I originally sought out Loins of Punjab Presents because I really like Nina Paley’s Sita Sings The Blues and read that my favourite shadow puppet, otherwise known as Manish Acharya, had made a film. I watched it with a hint of sadness and regret in light of his untimely death. But that didn’t stop me enjoying this lovely mockumentary with a near perfect balance of sweetness and acidity.
The film takes place around a singing competition, ‘Desi Idol’, sponsored by the Loins Of Punjab company. A local news crew is on site shooting a story about the competition. Their presence allows characters to talk directly to the camera, and the captions add some pithy observation. The characters are introduced out in the wild, but then observed at close quarters in the hotel where the competition is based. There is a villain, a hero, romance, drama, tears and laughter. Mostly laughter.
The master of ceremonies is the wonderfully repulsive and Gypsy Kings obsessed Mr Bokade (Jameel Khan). He is horrible yet noble when it counts. He just has no idea, and it is oddly delightful to see his unswerving belief in his own magnetism.
Bokade’s mangled explanation of insiders and outsiders and race relations is pure gold, and somehow it made perfect sense. His bewildered sidekick is the offical representative of the Loin King, the very anxious Mr White (Kunaal Roy Kapur).
Manish Acharya not only directed and co-wrote, he stars. Vikram Tejwani is the nice guy, a sensible businessman whose job has been outsourced to India. He likes to plan ahead, using his time wisely.
He researches film heroes and based on his data believes in the power of Amitabh Bachchan to appeal to all generations and to the judges. Manish Acharya gave Vikram a wry sense of humour that made him really endearing.
Sania Rehman (Seema Rahmani) is a struggling actress who decides that it might be easier to trade on her hitherto neglected Indian heritage and make it big in Bollywood. Her knowledge of Hindi is limited to a few phrases learned by rote and some filmi songs. She bluffs her way through and while her mistakes and vulnerability are usually played up for fun, she is a sympathetic character.
Seema Rahmani managed to play an average actress brilliantly, and subtly show the difference between Sania and Sania acting. It was clever and very funny.
Preeti Patel (Ishitta Sharma) is talented, and overwhelmed by her large family and their expectations. Her parents are ambitious, protective and trot out every old chestnut about ambitious, protective parents.
Quiet and mousy when she isn’t singing, as soon as she takes the stage she lights up. Singing is an escape, and Preeti has the talent – does she have the will? Much of her performance relies on reaction and expression rather than dialogue or fireworks.
Josh Cohen (Michael Raimondi) is the white boy who loves India. He is naive, idealistic and frankly a bit of a drip. Not only did he ‘find himself’ in India, he also found love with Opama Menon (Ayesha Dharker). He invented Joga, a ludicrous combination of jogging and yoga that is probably being sold on a cable TV station as I write this, and the couple are out to sell the big idea and make their fortune.
Opama is fond of Josh but not so happy with the negativity she encounters from other Indians when they see her with him. The singing competition brings out her insecurities as she is thrown into an almost all Indian environment and the judgements fly thick and fast. When Opama tells Josh to choose between Joga and music, their relationship is also in the balance.
Josh also has to face up to some aggro as people question whether a potential Desi Idol should in fact be desi. It shakes his rosy notions of being at one with everyone, but is resolved in an appropriately filmi way.
The wild card is Turbanotorious BDG (Ajay Naidu). He is angry, urban and loud and travels with his African-American partner Otto (Kory Bassett). I read a few reviews that described them as ‘best friends’ but I say, based on the loud and proud demands for a queen sized bed and the public handholding and other incidents, they were more than just friends.
Ajay Naidu played it loud and abrasive mostly, but his relationship with Otto and his family showed another side to the character. His response to being judged on appearance or first impressions is in your face aggression. And his insane energy turned the whole show upside down at a crucial point. Lesson to judges – do not even think about eliminating the Turbanotorious BDG! This clip isn’t in the film as such, but it is animated by Nina Paley so that seems very fitting:
I promised a villain and this film delivers. Shabana Azmi is socialite Rrita Kapoor, the shark amongst the minnows.
She is determined to get one up on her rival by winning the competition and donating the winnings to charity. Rrita is polite, elegant, and always has a gleam of malice in her eyes. Her murmured hints and compliments derail the opposition and she cuts a swathe to the final showdown. I always like seeing Shabana in her rare masala film appearances, and she seems to be having a lot of fun as the posionous Rrita. But can a villain ever win in a Bollywood inspired film?
The three judges, played by Samrat Chakrabarti, Sanjiv Jhaveri and Avantika Akerkar are dead ringers for the washed up and wannabes that infest reality TV. And I must give a special mention to Rani Bansal and Dhruv Singh who played the terrible Eurovision style MCs – they nailed the stilted pointless banter.
Shaan did a special appearance that got him the very special guest chair. I personally would have preferred a seating arrangment that didn’t include electrical wiring. Alexx O’Nell hammed it up as a hotel manager, but the rest of the supporting cast played it more or less straight and suited the fly-on-the-wall style of film.
The easy option would have been to sketch broad outlines and take a few cheap shots. Anuvab Pal and Manish Acharya gave it more love than that and allowed the actors to flesh out the characters. The laughs are all the sweeter for seeing people overcome their pain or sadness. The same jokes often deliver a rebuke for the human race’s apparently endless capacity for stupidity. When Sania and Vikram start stumbling towards romance, they seem genuinely shy and awkward, not just funny. When Turbanotorious BDG is told he is out of the competition, Ajay Naidu looks straight down the barrel of the camera with silent despair. An unassuming man called Saddam Hussein loses his job in the post 9/11 tide of fear and he and his wife struggle with the unfairness of it all. And there is a running gag with a paranoid elderly white man who thinks he has stumbled into a nest of terrorists. There’s commentary but it doesn’t derail the comedy.
The script plays with a lot of Hindi film tropes including the Angry Young Man. In one of my favourite scenes Vikram challenges Bokade who had disqualified Sania (at Rrita’s behest) because she didn’t really speak Hindi. Inspired by the Big B, Vikram launches into an impassioned plea about the diversity and democracy that is India, and when logic fails he appeals to the emotions. Then he caps it off with a bit of a song and dance before meekly resuming his seat. It is glorious!
And that is what I loved about Loins Of Punjab Presents. It takes filmi cliches and stock characters and translates them into something close to real life. There is a feeling of playful affection for the filmi heritage that really worked for me. There is also a bit of a wink, or maybe it was an eyeroll, that saves it from being too sweet for my palate. I’m a cynic who likes a good laugh and this delivers. If only there had been a proper big retro dance number. 4 stars!
PS – if you’re the kind of person who likes to know what happens to your favourite characters after the film, the end credits will make you very happy.