Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Middling miss goes missing in the middle (belated thoughts on Happy Bhaag Jaayegi)

[From my Mint Lounge column]

In a caustic review of the 1997 film Con Air, Anthony Lane noted that the script spent so much time building up the film’s villains – by having the other characters go on and on about their unfathomable badness – that it was a letdown when we actually got to see these supposed embodiments of evil. Their personalities, and the dialogue they had been saddled with, didn’t justify all the fuss.

I had a version of the same complaint about Mudassar Aziz’s Happy Bhaag Jayegi, a goofy comedy in which a young Amritsari woman named Happy flees her wedding and accidentally ends up in Lahore. Throughout the film we are told how spirited and kooky and resourceful this heroine is – such a pathaaka, so endearing that it’s impossible not to fall in love with her. This notion is the bedrock of a frank, guy-to-guy talk between her Sad Sack boyfriend Guddu and the young Pakistani politician, Bilal, who has become smitten by her. All that’s missing in these scenes is a congregation of turbaned bards singing Happy’s praises in flowery verse in the background, while the main characters speak her praises in flat dialogue in the foreground.


Unfortunately, this conceit doesn’t work when the viewer has to engage with Happy herself, as a real person rather than an abstraction. In fact, she vanishes altogether for a chunk of the film’s midsection – the professed reason is that the character has been kidnapped, but it felt more like the writers had discovered during the shoot that Diana Penty wasn’t up to the task of creating the sort of heroine that Kareena Kapoor did in Jab We Met.

In fairness to Penty, the script doesn’t do much to flesh Happy out. She has the outward trappings of personality, but it’s surprisingly easy to lose interest in her, and consequently the hosannas ring false. “Uss mein tum se aur mujh se kai zyaada taaqat hai,” one suitor solemnly says to another, a line that should warm the cockles of anyone who wants our cinema to be self-consciously progressive and feminist, but which makes little sense in this context.

One can speculate that the “Happy is missing” scenes fit the character’s symbolic function in this border-crisscrossing story: here are India and Pakistan, two countries forever at loggerheads, but the regular people in both places are exactly alike (sweet-natured, bungling imbeciles, if this film is to be believed) and they want the same thing that people everywhere do – some “happy” in their lives. But how to find it?

So, one way of looking at this film is to think of the protagonist as a cipher or, to use Hitchcock’s term, a MacGuffin – the little detail that drives a plot, but which the viewer doesn’t have to be particularly concerned with. For example, in Hitch’s Notorious, the MacGuffin was the uranium ore being hoarded by Nazi spies in wine bottles: a plot device which facilitates the playing out of the complex, intense love triangle that is the truly compelling thing about that film. The love triangle (or love pentagon, depending on how you look at it) in Happy Bhaag Jaayegi is far from compelling, but the little vignettes involving the supporting cast are: Piyush Mishra as a nervous Pakistani policeman who hates the idea of India but loves many things Indian (including Yash Chopra); the marvelous Jimmy Shergill, who is making a screen career of being ditched by women with inexplicably poor taste in men, as the irritable Bagga; Kanwaljit Singh as the patriarchal father who – in the style of John Wayne in The Searchers, bent on killing his niece because she has been “despoiled” by becoming one of the Indians – wields a gun and swears murder, but returns to being soft old daddykins in the end. Such are the engaging sideshows that surround the film’s MacGuffin-like heroine and her bland leading men.

Of course, it’s a problem when a character becomes a cipher not because it was intended that way, but because of a flaw in execution. An example was last year’s Dolly ki Doli, in which the con-woman Dolly was meant to be vibrant and lovable and draw
the viewer’s sympathy, but ended up as a blank slate, thanks largely to Sonam Kapoor’s vacant performance in the lead. Something comparable happens in Happy Bhaag Jaayegi, and I think a more avant-garde (and more fun) film might have gone with this trick: don’t show Happy at all; construct the narrative in such a way that we know she is there, a flesh-and-blood person with this story moving around her, but we never see her (maybe a few ghostly glimpses of a salwar-kameez-clad figure – the film does play with that idea in a different context). Here we sit in the hall for two hours, but she eludes our eyes, much the same way that brotherly happiness and harmony have eluded India and Pakistan for seven decades. Meanwhile, the rich pageant of humanity that exists in both countries – crooks, spurned lovers, buffoons – can fumble about in a wild goose chase, never finding their happy, but doing their own thing and entertaining us in the process. That could have been a super film.

[Related post: an attempt to make sense of Dolly ki Doli]

2 comments:

  1. Well, she could theoretically have more taaqat, she's so tall. :)

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    1. Ha, yes. And I would have paid double for a scene where she went apeshit and walloped those two losers

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