Honestly, I had never heard of this 2003 movie until Michael of Bollywoodblog contacted me about joining in today with nine fellow bloggers in Europe and the U.S. for a group review of the film, and virtual meeting with director Sanjay Jha.
Participating in this exercise are:
- from Austria: Baba aur Bollywood
- from Germany: Paint it Pink, Maria, Michael, Mirie and Oliver
- from Switzerland: Marco
- from the U.S.: Beth Loves Bollywood, Totally Basmatic.
Once I finish writing this, I’m off to see what they all had to say.
PJPSNJ is set in a Bombay chawl that is threatened with destruction so the property owner can erect several high-rise luxury apartment buildings in its place. The movie opens with classic Bombay views: a sunset over the water with highrises in the background, tetrapods at the shore, and, of course, VT.
Just at the same time as the news is delivered to the colorful residents that they have a few months to go until they are evicted, an educated young man, Aman (Aman Verma, who got his start in the Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi soap opera and was one of the bad sons in Baghban) moves in to the chawl, claiming that he wants to study the residents for a thesis he’s writing (though we learn later that’s not the case).
The convention of setting the film in a densely packed location like this allows the director to examine the lives of more characters than most movies (think of Altman’s dizzying and delightful Gosford Park for a similar arrangement), but it certainly is an ambitious choice for someone making their first film. That’s an awful lot of storylines for the director and scriptwriter – Mahesh Manjrekhar, who also does a turn as the ineffective thug Munnabhai – to keep straight (and resolve).
In the exposition during the first half of the movie, we meet Ganpat (Vijay Raaz), a wizened and wise-cracking sutradhar of sorts, narrating everyones’ lives to Aman, then there’s the small part actress/hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Mona (Namrata Shirodkar), the scheming Mama’s boy who dreams of making a lot of money selling blockbuster movie tix on the black market, a couple of drunk, abusive husbands and their too-beautiful-for-them, long-suffering wives, Raveena Tandon in a very shaadi shuda role as the barren Laxmi who needs an operation to be able to conceive, Diya Mirza as Saundarya, a supposedly ugly girl (because she wears specs??), a Greek chorus of guys (and one lesbian friend?) who do little more than loaf around and live off their parents, and many others.
Aman wins the trust of the chawl residents, and then their admiration when he floats a loan to the family of a boy who’s fall and visit to a municipal hospital almost killed him, until Aman stepped in and insisted they go to a private one. Suddenly everyone is tapping him for a loan, and he complies. To the horror of the chawlwallahs, it turns out Aman’s been setting them up so they will be in debt to his friend, Pravinseth, the chawl-owner. Unless they return double the amount in 60 days, bulldozers will arrive to demolish their homes.
The crisis forces the residents to band together and come up with a solution, including a trick that Tevye used in Fiddler on the Roof: pretending to have a dream and instructions from the Great Beyond. Laxmi claims that the Goddess Sati has informed her in a dream that her husband Mahendra will die in 30 days time and if Laxmi commits sati on his pyre, she will be redeemed. This touches off a carnivaleque month in the main courtyard of the chawl that allows all sorts of money to be earned to pay off the debt: darshans of not just Laxmi, but also of her chappal, a pau bhaji stand, a merry-go-round to keep the kids busy, a cow to be honored by feeding grass (available for a price), etc etc etc.
Sanjay Jha seizes this opportunity to skewer various political and religious groups who take advantage of these type of situations to increase the numbers of their followers, both the saffron brigade and the women’s libbers, no one escapes.
Along the way, Jha displays an affection for, and playful leg-pulling of, Hindi movies. The opening scene about the chawlwallahs waiting for water turns into Lagaan‘s Ghanana Ghanana, characters make references to well known films by name, snippets or even just a few bars of movie music have been dropped in, and even chunks of dialogue mirror classics like Namak Haram and Deewar. Here’s my list of all the films referred to in one way or another:
Fine, but does the movie work?
Well, I would say that Sanjay Jha should get full marks for having either the cojones or the folly to take on such a sprawling story for his debut.
I liked that the movie had a playful, winking sense of fun and parody, especially the endearing Vijay Raaz who addresses us, speaking directly to the camera. After Monsoon Wedding, I think this is his best role, and I think he was the strongest player of this ensemble, hitting just the right notes at all times, whether making savvy asides to Aman, or relaying the story of his wife and child’s death, or talking to us like we’re bhai-bhai.
I loved that Jha championed women in the face of their lazy, randy husbands, and overbearing mothers-in-laws and leering men, and that the women unapolegetically took action to deal with their situations, rather than just do the expected and suffer silently.
I also loved that the movie brought together Raveena Tandon, Namrata Shirodkar, Rinke Khanna and Sushmita Sen and got such good performances from them, though I found the snippets with Sush to be somewhat forced and jarring. And don’t get me wrong, I adore Sush; her mujra was the only saving grace of Kisna, even though she was only on screen for a few minutes. I find her a much more compelling, earthy and beautiful alternative to Aishwarya Rai, who, sure, is lovely and graceful but seems to have no depth and be a flash-frozen automaton.
All that said, I think that the intent of the film over-reached, compared to what it was able to achieve. With so, so many characters (what, something like 20?) to portray, a movie can go one of two ways: either portrayals become shorthand for types that we are all-too-familiar with, or they are artfully rendered by a strong script with the masterful touch of just a few lines of dialogue. I think PJPSNJ falls somewhere in between, tilting a bit more toward the former than the latter, and the fault for that I would rest more at the feet of the Manjrekhar than Jha. To go back to the Gosford Park example, it was Julian Fellowes’ dialogue that told us so clearly in very few (and often overlapping) words, what each character was about.
On the subject of dialogue, I liked Jha’s tribute – spoken by
Gandhiji’s ghost R.K. Laxman’s The Common Man – to the hardworking people like those chawlwallahs who slog through life and still manage to laugh and love and care for each other. Yes, it was a bit hokey and didn’t really say anything new about that populace, but still, it’s endearing to see a filmi story once in a while that isn’t all about the bling and the pierced bellybutton.
See it or skip it?
See it. It’s wonderful to see Raveena doing more than just being her pretty self and playing some lead actor’s girlfriend, Vijay Raaz is terrific, and if you love Hindi movies, you may get a kick out of the in-jokes.
And, as I was just reminded at Paint it Pink, there was a funny ad for Old Monk rum. Ugh, how do people drink that stuff? It’s like cough medicine, but worse! Bleahhhh.