After weeks of being unable to go to a movie-hall to see a film that I might actually have wanted to see, I get asked to review Paying Guests. This is how life kicks you when you're down. Watching this rowdy comedy, I wondered if the producer-multiplex war had stretched on for so long that mediocre B-movies are now being hurriedly scripted and filmed within four or five weeks, just so they can fill the gaps before the (equally mediocre) big releases come roaring back.
Paying Guests opens with three bachelor friends – Bawesh (Shreyas Talpade), Sukhi (Javed Jaffrey) and Daljit (Aashish Chaudhary) – who live in Bangkok as tenants in the improbably large “Kiska” mansion (named purely for its punning utility) until one day they simultaneously lose their jobs and their accommodation (in both cases, their fault, though I think we're supposed to root for them). Along with a new addition to the group, a bumbler named Karan who’s just flown in from India, they contrive to become paying guests in the house of a Sikh restaurant owner Ballu Ji (Johnny Lever in a performance that makes every role he has done in the past 20 years seem like an acting-class in restraint) and his golden-hearted but rust-brained wife Sweety. Since this traditional-minded couple won’t have single boys staying in their house, Bawesh and Sukhi show up in drag as Karishma and Kareena, the wives of the other two. Loud, forced, headache-inducing slapstick comedy ensues.
It’s a pity in a way, for there are traces in this film of a certain economy of storytelling – such as in the compact opening-credits sequence and the neat little scene where the friends tell each other that at least there can’t be any more problems headed their way and there’s a quick overhead swish to the plane that’s bringing more trouble (in the form of Karan) for them. In these and other moments, one sees an unfussiness about the direction and editing which suggests that a better script (or any script for that matter) might have resulted in an entertaining movie. But sadly the technical competence is at the service of some of the silliest attempts at humour you’ll ever see.
This is a film that tries to extract belly laughs out of a scene where a deviant with a speech impediment (played by Chunky Pandey, no less) pronounces “rape” as “lape” (“Yeh totla hai,” we are repeatedly told, as if to assure us that this is meant to be cute). In another scene, a wife tells her husband that they’ve been invited out for “foreplay” when what she means is that they’ve been invited to a stage production comprising four back-to-back plays. Some of the attempts at setting up situation comedy would be embarrassing for a school-level skit (if someone straps you to a chair and forces you to watch this, keepyour eyes open during the tedious build-up to the scene where Sweety mistakenly thinks “Karishma” is pregnant). By the time Paying Guests reaches its messy, overlong climax – a nod to the famous Mahabharata scene in Jaane bhi do Yaaro, with a "Mughal-e-Azam" stage production overrun by all the principals dressed as Spider-Man, Ravana, Gabbar Singh, Umrao Jaan, Osama bin Laden and even Tulsi from the saas-bahu soaps – the viewer is the only one wailing “Yeh kya ho raha hai?”
Even worse than the bad humour is when the film tries to strum heartstrings, as in the scene where the three dolts talk about how they have hardly any money left because they have to send their earnings back to India to keep their families afloat (as the sad background music started to play, I reflected that said families would probably be happy to forgo the earnings as long as these guys signed an agreement never to return to India).
One thing I thought notable, given that this is screwball comedy with a line-up of pretty starlets – Celina Jaitley, Riya Sen, Neha Dhupia – whose main function is to be eye-candy, is that it refrains from running its heroines through a gamut of exploitative, demeaning situations (small mercies, I know). But that doesn’t mask the fact that there is a lot of tastelessness on view, mostly reserved for Talpade and Jaffrey when they are dressed as women. Here is the unfortunate sight of two decent actors (both of whom are noted for their mimicking skills – remember Jaffrey in Channel V’s Timex Timepass years ago?) hoping that the rest of the film will somehow catch up with them. Asrani and Paintal – veteran comedians who have seen better days – are also left to flounder in roles that no performer could possibly salvage. This is not a script that’s kind to actors – or to the audience.
From the “Overheard in the hall” series: sick but quite nice
Expectedly, there were some people in the hall laughing their guts out at jokes that I didn’t understand, for such is the human condition, but I was particularly impressed by a trio of girls in my row. Though they guffawed from start to finish, they were willing to be accommodating of views different from their own. Normally, when you hear people discussing a critics’ review that they disagree with, the standard rationalisation is that the guy must have been “paid off” (by the film’s producer if the review was favourable; by the “rival camp” if it was negative). However, these girls showed an astonishing spirit of tolerance:
“This is such a good film yaar, I didn’t understand why it got just one-and-a-half stars in that newspaper.”
“Arre, critics ke point of view se achi nahin hogi. Kaafi sick movie hai waise. (After a moment’s pause) But it’s quite nice too.”
“Ya ya, it’s quite nice,” they trilled in chorus, until they were sure consensus had been reached on this all-important matter and that the world was safely in its orbit. Then they returned to their popcorn.