Sachin Khot’s Ugly aur Pagli wastes no time in assuring us that it isn’t trying to be a refined comedy. The first five minutes contain references to intestinal mishaps and other bodily functions, among them a scene involving flatulence in an elevator and a loving shot of the film’s drunken heroine spewing bright orange vomit on someone’s head. In other words, the classier elements of 1990s Hollywood B-comedies have made inroads into Hindi cinema. Or perhaps the scriptwriters read the recent news item about the fart joke being one of the oldest forms of humour, and decided to pay homage to the past.
When the abrasive Kuhu (Mallika Sherawat) staggers into the life of a wide-eyed young engineering student named Kabir Achrekar (Ranvir Shorey), he falls irredeemably in love (even though he describes her as a mix of Keshto Mukherjee and Medha Patkar, which suggests that his tastes may be kinkier than we thought). This is before they’ve even had a coherent conversation – his principle acquaintance with her at this point is through her loud snoring. Once she’s conscious and sober, she turns his life upside down, smacking him about some, making him wear her high heels, ordering him to perform a humiliating public stunt on her birthday. Kabir’s T-shirts, which have prescient lines printed on them (“I love drunk bitches” during his first meeting with Kuhu; “I will get wet on this ride” just before she tosses him into a swimming pool), appear more clued in to what’s happening than he is (or we, the viewers, are). There seems little option but to sit back and let the spirited Ms Sherawat lead us through a series of increasingly random situations and song sequences reminiscent of the good old 80s, when songs had no interest in a movie’s narrative flow.
To call this film fluff would be an understatement. It’s as messed up and capricious as Kuhu herself, and the only way to watch it is to adhere to the "ask no questions" rule (which is pretty much Kabir’s predicament vis-à-vis his “pagli”). One gets the impression that the shooting process was repeatedly interrupted and the filmmakers kept forgetting where to pick up the threads: entire sequences look like they were thrown in just because someone said, “Okay, we need a few beach-volleyball shots in Goa now” or “One song with flamenco dancers please.” Admittedly, this kind of madcap spontaneity results in a few moments that work well – such as the one where Kabir meets Kuhu’s high-society mom and spaced-out alcoholic dad (Tinnu Anand, in a neat throwaway performance) – but these are few and far between, and they can’t stop the film from plunging towards a soppy, tone-altering “explanation” of its leading lady’s actions. (Minor spoiler: it involves a deceased boyfriend and it’s supposed to be touching, but given some of the things this girl has done through the film, one is forced to wonder about the manner of the boy’s passing.)
What Ugly aur Pagli has going for it are the two lead performances, especially by Shorey, who has come along terrifically as an actor after his superb double role in Mithya. He injects feeling and integrity into even the shoddiest scenes: watch his mounting alarm and helplessness in the diner scene where a weeping Kuhu repeatedly blows her nose into his handkerchief while people gawp at them. Or the scene where Kuhu’s parents chance to see a pack of condoms planted in Kabir’s pocket by a friend, and the embarrassed Kabir can’t stop himself from meaninglessly stuttering out “Woh kya hai, in se pregnancy nahin hoti hai”. On paper, these are lazy, unoriginal samples of situation comedy, but Shorey makes them work. In fact, it could be argued that he’s almost too good: even during the song sequences – which occupy their own discrete, music-video universe and have nothing to do with the rest of the film – he stays in character (trying to channel the nerdier aspects of Kabir’s personality) when all the song demands is a blank-slate dancing hero flailing his arms and legs about.
Sherawat is a rawer, less assured performer, but she knows how to make a difficult character likeable (and it is a difficult character: not many Hindi-film heroines get to make their entrance with a puke scene). The chemistry between her and Shorey isn’t as effective as her teaming with Rahul Bose – another sensitive, new-age actor who ostensibly isn't the Sherawat "type" – was in Pyaar ke Side Effects, but it’s enjoyable, occasionally touching, and it provides one of the very few reasons to watch this odd little film.
[A version of this review appears in this week's Tehelka. And no, I haven't seen the Korean film My Sassy Girl, of which this film is apparently a scene-by-scene copy.]