At a time when it might seem that mainstream Bollywood is stuck in the rut of cannibalising Hindi hits of the past, here is a Mumbai film that is nothing if not different. It is inspired by a French romantic comedy of a decade ago.
Rohan Sippy’s Nautanki Saala!, with its robust desi twist to a very Gallic idea, has the feel of an oasis in the desert. It ultimately turns out to be just a mirage, but all said and done its idiosyncrasies have the heft to lift the film high enough and keep it afloat all the way through to the end.
Sippy transports Pierre Salvadori’s Apres Vous from its Parisian restaurant setting to the madcap milieu of a Mumbai playhouse and spices it up with vigorous nods to Bollywood movies and music.
He nearly pulls off the unlikely transmogrification. And that in itself is no mean achievement.
Thanks to spot-on star turns by the two male leads, Ayushmann Khurrana and Kunaal Roy Kapur, and a stable flow of amusing, if not outright hilarious, comic punches, Nautanki Saala! is, in the main, a watchable film.
It might have been even better had the three female characters in this crazy love story been allowed a little more space to evolve into emotionally tangible beings. They are no more than mere props in the backdrop.
One girl who is about to walk out on her steady boyfriend tells another who is caught in the midst of several suitors: this is 2013 and you are in control. Truth be told, she is anything but.
There are three guys in this second girl’s life – one is her past, one her present, the yet another one her probable future. It is they who hold the strings. She yo-yos from one to other like a helpless marionette. Not on!
But let us not nitpick about the extent to which Nautanki Saala! is found wanting. It really does not matter. The quirky love triangle that forms the crux of the film is intriguing enough to last the course.
The male protagonist, Ram Parmar, RP to his friends, is a stage actor and director who plays Raavan in a long-running stage production.
In trying to live up to his mythic name, he weaves a web of lies and half-truths and indulges in much playacting so that he can bring a suicidal man (Kunaal Roy Kapur) back from the brink.
Late for a dinner date, RP, who thrives on doing a good turn a day, chances upon this guy who is about to hang himself from a tree. He thwarts the suicide attempt and takes the bundle of nerves under his wings.
The latter – his name, as RP learns only after he visits his grandmother in Pune, is Mandar Lele – is a high school dropout and jilted lover who wallows endlessly in self-loathing.
The source of Mandar’s woes is the girl he loves, Nandini Patel (Pooja Salvi), a florist. She has ditched the guy because he is a nobody.
RP figures out that the only way he can mend the sad soul’s broken heart is by getting the girl back into his life.
The line between life and drama begins to blur as Ram falls for the wrong girl, his own partner leaves him, and a pervasive sense of guilt gets a firm grip on him.
RP’s girlfriend, Chitra (Gaelyn Mendonca), describes Mandar as a ‘zakhmi narcissist”. But it is difficult to figure out what the bumbling man really is as he hurtles through a series of events until he is turned by a quirk of fate into Lord Rama in RP’s long-running play Raavan Leela.
The consistently snappy writing (the screenplay and dialogue are credited to Sippy, Nipun Dharamadhikari and Charudutt Acharya) lends the film the rhythm of a stand-up act.
Nautanki Saala! is character and dialogue-driven rather than action-oriented. The humour flows from the core of the situations and the verbal exchanges. It does not have to fall back on meaningless gags for effect.
Even when the pace tends to be sluggish, which is quite often, and the drama appears to flag a bit, the film is never less than interesting in its own genteel way.
Ayushmann Khurrana is an absolute natural. He does not miss a single trick as he sails through the role of the nice guy who takes acting too seriously for his own good.
Kunaal Roy Kapur is just as good although the character he plays is somewhat inconsistent in the way it is etched out.
He sinks his teeth deep into the flesh of the exasperatingly diffident guy who never stops moaning and groaning. His deadpan demeanour fits in perfectly – it raises a few chuckles while evoking some bemused sympathy.
Technically, too, Nautanki Saala! is a fine film. Especially noteworthy is DoP Manoj Lobo’s contribution to its look and texture.
The musical score, a whimsical but delightful blend of retro Bollywood sounds and original tracks, adds a distinctive layer to the film’s aural design.
The film deserves full marks for intention, if not for execution. But give me Nautanki Saala! any day after the merciless assault of Himmatwala and Chashme Baddoor!.