Saturday, April 13, 2013

Rendezvous with Drama - quick notes on Nautanki Saala

In one of the smoother throwaway moments in Rohan Sippy’s film Nautanki Saala, as emotions run high backstage during a performance of a play titled Raavan Leela, one character yells at another, “Yeh theatre hai, yahaan drama nahin chalega!” The line is a cousin to Dr Strangelove’s “This is the War Room, you can’t fight in here!” and the conceit involved is similar: that it’s possible for a group of professionals to coolly play God in a sterile, controlled environment (whether directing actors on a stage to manipulate an audience’s emotions or making political decisions that will affect millions of lives) without letting their own feelings get in the way, or indeed, without showing feelings at all.

Nautanki Saala is officially inspired by the French film Apres Vous (which I haven’t seen) and I hear that some scenes, such as one involving a grandmother and a potentially incendiary letter, are direct lifts. But it entertainingly uses the Ramayana story as a parallel for its own narrative (the glimpses we get of the Raavan Leela suggest a Phantom of the Opera-meets-Zangoora-in-Lanka production, for which I’m fairly sure there is no equivalent in the French film) and it is also thematically similar to Sippy’s earlier movie Bluffmaster. In that one, a conman played by Abhishek Bachchan finds himself on the receiving end of a giant, convoluted con which eventually has a therapeutic effect on him. In Nautanki Saala, RP (Ayushmann Khurana), who is a different sort of “conman” (being the director and lead actor of a play), goes through a similar process of self-discovery. Ostensibly he is the one helping someone else – a suicidal young man named Mandar (Kunal Roy Kapur) – but the story’s arc leads up to a point where RP is asked “Jaal sirf tum biccha sakte ho?” Or, as someone else puts it, “Sacch jaanne ke liye kabhi kabhi nautanki karni padti hai.”

That probably makes this film sound more interesting than it is; actually, it’s very uneven, alternating between a few inspired comic moments and some prolonged and awkwardly performed scenes. Given the premise – with people constantly putting on a show, both inside the theatre and outside it – there are naturally lots of inside jokes (the very title derives from an exclamation from a legendary film made by Sippy's dad) and self-referential humour. The soundtrack plays “Dramebaaz” at regular intervals, there are one-liners like “Stop playing God, Ram”, Ayushmann gets to say his own name onscreen (something that wouldn’t be practicable in most regular movies) courtesy a cheeky little “Ayushmaan bhav”. And people speak to each other back-stage in the archaic language of the play (“Peeda kya hai, vats?”) – the best of these scenes don’t feel like forced attempts to extract humour, they provide a sense of artistes who are so steeped in what they are doing that this language comes naturally to them (or perhaps speaking like this just helps them stay in character). But of course it can also bespeak an inability to separate life from theatre, which is a lesson RP has to learn.

Some of the sight gags are good too, such as the use of the Mean Streets poster with De Niro’s Johnnie Boy, or the scene where Mandar emerges from a steamy bathroom after a shower, looking like a halo-soaked deity, his hand raised in what seems like a gesture of benediction (though he’s really just trying to swat a mosquito), giving RP the inspiration to test him for the role of Rama. And there are a few lunatic asides, such as the scenes involving a fast-talking, expressionless nurse whose speech has to be interpreted by an assistant (a reminder of the joke about chemists being the only people who can decipher a doctor’s handwriting). In moments like these Nautanki Saala shows a knack for off-the-wall comedy that it doesn’t quite take all the way.

The thing is, with a film that has a few good ideas, some sharp one-liners and a couple of likable performances, you can make it sound consistently good just by listing some of those high points (as I’ve done above). But my lasting impression of Nautanki Saala wasn’t the little moments that worked – it was the large, dull stretches between them. There are too many scenes where the script squeezes a premise dry and then continues wringing away while the actors flounder. Even Kunal Roy Kapur’s masterful act as the dull-eyed Big Moose-like depressive – mooning over a broken relationship, sleepwalking his way through life and making things complicated for others – can’t salvage the needlessly extended scene where an audition turns into a Dumb Charades game. And Pooja Salvi’s non-performance as the much-desired Nandini makes nearly all her scenes flat and uninvolving – which is problematic because here is the girl who is supposed to be the beating heart of this comic-drama, the object of Mandar and RP’s affections.

That said, it might be noted that when we first see Nandini, it is as an unmoving silhouette in profile, behind a translucent curtain. Her function is that of a muse, a blank slate, like the sculpture Pygmalion falls in love with, and she is also the one character who isn’t putting up an act (for most of the film anyway) – and so, a more generous reviewer than me might point out that having a better actor in this role might have defeated the purpose; that a bland performance is appropriate. I’ll abstain from that line of subtextual analysing though – it would mean being as gullible as the Raavan Leela audience members*** who nod at each other and say “ah, okay” when Ram makes an accidental entrance with “Nandini” on his lips and then hurriedly modifies it to “Janak-Nandini Sita”.

[*** two of whom are played by the excellent Anuvab and Deepanjana Pal, whose parts here should really lead to the institution of a “best cameo” category at our film award shows]


  1. I'm glad to see you called the Mean Streets moment a sight gag. I said the same thing in the review I did. I then agonised over it for the next hour, wondering: Was this a sight gag? Or a sight and sound gag? Does the term 'sight gag' exclude words but include noises?

  2. A fan apart: this was not a post I agonised over much (more like time-pass + writing practice) but you're right, sight-and-sound gag is better.

    Btw, that emerging-from-the-bathroom scene reminded me of the great halo scene in the train near the end of A Canterbury Tale - an idea expressed in purely visual terms.

  3. truly said, the last impression this movie gives, dull, boring long scenes in between, except few hilarious moments its boring, character of chandra is irritating at times, so is Mandar's. Ayushman is brilliant in few scenes..

  4. hi jai,
    i found the nakli producer meeting in resturant very funny. Ayushman was able to get away with it what yuou say ?
    i found the ACTRESS PLAYING fiance' very good

  5. I really like your reviews, but how come you use sooooooo many brakcets? Is it intentional?

  6. Agree with everything you say - the movie has moments that work but leaves with an overall impression of being dull and not cohesive. It seems to have a lot of parallels with Seize the day (Saul Bellow) but lacks the nightmarish quality of the novel. To be fair, the movie aims to be comic and not nightmarish.

  7. Sorry for raising a done topic but the movie actually seems better the second time. The second time, the focus somehow shifts to Mandar and his depression.