Tuesday, June 19, 2012

WAISA BHI HOTA HAI: Getting Involved

waisa bhi hota hai, arshad warsi, prasanth narayanan, pratima kazmi
Waisa Bhi Hota Hai has a lot going for it, like very assured performances, a solid script, and credits that thank “Q. Tarantino, E. Coen, J. Coen,” and other indie heroes. It’s smart and funny, and--as you’d expect with inspiration like that--dotted with bursts of pretty savage violence.

Arshad Warsi--who first played Munna Bhai’s underling Circuit in Munna Bhai MBBS the same year, 2003--is Punit Sanyal, the creative director of an advertising company who hates his job and his boss. He flirts with his coworker Sumi, but he’s living with a cute policewoman named Agni (Sandhya Mrinal). In truth, both our hero and writer/director Shashanka Ghosh seem more interested in the idea of a copywriter who loves a policewoman than in the actual relationship between Punit and Agni, and she proves to be not much more than kohl-wearing, pixie-haired machinery to move the plot along—but I cut Shashanka Ghosh some slack for the one great female role he has given us, a bloodthirsty yet matriarchal don named Ganga (Pratima Kazmi) whose aim is to take over the Mumbai underworld.

But we’ll get to her in a minute. First, Agni gets the story going by throwing Punit out (because, um, he didn’t tell her about his estranged brother? Or something. Whatever…). He’s drunk on a bench somewhere when a gang of shooters opens fire on Vishnu (Prasanth Narayanan). Vishnu crawls over to die near the bench, not seeing its occupant, and Punit gets up to sneak away unnoticed. But Vishnu opens his eyes and gives the copywriter the same advice Punit has just been giving himself: Get out of here! Don’t get involved! And then Punit can’t stop himself. He must save the gangster, who in exchange offers Punit a very swell Mumbai flat and, eventually, his friendship and trust.

pratima kazmi
Give Ganga your oongli like a good goonda.
Vishnu is the hired killer for Ganpat, the boss of Mumbai and the man that Ganga is desperate to unseat. Neither don is the sharpest knife in the drawer (heh--Ganga loves to tell her gang stories of Japanese gangsters who, in shame over a failure, cut off a finger as a gift for their boss, and she makes her boys play the same game).  But both are absolute in their commitment to killing anyone who gets in their way, and the bodies pile up.

Prasanth Narayanan
Prasanth shows us his gun.
It doesn’t take Punit long to be dragged into Vishnu’s activities. The copywriter professes to admire the shooter and his colleagues, comparing them to bankers who have the same cold way of bringing about someone else’s ruin without feeling strongly about it. (Tell us about it, advertising man.) And Vishnu is, as gangsters go, a handsome, smart, decent, old-fashioned fellow who is never more flustered than when Punit’s sexy colleague Suni asks him for his number. He’s so old-fashioned that he only goes to one brothel, where he always sees the same woman, who gives him the same advice Punit begins to give: Get out of the business! Don't get involved!

There’s more, much more. Let’s see: Punit’s estranged brother (remember him?) was a gangster  who informed on Ganpat and was therefore killed by Vishnu; everyone finds out this crucial piece of information before Punit knows it, so Vishnu is sent to kill Punit, and another shooter is sent to make sure Vishnu follows through, and Punit and Vishnu meet on the beach where singer Kailash Kher, appearing as himself, sings this terrific song:

And then Kailash gets shot dead (hey, it’s fiction! he's FINE!) and Punit gets kidnapped by Ganga’s dopey but deadly boys because she thinks he’s suckering Vishnu into friendship so he can get revenge, and Punit tries to escape and warn Vishnu by pretending that he has to give a speech, which he gives in English so Ganga and the boys won’t understand. Ha! Oh, and Agni rounds up Ganga’s gang and humiliates her during the perp walk, which makes us hate Agni just a bit even though we know that Ganga is really not a nice person at all. And from there the story becomes complicated....

Soon enough most of these characters are dead, and the rest are getting an appropriate comeuppance (good or bad, more or less as is their karmic due), some at the hands of a group of Sikh rappers. I won’t say any more; I’ve already told you too much.

I had no idea films with this kind of street-smart indie cred were being made in Mumbai all the way back in 2003. (OK, realistic savage violence was already happening, thanks to my close personal friend the director Ram Gopal Varma* and my boon companion the screenwriter Anurag Kashyap, who together gave us Satya in 1998, but face it, that wasn’t really very funny.) Waisa Bhi Hota Hai may not hang together perfectly--in fact, I didn't much care whether Agni ended up happy or dead, and I suppose that's a problem--but the core relationship between Punit and Vishnu has real emotional resonance, the bad guys aren't just pretending, and Ganga? Ganga is totally rocking, yaar! If she wanted me to cut off my finger, why, I would launch into the most affecting speech you ever heard. In English.

Mike Enright photo
Red-faced and sweaty: good look for me?
*No, really, I did actually meet RGV once. (Photo by Mike Enright.) He asked me what Hindi film I had seen most recently, and I answered (truthfully) Salaam-e-Ishq. When he asked what I thought of it, I told him that I liked Govinda in it. As the words crossed my lips, I knew that I was totally blowing any chance that he could ever respect me. Now I can admit to myself that sometimes Salman is phoning it in and that big Indian musicals can be every bit as crappy as films from everywhere else. But at the time I was still in thrall to ***Bollywood*** the way the French love Jerry Lewis and the Germans love David Hasselhoff. Oh, well--RGV himself hasn’t proved to be infallible; we were on the set of Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag at the time….

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