'In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.'
- Bertolt Brecht
When critics belonging to a narrow clique sharpen their claws to rip apart a successful Bollywood film, they usually sink their steely knives into their own social and emotional illiteracy. Farah Khan, on the other hand, thrives on precisely these literacies that define the structure of such cinema. But where she scores as an artiste (yeah, right), is in the robust creativity with which she approaches what is disparagingly called the Formula Film.
Ms Khan turns the formula into a cult celebration and cliches into raw material with which she weaves a patchwork quilt of dubious aesthetic but colourful originality. She turns escapism into an act of self-conscious evolution. She turns enjoyment into an introspection of sorts. She makes a thinking film for the feeling types who do not know how to think. Her formula to achieve this is to convert the conventional formula into a spoof so that you can have an out-of-the-body experience: you know you are watching a film even as you are immersed in it. You feel a fictional narrative woven into a Bollywood documentary that becomes a toolkit of the stereotypes, mannerisms, situations and cult lines. It is an experience in which you jump in and out of the movie with a dolphin intelligence – the way dolphins jump in and out with amphibian aplomb in one of the scenes of Happy New Year, her latest work.
Happy New Year clearly defines its ground with several cult lines, the most audible of which is a simple statement: There are only two kinds of people in this world: winners and losers. If we look hard enough, the trick to produce a Bollywood winner is to focus on the losers as an audience, and give them a feeling of being winners in an immersive experience.
So we have identifiable characters: the cowardly, liquor-loving Mumbai “Ghati” Nandu Bhide (Abhishek Bachchan), the rugged northern workman Jag (Sonu Sood), the South Bombay “Bawa” Tammy (Boman Irani), and the bar dancer Mohini (Deepika Padukone) in the company of more urbane losers: the English speaking, entrepreneurial Charlie (Shah Rukh Khan) and the Uncool Geek Rohan who won’t get a date but will happily hack into powerful computers to prove a point (Vivaan Shah).
The Diamond Heist is an old formula. So is the hero’s revenge for the wrong that visited his father by the villain. What works in Happy New Year is the way diamonds can be turn into a metaphor: For the geek, a Wall Street IPO is it. For a Marathi speaking girl from the dingy lanes of Parel, it could be winning a reality show that rewards her dancing skills. For Charlie-like anti-hero hucksters, it may be small business. When various skills come into a collective experience, it even connects with nationalism. At a deeper level, Happy New Year could be a subliminal tribute to the social dynamics that took a tea-seller to the prime minister’s chair in the year of its release. After all, building a coalition of political supporters is just like making a hit Bollywood film: a hundred crore people there, a hundred crore rupees here.
HNY’s biggest secret is the plot-less plot that indirectly asks questions that need to be asked: Why must every film necessarily mimic reality or try to craft a realistic pattern? Indeed, why must it even try to be real? Why can’t it celebrate the dark times of danga and panga with a salute to the tiranga in a mish-mash song and dance pastiche of reality shows, gloss, high-rise Dubai buildings and such? In craft, such a film may be compelled by box-office necessities or multiplex requirements, but hey, there is nourishment even in popcorn fantasies.
Happy New Year mocks the stereotypes even as it supplies them with a how-to manual that draws liberally from films such as Lagaan or Chak De India: Play on your skills, work as a team, celebrate the magic of life and yes, keep your izzat up. These are not soulless, heartless characters. They just do not have the life skills and have not heard of psychiatrists and even less can afford them. So they need a Bollywood director with a mother-like warmth (with triplets for proof) to tell them the stuff: “You are okay!”
It is difficult not to like Deepika –who manages to ooze grace even in a caricatured role a bit outsized for her elegant shoes. SRK may be just adding his tadka of Red Chillies to the masala film. What works is the pastiche of cinematic clichés – like Bollywood laughing at itself.
As a cinematic experience, it is spoof as high art with a heart. As formula it is difficult not to imagine the Indiawale song at new-year DJ-blessed bashes. It is difficult not to enjoy crossword-solving moments where old Bollywood scenes, lines and situations are recreated with self-conscious we-are-like-this-only attitude. Ms Khan could well be regarded as a Bollywood impressionist, with more historical significance than she might herself realize. In Om Shanti Om, she played on Karz, the re-incarnation drama. In Happy New Year, she subtly plays on the Deewar formula at some deep level as she crafts King Khan into an angry young man who must dance, joke and conspire in the new century to achieve the same objective that Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay did in the cult movie of the 1970s.
In that sense, Ms. Khan’s tribute to cinema becomes an extension and a celebration of the Bollywood masala film – with its special undercurrent of social relevance with a soul. There are characters you can sympathise with, lost in a big bad world where the calculating mind triumphs over the innocent, joyful heart. In turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, HNY does what shows like Kaun Banega Crorepati have been doing on prime-time TV, contributing to a new Indian awakening with a new sense of confidence. If Shah Rukh Khan’s Charlie shows an extension of Deewar’s Vijay, Deepika’s Mohini is a 21st Century of Mother India that Nargis played – a moral icon, a striving figure seeking respect and justice.
You can sing and dance in dark times. Stereotypes and archetypes can create a new mythology. So what if they are a spoof? They have hearts that beat and souls that reflect. To laugh is a necessity. To cry is a compulsion. And losers must be made to feel like winners. In a reality show called Bollywood, ticket-buyers are judges.