Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Thoughts on the Munnabhais

There’s a scene in Munnabhai MBBS that nicely captures the tone of that wonderful movie (and its even better sequel). Munna’s principled father, played by Sunil Dutt, has just discovered (in the most embarrassing circumstances) that his son was only pretending to be a successful doctor all these years – he’s really a wastrel, a small-time goon. This is the sort of premise that Hindi cinema loves getting its chomps into and true to form, there is high drama, betrayal, recrimination. The eyes of both father and son are brimming with tears when, suddenly, one of Munna’s sidekicks (sent by the irrepressible Circuit) bursts in and frantically shouts “Doctor, doctor, naye patient ke liye bed mangaana hai!” (or something to that effect. You get the drift). Naturally Munna doesn’t respond; the game is long over.

It’s a superb little moment that not only diffuses the scene’s tension but also acknowledges one of life’s more inconvenient truths: that despite the human tendency to romanticise drama and personal tragedy, these things never have the full stage to themselves; comedy is always peeking impishly from behind the curtain, waiting to join the players. We feel most self-important in our sadder moments, but step on the outside just briefly and one sees that, viewed from a wider perspective, there’s always something intrinsically funny about the situation. Writer-director Rajkumar Hirani’s achievement here (and in other scenes in the two Munnabhai films) is to convey this gently, without being either cynical or didactic about it. We laugh heartily when the sidekick appears and says his line, we giggle at his earnestly unconvincing act and at the confused look on his face when no one pays him any attention. But that doesn’t stop us from feeling the weight of the situation between Munna and his father. (Sunil Dutt looks even more distressed when we cut back to him, because the interjection is a reminder of his son’s many similar deceits over the years – and a reminder that others were in on the charade too.)

Good comedy is notoriously difficult to do on its own terms (nearly all writers and actors will tell you it’s tougher than good drama), but it takes special talent and guts to mix comedy with situations that have traditionally been treated as sacrosanct (a parent’s sense of betrayal, for instance). This is especially true of an Indian film intended for a mass audience, since ours is a society that has many sacred cows, gets self-righteous easily and doesn’t have a particularly developed sense of humour (at least not when it comes to laughing at yourself, which is where all humour begins).

One of those sacred cows is Mahatma Gandhi (never mind all the talk about India having forgotten the man’s principles; that’s a different story) and Hirani’s decision to have an actor playing Gandhiji in Lagey Raho Munnabhai (even if only as a figment of Munna’s imagination) could so easily have gone wrong. Sure, depicting Gandhi onscreen isn’t as provocative as, say, showing (and hence quantifying) the suffering of Jesus, or drawing the Invisible Pink Unicorn. But if someone had told me beforehand that a Hindi film was going to have a drunken goon slurring “Hi, Bapu! How are you?” at Gandhiji, I would have been concerned for the safety of those associated with the film. However, Lagey Raho Munnabhai pulls it off, and pulls it off with such good taste that it’s hard to imagine anyone being offended. Just as importantly, it doesn’t hinder the movie’s comic tone at all: Hirani is naturally, and unselfconsciously, respectful towards his subject, which means he doesn’t have to put on a show of exaggerated reverence for the benefit of others.

In simple Crit-speak (and I know I’m hardly the first to be saying this), Lagey Raho Munnabhai is a must-watch. Though it incorporates elements from films as varied as IQ, Good Morning Vietnam and even Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it’s an original in all the ways that matter. It’s also more assured than the first film was, and that’s saying something. Special mention to Arshad Warsi, whose Circuit is better developed (and has more screen time) than in Munnabhai MBBS. (Hirani credits Warsi with adding elements to the character that weren’t in the original script and it shows onscreen: it isn’t often that one sees a performance created so well from the ground up.)

P.S. Was somewhat put off by Vidya Balan, who’s good to look at but way too affected for my taste. (At one point I became obsessed with counting the number of times she brushes her hair back [approx. 47], and ended up missing some of the dialogue.) She showed a lot of promise in Parineeta but she looks set at this point to become a one-dimensional actress - will have to wait and see her future roles, I guess.


  1. Frankly, I didn't see much promise in her in Parineeta as well. Similar reasons -- self-conscious acting, simulated half-smiles showing off perfectly painted lips, affected laughter, that purposeful flinging of the braid and the pallu artistically behind one shoulder (or am I confusing her with Ash Rai? Still, that's bad enough) and the effort to look pretty-pretty and photogenic at all times. Though she was admittedly better in the intense scenes of the film.

  2. Nice post. I agree with you on Vidya Balan. Also imagine our illustrious private FM radio jockey's going 'Good Mornnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnning Mumbai'. Would definetely give the creeps

  3. Do you think if Kevin Spacey had played a part in 9/11 and then acted in "pay it forward' or 'life of David Gayle', people would have praised him?

    How does sanjay Dutt still have a fan following?

  4. Label me as one from the old school(in more ways than one...yes jai from your old school too) but pontification by a whole host of movies including the now famous ( is it another sacred cow now) Rang De Basanti and now an encore in this the reason for the title (Bollywood) lage raho...
    I go to movies to get away from reality blues and there's a lot of it on TV now a days besides life....
    This is not to deny that munna 2 might be as good if not better than munna 1.
    But then again Munna 1 was a trifle irritating in its naivety. I guess I should stick to movies like Goonda (long live mithun da or is it the education in UP that has done me in)

  5. and boy...did i forget to mention a must best forgotton Swades....!!!

  6. Vineet: oh no, not the old "getting away from reality" argument again. The movie-watching process is usually more complex than that, even for people who steadfastly claim they watch films "only for entertainment". Besides, the Munnabhai films in my view are good examples of tasteful escapism. Most people I know have a lot of fun watching them. If there was any pontification, it was more in my post than in the film (it happens when one tries to discuss a Bollywood film with a measure of seriousness!).

    Anyway, all that aside, can you send me your email instead of all this comment-chatter? (I asked you to on one of the earlier comment threads as well. My ID is on the profile page.)

  7. Escape...great escape: I don't understand the comment. This was a post about the merits of the Munnabhai films, not a tribute to Sanjay Dutt the person.

    How does sanjay Dutt still have a fan following?

    Do you live in a bubble? This is a world where youngsters routinely go about boasting that Mein Kampf is their favourite book (when they haven't even read it and scarcely know what it's about). Besides, if doing morally dubious things sapped people of their fan followings, there would be hardly any celebrities left.

  8. Jai,
    You cannot put all the celebrities in the same moral basket. Laundering money, sleeping around are natural attributes on which the celebrities and page 3 thrives and which most of us can at least comprehend. Aiding and abetting against the nation is something else altogether. It is difficult to separate the movie and the lead actor in this instance. There is a definite feeling that the movie was released to evoke sympathy, yet again on Sanjay Dutt. With a congress MP as sister and mild bashing of RSS yet again in pop-culture he is going to be acquitted in a few days.

    Irrespective of the merits of the movie, it is hypocritical to fight for justice for Jessica lal outside Rastrapati Bhavan and watch a Sanjay Dutt movie. Maybe this is the true “spirit of Mumbai and the Mumbaikar”. For god’s sake, he conspired against the country and as a commoner the least we can do is stay away from his movies.

    When will viewers of bollywood wake up? Avoid this escapism, just browse in the office for three more hours and that is morally more satisfying.

    As a regular reader of your blog, I am personally disappointed that you choose to write about this movie.


  9. I am personally disappointed that you choose to write about this movie.

    Avik: tough luck, and hope you get over the disappointment soon. But personally I find it quite easy to separate my feelings about the film from what the lead actor may or may not have done. If that makes me hypocritical (or amoral), I'll make my peace with it somehow.

    Clarification: it wasn't my intention to put all celebs in the same moral basket. The last sentence of my earlier comment was flippant and off-the-cuff - should probably have avoided it.

  10. cool review. can't wait to see what hirani will do with FPS - his next.

  11. I think I did not put myself across well. Let me be more clear.

    You talked about how 'doing morally dubious things', should not sap celebrities of their celebrity status. I do not know, are you trying to say, helping to place a few bombs outside financial centres in Mumbai to be one of those few 'morally dubious things'... I am reminded of the 'acts of genocide' sequence in Hotel Rwanda.. if you catch my drift.

    I found it offensive that someone who had tried to maim and kill Indians out of spite, would act and benefit from such a movie, where he is this kindly do-gooder... who is trying to change the world for the better. I also found it offensive that he had the audacity to use Ghandhi(ji) as a poster boy for his movie.

  12. WRT Vidya Balan, I think it's strange to attribute this characterisation to her acting. I mean there is such a thing as a script in a film, and when we praise it for it's achievements, we have to know the lacunae come from the same source. She was indeed promising in Parineeta, a script which gave her something to do and which in the end called for a thrilling sense of womanly sexuality - and annoying as shit in MB - a script which called on her to do various things with her hair, simper, be sweet to old people and be girlishly sexless. I too wanted to smash something everytime she put her hair back but it was a script point. She was given this characteristic as her point of attraction by the script -there are a couple highlit, underlined close-ups of the gesture and Munna later says "aur uska lat usne kaan ke peeche etc." - maybe he says it twice. I find it interesting that people who go on about the merit of one MB vis-a-vis the other (and I have to say I loved the first and quite liked the second) never fault these films for the way their female characters are conceptualised. Gracy Singh in the earlier one too had nothing to do except simper and look admonishing in the feminine way ("you're too much Munna!!"). Frankly Vidya Balan seemed to be doing what she could to break out of the awful dialogue and direction given to her, but it was tough going. Gracy Singh is anyway an awful actress so she just sort of did the bells on her toes and tight salwar kameez thing and faded out.After both films I've felt that anger against the writer for writing the women with the understanding of an adolescent boy for his school crush. Dia Mirza's role was a shade better written, because she wasn't a love interest I think. But oh, the sweetness, the sweetness. Like many enterprises where boys want to change the world, the industry or whatever context, the nice guys who made these movies don't really have an imagination of the presence of women in that world.

  13. Anonymous: true, the "heroines" in both films are underwritten. But then one can argue, as Baradwaj Rangan does here, that Circuit is the real female lead anyway.

  14. J:
    It's not about the "heroines". It's about the women. In fact it's probably true- a film where the conception of women runs to this hair and ear and bangle, ek ladki ko dekha to aisa laga thing - can only have the heroine be in the Circuit figure. Which is like lots of Hindi movies including the delicious Dharam-Veer so perhaps it's in a hoary tradition. I'd love to elope with Circuit, though, I must say.

  15. circuit the real heroine? c'mon bhai...
    it reminds what my father says about the amitabh-shashi kapoor pairing, hmmm, they didnt need a heroine then too.
    bad luck vidya.

  16. Fine, I saw it a bit a late, and sorry for writing the comment so much after (aFter 8 large pegsand many MORE backspaces) but my view is that a lot of readers of your efforts here are a bunch of losers who thrive on criticising. I am sorry. I am no gerat critic of movies, nor a fast keyboard-punch(is it showing??) but I hav eacted as a part time reviewer of a movie critic for The patriot in 1993; and I kno that criticising is so fucking damn (i nearly wrote gasm) easy than to praise. fuck. keys are becomojng difficlt to handle nw. will write later. but Jai, yor review was true to a fault (it took me 20mins and as many gulps of awter to write but I agree with you word by wod syllable by syllabel) sam crashing off. cya

    ps: i lost the word vdrification once for reasons easy to understand (our

  17. The only problem I have with this Munna Bhai franchise is the existence of two parallel directions for the development of the story.One is the social melodrama and other is the humour. Here, the social melodrama is as much,if not more, important that humour.The moral\social angle of the story is not just a vehicle to carry the humour,it is the focal point;which is not a problem per se, but it bores the hell out of me. Just a matter of taste,I guess. So, if I view a Munnna Bhai movie again, I would fast forward 75% of it , probably. Compare this to comedy classics like "Jaane Bhi do Yaron" or the more recent"Waisa bhi hota hai -II" ;which can be seen from start to finish after a certain period of time.
    Question: Has anyone had the chance to see "Urf Proffessor", I have heard profuse praise for it; couldnt find it in Canada,though.

  18. I'm a little surprised that it escaped mention that Munnabhai I is a straight comic repastiche of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest ... nearly all of the elements of the 'original' feature in this.

    Does not add demerit to the endeavour though.

  19. A very similar cinematic device (leavening the drama created by parental betrayal with sitch comedy) is used in kabhi haan kabhi na, in this scene:

    around the 2:30 mark.

  20. For the love of God! Munnabhai was a creation of some creative mind n not a real person. Sanjay dutt is not munnabhai nor is he doing gandhigiri. Pls stop taking sanjay dutt's name in d same breath as Gandhi - an epitome of non violence. he says he suffered for 20 years then what about the ppl whose lives changed bcoz of the bomb blast; he says he has young kids n he's d only earning member then what about the families who lost their sole bread winners in the blast.. sorry but his reasons are a whole load of bull s***