It hurts my little alliteration loving heart, but I can’t do Tuesday Telugu this week. Because a big snow storm ruined my plan to drive out to the movie theater yesterday. So instead I am swapping in Friday Classics and, if the weather clears, I will do Telugu on Friday. Or something. Anyway, it still works because we get to have an Abhishek movie right by Abhi’s birthday!
Speaking of difficult movie theater journeys, it was quite the quest for me to see Bunty Aur Babli the first time. It was back in that time when Indian movies were playing in America, with subtitles, but not in very many places. This film was playing at an old neighborhood movie theater out in the suburbs, and I was in college and didn’t have a car. My sister happened to be visiting me that weekend, so the two of us figured out commuter train schedules and routes and went through a very complicated process to get out to the theater. It is a testament to the quality of this film that I still remember that night more for the film we watched than for the over-whelming difficulty of getting to the theater.
This is such a unique movie! A series of incidents with only the loosest plot tying them together on one side of things, and a strong clear love story and character drama on the other. It’s a combination that shouldn’t work, and yet it does. You watch if for the comic set pieces, and you watch it for the slow sweet romance, both together.
(Rani is so short! Abhishek is so tall! They are so cute together!)
A large part of that is due to the perfect casting. Both Abhishek and Rani are able to do the sort of humorous mimicry involved in the comedy portions, along with building indelible “real” characters to balance the fake ones they invent. It’s right there in the names, “Bunty” and “Babli” are their silly conman personas. But their real characters, Rakesh and Vimmi, are something totally different. And you need performers who can play both in order for this film to work.
You also need Amitabh. This is tied with Sarkar for me as the best use of the Abhishek-Amitabh chemistry. Two very different films! But what they have in common is that they both find a way to highlight what makes the two actors different, instead of the very obvious things they have in common. In Sarkar, it is Amitabh’s gravitas and slow strength versus Abhishek’s sensitive intelligent youth. In this film, it is Amitabh’s simple plain onscreen persona versus Abhishek’s ever changing and delightfully light-handed performance.
The entrance of Amitabh is when this film becomes “real”. Just at the moment that we are starting to tire of the barely-there romance and wonder when our main characters will grow up, Amitabh appears to remind us that actions have consequences. And also to help bring out the strength and maturity that were there all along in Abhishek and Rani, but needed a threat to make them appear.
All of that is in the characters. But this is one of those films where you can say “[location] was like another character”. And in this case, “[location]” is all of India. Okay, all of North India, plus Bombay, let’s not get crazy, this is still a Hindi film, it’s not gonna go far south and get it right. But it does go from luxury resorts to small towns to big cities and somehow make them all feel real and inhabited by real people. Most of the character besides Rani and Abhishek and Amitabh only appear for a few lines or a few moments. And yet they serve to draw out a rich background of a whole country filled with humanity.
That is the underlying message of this film, told through who and how “Bunty” and “Babli” interact with. Who is harmless, and who is harmful. Who can be fooled and who should be respected. This film could so easily feel mean spirited, cruel even. But the way it is presented, we can see that the worst that happens could be considered “naughty” and the best could even be “heroic”.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
We open with two small town kids from nowhere who have big dreams. Rani, who tears up her father’s shirts to make her own clothes and dreams of being a Miss India, and Abhishek, who invents a string of money-making schemes. They are both trying to escape a life that their parents have laid out for them, for Rani a safe marriage to a nice man. For Abhishek, a permanent job with the railways like his father. Neither future is horrible, neither set of parents is unloving. But these two children know they are meant for something different and must do whatever is necessary to break through societal bonds and make it.
What is the most important part of this film, is that they actually could make it! If the world were a little more fair. Rani is accepted to the competition, but contingent on sleeping with one of the organizers. Abhishek presents his financial scheme, only for his idea to be stolen by the person he showed it to. So, in fact, Rani could have become a Miss India, or at least a contestant with the promise of a modeling and fashion career inherent. And Abhishek could have become a financial mogul. They were not mistaken in their decision to run away from home or in their judgement of their own talents. Their only mistake was in being too trusting, in thinking that the world would give them a fair shot.
And so the turn towards crime is not because of a natural immorality, it is because they are young people with intelligence and promise and there is no legal way for them to use that intelligence and promise within the system. So they decide to work outside it. And to attack those who have most unfairly benefited from it.
It is the capitalists, the global economy, who suffer most at the hands of our hero and heroine. The luxury resorts and nightclubs, catering to the elites. The new shopping malls. And, most satisfying, the western tourist who wants to buy Indian heritage, purchasing the Taj Mahal.
Years ago I read or saw something which mentioned that cons only work if the person being conned thinks they are “cheating”. The Nigerian prince scam is the most common one you hear about today, an email from a Nigerian prince who needs your bank account information so they can transfer money to you. If your response is “how terrible! Let me write my congressperson and help you get your money out of your country”, then the scam won’t work. It will only work if your response is “ha-ha! I will take advantage of your misfortune and make loads of money for doing nothing.”
Obviously this isn’t an across the board rule, you still have confused little old ladies who just want to get their computer fixed. But it does seem true that many scams rely on the scammee thinking they are in fact the scammer, getting money for nothing. And that is what this film shows. Abhishek and Rani never cheat “innocent” people, because “innocent” people wouldn’t be falling for their scams. The scams are predicated on paying too much for too little, only to turn out that it was the “too little” that was being stolen and the “too much” never appears.
Over and over we see that they win by suggesting a profitable slightly illegal option, a scheme that their marks would be too embarrassed or worried to admit to the authorities. And they win by the authorities themselves being corrupted. At least slightly. Abhishek and Rani come from small towns, so they know the value possible there. They run their scams there, in up and coming urban areas not in major metropolises. And they know that the police and other authorities will therefore not notice, because no one notices what happens in these towns. It is only when Amitabh, the one honest cop who cares enough to try, starts hunting them that they get scared.
Amitabh is such a brilliant ingredient in the narrative of this film, because he is what pulls it all together. Like I said, all along there are two films, the funny conman movie and the sweet love story relationship drama. I’ve been focusing on the conman movie, but let’s take a moment for the relationship drama.
Again, it all goes back to the very beginning. Both Rani and Abhishek have run away from home. It’s late at a train station, and Rani goes up to him and asks him to take her to the bathroom. That is their bond. And it is more complex than it first appears.
Rani knows enough and is smart enough to know that she might be in danger going to the bathroom alone on a train station platform. But she is also innately trusting and innocent and “small town” enough to simply go up to a stranger and ask him for help. And Abhishek is innately innocent and decent enough to help her. Like has recognized like, two small town kids with good intentions and good hearts who have run away to the big city and need each other.
That their first day in the city followed a similar pattern is not a coincidence either. That is what the city does, it spits out these wholesome small town dreamers. So of course Rani was propositioned and Abhishek was ripped off. And of course they have met each other again at the end of the day, secretly lonesome and longing for someone familiar.
Where things take a turn is in Abhishek suggesting the first scam, and Rani going along with it. There is a dynamic started immediately between the two which is strangely traditional even in this non-traditional life they are living. Abhishek is inspired to invent his first scam partly out of a need to get Rani’s money back as well as his own. And Rani goes along with it, following his directions. Through out the rest of the film, Abhishek comes up with the plans and tracks the money and “takes care of things”, while Rani simply follows along and trusts him to keep them safe. When they finally decide to get married, it is a very small scene, because ultimately they were married all along. Abhishek doing his job as a good husband by leading the household, and Rani doing hers as a good wife by trusting him.
And then Amitabh appears. The cop who is the mirror of the husband, the threat to his life and the life he has built for his family. And Rani is pregnant. Two things coming together that could change everything. It’s the last big score, of course, where everything goes wrong. But it went wrong even before then. Abhishek wants to move forward, whatever it takes. Rani is nervous. A child changes things. She can’t afford to blindly follow him any more. But he can’t afford to stop because he has an added responsibility on him. They are still happy silly “Bunty” and “Babli”, but the real world “Rakesh” and “Vimmi” are beginning to peak out more and more. With the looming responsibility of the baby, and the looming threat of Amitabh to their way of life.
The weakest part of the film is probably the ending. Because the “true” ending would be bittersweet. It’s growing up, that’s what they needed to do. They have a child now, playtime is over. Time to go back to the village and live with their parents and be sane sensible people. An honest ending would have shown that, just that, the two of them with their child and sad wistful faces as they think of all they gave up. But the filmmakers wanted something different than that. So someone, Aditya Chopra who wrote the story or Shaad Ali who directed or Jaideep Sahni who did the final script, came up with another option. We get that wistful look at their life post-adventures, but with a slightly silly touch to it, we are more likely to laugh at Rani’s efforts to make her small son appear fashionable, or Abhishek’s pained smile at his father’s jokes, than to cry. And after just a moment of this, we have our “real” happy ending. Amitabh appearing, the threat turned savior, offering them a chance to work with him for the government, running scams as part of their anti-graft team.
It’s a satisfying ending, seeing Rani and Abhishek back in action, but it is also a bit grafted on. Not entirely, it does fit with the message all along that their scams were more a matter of righting societal wrongs than anything else, but still a bit. I have to acknowledge it as the one biggest artistic flaw in the film.
Other artistic flaws include Abhishek’s costumes in “Nach Baliye”, the odd crotch shot in the middle of “Dhadak Dhadak”, and the introduced and then dropped character played by Rajesh Vivek, but NOT the novelty rap song that ends the film. I will hear no criticism of Big B novelty rapping! It is perfection and the most early-2000s thing ever.