Delhi Belly

Abhinay Deo loads up Delhi Belly with self-conscious references and imagery of Bollywood and “India”. The opening sequence includes Rishi Kapoor prancing in a blinding white suit from the medley from Hum Kisise Kum Nahin intercut with a slick airport and some slum kids. I wanted to like this. I like the caper genre, I like Guy Ritchie films (of which this is heavily derivative), and I even quite like Imran Khan. But it feels a bit empty, like a film set in India and made for people who have never been there themselves.

Note: I watched the Hinglish version of the film which is heavy on the profanity, with some characters swearing as much as I do. I believe the Hindi version is not quite as graphic.

Tashi (Imran Khan) is a journalist of sorts, interviewing starlets he despises when he isn’t writing up serious crimes. Tashi’s flight attendant girlfriend Sonia (Shehnaz Treasurywala) does a dodgy deal with Vladimir to drop off a package to a local address. Of course the package contains smuggled diamonds. Nitin (Kunaal Roy Kapur) is a perve, and a photographer, as well as Tashi’s sidekick and roommate. The other flatmate is Arup (Vir Das in a terrible wig), the geeky graphic artist charged with making a banana look happier but not too happy. Menaka (Poorna Jagannathan) is a journalist colleague who is there because someone has to have a crazy ex-husband who wants to hunt Tashi down. Tashi tells Nitin to drop off the package to Somayajulu (Vijay Raaz) but Nitin comes down with Delhi Belly, and sends Arup to drop off the package AND his stool sample. Yeah, you can pretty much guess the rest.

The film is stylised, with quirky sound and visual effects emphasising the comedy and dramatic beats. It’s meticulously planned, with all the intersecting plotlines and near misses neatly plotted. And that is one of the problems I have with Delhi Belly. While it is visually accomplished and great to look at, there is not enough fizz or life in the story or the characters.

There is an overabundance of trashy puerile boy humour that might put some people off, but at least it is frank about sex and avoids unnecessary coyness. And as you would expect from the title, there is scatological and toilet humour galore, and that is carried over to Raj Sampath’s soundtrack. The bad language and smutty jokes are largely for shock value and not driven by a genuine insight or moment. That is what I found distasteful and even worse, boring. Making a man run down the street while wearing a burqa is not champagne comedy. One rare comedy highlight is Arup fantasising about breaking up a wedding in his Disco Fighter avatar (and announcing his equal opportunity approach to oral sex) before bursting into song. It’s a little bit Mithun and a little bit Wedding Singer post the break up.

Imran Khan is stuck with a character who doesn’t seem to have much motivation but ends up in an ever more threatening and strange set of circumstances. His nice middle class boy aura never really leaves him, no matter how squalid the surroundings, and I never quite believed in Tashi. I did like his Rajinikanth shirt though. Tashi is apparently acceptable husband material to a wealthy middle class family but he chooses to live in a hovel and not really have much of a career. How does that work?

Imran has no chemistry at all with Shenaz or Poorna which is disappointing considering Tashi gets very hands on with them. Imran and Kunaal Roy Kapur are much more fun together. But despite Kapur’s rambunctious performance and occasional zingers I got so tired of Nitin and his digestive tract that I wanted his scenes to be over NOW. And Vir Das was sort of reprising his role in Go Goa Gone so I felt he was a bit underutilised. And his wig was truly terrible and a great distraction.

Shenaz Treasurywala delivers an entertaining performance in a role that didn’t demand one. Sonia is a confident upper middle class girl. She can afford to be nice to almost everyone because other than choosing a lipgloss she doesn’t have much to tax her brain with. Poorna Jagannathan plays Menaka as more of a world weary cynic, but again she will go out of her way to help a hopeless boy. As mentioned, I couldn’t see the appeal of Tashi to either lady and given they formed a mild love triangle it would have been better if there was more chemistry.

Leading the villains, Vijay Raaz and the gang of henchmen do their best to be OTT. I appreciated their commitment, and some scenes had real tension. But the film couldn’t commit to playing it straight so there were forays into unnecessary slapstick that fell flat. Often literally. A dishonourable mention goes to Rahul Singh as Menaka’s ex. His character was so unpleasant it was hard to believe such a smart confident girl would have married him against her family’s wishes, and his acting was completely suited to the role.

I have to mention Aamir Khan’s appearance as Disco Fighter in the closing song. Aamir is one of the film’s producers and according to the goss, attended some special advance previews to find out why audiences weren’t responding to the film. But his disco antics are there for added box office appeal, not for the film and not for fun. And not because the world needs any more actors in blackface. Jeez. Anyway, it’s not like he needs any more proof he is a terrible dancer so I guess he really likes his nephew.

It’s a clever but ultimately joyless effort. The film lacks the verve of proper masala embodied by Rishi’s performance in the opening visuals. Great masala films crackle with the energy and velocity of dodgem cars and roller coasters, not the methodical progression of chess. 2 ½ stars!

Loins of Punjab Presents

 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.