu traces the Bubla-Bindu relationship over the next two-and-a-half decades, as the six-year-olds grow into Ayushmann Khurana and Parineeti Chopra: he an MBA who effortlessly manages a shift to bestselling writer and she an aspiring singer. The enduring question is the same one asked in a growing number of Hindi film romances over the years, most recently in Karan Johar's Ae Dil Hai Mushkil: Can the best friend who is obliging sidekick, perpetual partner-in-crime and dependable shoulder-to-cry-on cross over into boyfriend territory?
What is meant to set Meri Pyari Bindu (MPB) apart, I suppose, is the nostalgia trip it launches us on. The centrepiece of that nostalgia is a surefire one for almost any one who likely to walk into a cinema hall to watch MPB: Hindi film songs from the 1950s to the 1980s. From the forever seductive ‘Aaiye meherbaan’, sung by Asha Bhonsle for Madhubala’s nightclub singer in the 1958 Howrah Bridge, to Mithun’s tragic romancing of his guitar in the action-packed ‘Yaad aa raha hai tera pyaar’, sung by Bappi Lahiri in the 1982 Disco Dancer, these songs are the soundtrack to a lot of our lives. It is thus perfectly believable that they should be the soundtrack to Bubla’s and Bindu’s, on the romantic fixture of '90s adolescence: the personally-recorded audio cassette, or mixtape.
As someone of the same generation as the film’s protagonists (who spent some of my childhood in Calcutta), I also enjoyed other components of the film’s nostalgia trip: the Ambassador as a space of romance; dumbcharades, powercuts and fests; postcards and STD booths; email addresses like firstname.lastname@example.org. But the present -- the grand old North Calcutta house filled with even older furniture, the perfectly-cast crew of overenthusiastic family members who assemble at a moment’s notice to greet the prodigal nephew – feels a tad too picture-perfect, in exactly the Bollywood way we’ve seen in other recent Bengal-set films, eg. Piku, Barfi, Te3n. And really, must there be two Durga Puja moments bookending the film just because we’re in Bengal?
Still, there are some Calcutta scenes where the dialogue is spot-on: like the father of a prospective arranged match for Bubla who insists that his daughter loves books. “Rabindranath is her favourite, of course. Then Satyajit Ray. Then Edin Blyton [sic],” he says before declaring reassuringly, “You come a close fourth,” and proceeding to read aloud a particularly steamy scene from one of Bubla’s novels. Suprotim Sengupta’s script does the dynamic between Bubla’s Bengali parents with a light touch, punctuated by predictable bouts of irritation but never without affection. “I can’t do natural overacting like you,” says his exasperated father to his mother. The one time the parents are allowed to break into Bangla, it is again his father berating his mother for not treating Bubla like an adult: “Jotheshto bodo hoyechhe, ja bhalo bujhbe tai korbe! (He’s grown-up enough, he’ll do what he thinks is right!)”
But the film wants to transcend Bengaliness. So it whisks us away first to Goa and then to Bombay, mentions Bangalore several times, makes the backdrop a ‘national’ one of Hindi film songs and Bigg Boss, and turns the Bengali-Calcuttan hero into a writer of Hindi sex-horror novels. And yet the sweetly bhadra Bubla, with his sweetly bhadra parents, seems absolutely wrong as a writer of abhadra pulp fiction with titles like Chudail ki Choli. Still, I suppose one should appreciate having a cross-community romance where the linguistic or cultural differences don’t seem to matter to anyone (unlike a Two States or a Vicky Donor).
Bindu is weighed down by greater ambition and a much heavier family narrative than Bubla: her army-man father is alcoholic and sour-faced (and of course he is played by Prakash Belawadi, who is becoming a fixture for those characteristics in Hindi movies, from Madras Cafe to Talwar); she gets along much better with her mother, but doesn’t get enough time with her. Parineeti tries zealously, but mostly there isn’t enough in the script to bring her character’s ambition or angst fully to life – and her repeated engagement-breaking just feels like Shuddh Desi Romance redux. The one time Bindu truly moves us is a superb scene where she calls Bubla from an STD booth. One wishes the rest of their romance had that intensity.
As for Bubla, he may seem the more loving one with Bindu, but his comic girlfriend interlude shows us that he’s quite capable of treating a romantic partner badly. Between that and the fact that he channels his romantic angst into a book (rather than losing his marbles — think Ranbir Kapoor in Ae Dil or Rockstar), this might be among the more well-rounded tragic heroes we’ve seen in a popular Hindi film. That’s a win.
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 14 May 2017.