There’s a scene in Munnabhai MBBS that nicely captures the tone of that wonderful movie (and its even better sequel). Munna’s principled father, played by Sunil Dutt, has just discovered (in the most embarrassing circumstances) that his son was only pretending to be a successful doctor all these years – he’s really a wastrel, a small-time goon. This is the sort of premise that Hindi cinema loves getting its chomps into and true to form, there is high drama, betrayal, recrimination. The eyes of both father and son are brimming with tears when, suddenly, one of Munna’s sidekicks (sent by the irrepressible Circuit) bursts in and frantically shouts “Doctor, doctor, naye patient ke liye bed mangaana hai!” (or something to that effect. You get the drift). Naturally Munna doesn’t respond; the game is long over.
It’s a superb little moment that not only diffuses the scene’s tension but also acknowledges one of life’s more inconvenient truths: that despite the human tendency to romanticise drama and personal tragedy, these things never have the full stage to themselves; comedy is always peeking impishly from behind the curtain, waiting to join the players. We feel most self-important in our sadder moments, but step on the outside just briefly and one sees that, viewed from a wider perspective, there’s always something intrinsically funny about the situation. Writer-director Rajkumar Hirani’s achievement here (and in other scenes in the two Munnabhai films) is to convey this gently, without being either cynical or didactic about it. We laugh heartily when the sidekick appears and says his line, we giggle at his earnestly unconvincing act and at the confused look on his face when no one pays him any attention. But that doesn’t stop us from feeling the weight of the situation between Munna and his father. (Sunil Dutt looks even more distressed when we cut back to him, because the interjection is a reminder of his son’s many similar deceits over the years – and a reminder that others were in on the charade too.)
Good comedy is notoriously difficult to do on its own terms (nearly all writers and actors will tell you it’s tougher than good drama), but it takes special talent and guts to mix comedy with situations that have traditionally been treated as sacrosanct (a parent’s sense of betrayal, for instance). This is especially true of an Indian film intended for a mass audience, since ours is a society that has many sacred cows, gets self-righteous easily and doesn’t have a particularly developed sense of humour (at least not when it comes to laughing at yourself, which is where all humour begins).
One of those sacred cows is Mahatma Gandhi (never mind all the talk about India having forgotten the man’s principles; that’s a different story) and Hirani’s decision to have an actor playing Gandhiji in Lagey Raho Munnabhai (even if only as a figment of Munna’s imagination) could so easily have gone wrong. Sure, depicting Gandhi onscreen isn’t as provocative as, say, showing (and hence quantifying) the suffering of Jesus, or drawing the Invisible Pink Unicorn. But if someone had told me beforehand that a Hindi film was going to have a drunken goon slurring “Hi, Bapu! How are you?” at Gandhiji, I would have been concerned for the safety of those associated with the film. However, Lagey Raho Munnabhai pulls it off, and pulls it off with such good taste that it’s hard to imagine anyone being offended. Just as importantly, it doesn’t hinder the movie’s comic tone at all: Hirani is naturally, and unselfconsciously, respectful towards his subject, which means he doesn’t have to put on a show of exaggerated reverence for the benefit of others.
In simple Crit-speak (and I know I’m hardly the first to be saying this), Lagey Raho Munnabhai is a must-watch. Though it incorporates elements from films as varied as IQ, Good Morning Vietnam and even Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it’s an original in all the ways that matter. It’s also more assured than the first film was, and that’s saying something. Special mention to Arshad Warsi, whose Circuit is better developed (and has more screen time) than in Munnabhai MBBS. (Hirani credits Warsi with adding elements to the character that weren’t in the original script and it shows onscreen: it isn’t often that one sees a performance created so well from the ground up.)
P.S. Was somewhat put off by Vidya Balan, who’s good to look at but way too affected for my taste. (At one point I became obsessed with counting the number of times she brushes her hair back [approx. 47], and ended up missing some of the dialogue.) She showed a lot of promise in Parineeta but she looks set at this point to become a one-dimensional actress - will have to wait and see her future roles, I guess.