Pankaj Advani’s Sankat City has so many things going on at the same time – it's brimming over with good ideas, verbal gymnastics and visual gags – that it leaves you feeling giddy. More than once I felt sure that the film would eventually trip over its own cleverness, but it held its ground. Though it’s loud and ribald, it establishes a lunatic tone and sticks with it, right from the opening shot where a man dressed up in a gaudy Rakshasa costume is shown pursuing another man in Deva get-up through the busy streets of Mumbai. (What is this, you wonder, a Ram-Lila rehearsal gone terribly wrong or a visual metaphor for a corrupt policeman hectoring a minor – and relatively innocent – offender?) Variations on this bizarre chase will recur at different points through the film, as it cuts between many characters and sub-plots.
It would take a long time to detail the plot in a way that would satisfactorily explain the relationship between all the characters (and I’m not sure I even caught every detail), but here’s the essence of it: Guru (Kay Kay Menon), a small-time crook with a soft corner for (living) fish, makes the mistake of stealing a Mercedes that’s transporting a cash stack of 1 crore rupees for the sadistic gangster Faujdaar (Anupam Kher). Deep in trouble and given three days to retrieve the money (which is now mysteriously missing), Guru teams up with con-girl Mona (Rimi Sen) who had once knocked him over the head with a pair of handcuffs after cheating him of his share of a loot. Others involved in this unholy mess include a nervous builder in severe debt to Faujdaar, a Godman with a weakness for bathing with men who supposedly remind him of his childhood friends in the village talaab, and a D-grade film director who has just been arm-twisted into blowing up a van with his hammy leading man inside (which, incidentally, leads to a sly line implying that Amitabh Bachchan’s near-fatal accident during the shooting of Coolie might not have been an accident after all).
One of the things I liked about this film is the cleverness with which it sets up little bits of information early on (e.g. a news item about a meteor landing that will cause a minor earthquake, a Sardarji talking about his search for his long-lost brother) and resolves them later, when you aren’t expecting it. The dialogue-writers clearly enjoyed themselves a great deal, with lines that range from ribald street-slang to self-consciously shuddh Hindi in the Godman scenes (don’t miss Faujdaar’s matter-of-fact use of the word “and-koksh” – or egg-sac – directed at the Godman, who has just been kicked in the nuts). There are many good visual gags too: a colourful Goddess Durga picture covering half of a visiting card; a shot of a disconsolate Guru puncturing the moon (as if it’s a balloon); a surreal scene set on a seemingly planet-sized garbage dump where all the filth of Mumbai is presided over by a mad, gun-brandishing prophet-figure.
Most of the cast gets into the film’s manic mood nicely – it was good to see Anupam Kher enjoying himself in a flashy but well-written role – but I was particularly impressed by Rimi Sen, who has a surprisingly low profile given that she has now featured in two of the best Hindi films of the past two years. There wasn’t all that much for her to do in Johnny Gaddaar, but in this film she sinks her teeth into a very juicy part, matching Kay Kay step by step, playing hard to get with the horny builder, engaging in guy talk with a buddy who happens to be Faujdaar’s chauffeur, lapsing into a street version of her native Bengali during moments of stress.
Sankat City resembles Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! in its vivid depiction of an aspirational, amoral strata of society, but it’s ultimately a one-of-a-kind film: deliberately exaggerated and caricatured, often playing like a skit that presents characters as archetypes without worrying much about realism. This is the sort of thing that can be very difficult to pull off – and there IS a slapdash quality about a couple of scenes – but on the whole it works. It's one of the most boldly entertaining films I've seen in a while.