Ranjit Kapoor’s film Chintuji had a very low-key theatrical release earlier this month; almost predictably, it lasted only a week. This is a pity, for Chintuji is a charming movie that deserved a bigger audience – and probably would have been appreciated by that bigger audience if it had got the right kind of publicity (I don’t think any of the major newspapers carried reviews). I watched it on Tata Sky’s “Showcase” yesterday, though I don’t know how long it will show on that channel either.
Chintuji is a couple of films in one. The better of these is a parable about small-town life in danger of being corrupted by the world outside. This isn't, of course, a new theme but it's done here with restraint and economy, right from the very compact opening scenes where we are introduced to the residents of a town called Halbahedi. They turn to the camera and speak with quiet pride about their town; they know they don’t have all the conveniences of modern life (they get electricity only eight out of 24 hours a day, the local newspaper is published only once a week) but things will gradually improve – and, after all, “baaki sab theek hai”. One of them pointedly says, “You city-dwellers think of us as a village, but we’re not, we’re a town.” It’s a beautiful, idyllic place and there’s even a small airplane landing strip nearby – so what if it isn’t technically theirs, being named for a larger, neighboring town called Trihalla?
The second film within Chintuji is a commentary on the nature of celebrity, and it begins with the discovery that the actor Rishi Kapoor was born in Halbahedi in 1952. Since Rishi – or “Chintuji” – now has his sights on a political career, this makes for good press – an opportunity to present himself as a “son of the soil” – and he arrives in Halbahedi with a contingent that includes a public-relations agent, Devika (played by the feisty, likable Kulraj Randhawa). But the star is a spoilt brat: he complains about the food, the (lack of) air-conditioning and just about anything else he can think of, and he is completely unmindful of how the townsfolk are bending over backwards to accommodate him. He does approve of a 35-foot wooden stand-up of him, though: after all, in Allahabad they only have a 25-foot stand-up of Amitabh Bachchan, and Chennai has only a 30-foot Rajinikanth figure.
Though Chintuji has just been released, it was completed in 2007 and in some ways it anticipates the self-referencing we've been seeing so much of in Bollywood recently, notably in Luck by Chance and Billu Barber. Rishi Kapoor has had a commendable second wind as an actor in the past 2-3 years, and this is one of the best performances I’ve seen from him in a while. He is "Rishi Kapoor" here and the film makes references to his roles in movies like Chandni, and to his wife "Neetu-ji" (who is busy vacationing in Switzerland!), but he isn't so much playing himself as he's playing a version of any big star who has become disconnected from the fact that he owes his success to the adoration of the "little people" – the people that he dismissively refers to as "my fans".
It’s also a brave performance when you consider how fact merges with fiction in this film. Rishi wasn’t really born in Halbahedi, but Chintuji appears to validate this idea with a photograph of Raj and Krishna Kapoor holding their baby. And one of the most affecting scenes involves a brief appearance by Kseniya Ryabinkina, the Russian dancer who played the role of Marina in Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker (which was the 16-year-old Rishi Kapoor’s first movie). Again, Ryabinkina plays not quite herself but a variant on herself: when she hands Rishi a book of photos from the Mera Naam Joker set and the music of "Jaane Kahan Gaye Woh Din" plays gently in the background, we get a moment that should enchant any Hindi-movie buff. The facile “message” of this scene (“Your father was a great artiste, but he was a greater human being,” she tells Chintu) is almost beside the point compared to the pleasure of seeing these two performers improbably together on screen again after 40 years.
I thought Chintuji was a film of vignettes rather than a consolidated whole; it's episodic and has the feel of TV serials such as Nukkad. The sub-plot about a newspaper editor (Priyanshu Chatterjee) with a possibly murky past isn’t too interesting, but there’s a lot else to enjoy, including a drily funny scene about the shooting of a B-grade tribal movie that "Chintuji" is acting in. This is where Sophie Chaudhry gets to lip-sync to one of the strangest songs you’ve ever heard in a Hindi film, its lyrics made up entirely of the names of famous movie directors. It’s safe to say that this is the first and last time a Hindi-movie song will contain the lines “Wyler, Hitchcock, Wajda / Mizoguchi, Coppola...” – the song will, of course, sound like gibberish to anyone who isn’t familiar with the names. There’s no point to it exactly, but it’s eye-popping (and ear-popping) fun.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I’ve spoken a couple of times with Ranjit Kapoor in the past few months (in another context), though that has nothing to do with the above review; if I hadn’t liked Chintuji, I wouldn’t have written about it. Though this is Ranjit’s first film as a director (at age 61), he has worn many hats over the course of a distinguished theatre and screen career. National School of Drama (NSD) alumni still speak with awe about his staging of plays like Woyzeck, Bichhu and Mukhya Mantri. He has written the dialogue for such movies as Jaane bhi do Yaaro, Bandit Queen and The Rising, and composed music for others like Aadharshila. I did a short Q&A with him about Chintuji for Business Standard a few weeks ago. (I hadn't seen the film at the time.) Here it is:
After decades of experience as a stage director, why did it take you so long to make your first film?
There were offers in the mid-80s but there was also interference by producers and I was very rigid too – I wanted the creative freedom to do what I felt was right without being told to cast so-and-so actor or to put this many songs in the film. Having come from a theatre background, I identified more with strugglers; I didn’t want big stars doing roles they weren’t suitable for.
Around 1984, Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah had been signed up for a comic thriller I had written, a mystery set over one night, but there were too many demands from the producers and it never got off the ground. I was told to use Jagjit Singh's music for a film that required a very different soundtrack. Later, Yash Chopra asked me to direct a film version of the play Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, which I had staged, but I was facing a few personal problems at the time. Eventually, Basu Chatterji did the film.
So you returned to the theatre?
Yes, I returned to Delhi, to NSD, and did the kind of work where I knew I could be in control. Theatre satisfied my creative urge and made me feel like a king. Of course, I went to Bombay when there was a decent offer – such as writing Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na with Kundan Shah, with whom I had worked on Jaane bhi do Yaaro. And also for Bandit Queen, which I wrote after shifting to Gwalior and locking myself in a hotel room for 17 days.
How did Chintuji come about?
It came from this idea I had that if even a moderately well-known actor goes to a small village for a shoot, he becomes an object of respect and awe. His presence can change their lives, for good and for bad. There’s potential in this situation for examining reality and illusion, the screen image and the real person, and I thought Rishi Kapoor, a wonderfully spontaneous actor, would make an interesting subject. He was very enthusiastic when I told him I wanted to do a script based partly on his life.
Around the same time, producer Bobby Bedi saw an open-air play I had directed in Pune and was impressed – he told me “Aapne toh iss stage setting mein film bana di.” ("You've taken this simple set and turned it into a movie set".) So things came together.
Would you call Chintuji a comedy?
It’s a comedy all right but it isn’t slapstick or farce; it draws on the little moments of humour in daily life. You won’t find the actors explicitly playing a scene for laughs. And it does get emotional towards the end – there’s a bittersweet quality to it. It’s a small film, but what I’m proud about is that it’s original – no “borrowed” ideas.
How did you get Kseniya Ryabinkina to appear in the film?
I was watching Mera Naam Joker [in which the young Rishi Kapoor had a small role] and it struck me that I would like to trace this actress, to make her a part of this story. We made enquiries, found out that she had been with the Bolshoi Ballet, and we finally contacted her in France. She plays a key role here in the development of Rishi Kapoor’s character – I won’t reveal it, go and see for yourself!