Not the best movie, not the worst movie. It was on Netflix, and it had Asif Ali and Bhavana, that was enough for me to try it.
I am probably one of the few people around now who are familiar with both the original 1940s movie and the short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”. They are completely different things, and then the recent Ben Stiller version is a whole other 3rd thing. This movie is a 4th thing, separate from the other three but using the same idea of fantasy blurring into reality.
The original Thurber short story is really just a sketch of an idea. A nebbishy man is running errands for his wife and trying to remember everything he has to pick up. But he keeps being distracted by billboards and magazine headlines and so on as he drives along, imagining himself as a hero in some adventure story inspired by them. What makes it brilliant is how real life keeps asserting itself into the fantasy, the shopping list appearing in unexpected ways.
The 1940s version with Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo was something different. It borrowed the idea of a shy man with a fantasy life, but then turned that into the start of an actual plot and gave him a backstory to explain it. Danny works for a pulp magazine, constantly surrounded by these lurid stories of doctor-nurse romance, or gangster violence, or whatever. And then he is approached by beautiful Virginia Mayo asking for help because she is caught up in a a Nazi spy ring. It turns into a love triangle between Danny’s boring mother approved fiance and the exciting adventure represented by Virginia. And of course, the problem that no one believes anything Danny says because he is a known day dreamer.
And then there’s the recent Ben Stiller version. But that is really divorced from the original, a shy stay at home type who goes on an adventure to impress a girl and meet his hero. Way at the beginning they use the idea of him daydreaming and turning reality into fantasy and back again. But then that goes away and doesn’t come back, unlike in the other versions where it kept popping up.
This whole idea is remarkably cinematic, movies are uniquely able to capture the feel of a day dream, they are our own dreams. And so the temptation to show the real and the unreal blurring into each other, the boring every day versus the movie fantasy, is well-nigh irresistible. All you need to complete your film is some excuse to drive the hero deeper into his fantasies, and some plot trip to resolve them. That’s where each film varies, Danny Kaye versus Ben Stiller versus this one, conceived by director and writer team Rohith V.S. and Sameer Abdul. They take the idea of a shy man escaping into fantasies and give an original modern day Indian touch to his motivation, along with a new twist on how to resolve his internal conflicts.
Oh, and it’s a great role for Asif Ali. Who always plays the overlooked every man, but for once gets to be an overlooked every man with hidden secrets, an overlooked every man trying on the shape of heroes. And a great role for Bhavana too, playing the woman who knows exactly who she is and doesn’t feel the need to hide in any fantasy.
I don’t want to over sell it, it isn’t a very good movie. Interesting idea at the center of it, but no real greater theme to it, and plot kind of goes back and forth and back again without a clear through line. And Bhavana is introduced a little late, meaning Asif has to spend most of the movie just with himself, and that’s kind of a structural issue, it gets boring after a while. And the songs aren’t great, and the visuals aren’t super-duper inspired, especially since the story allows for such incredible visuals. But it’s enjoyable enough, and it’s on Netflix, so you can watch it if you want. Or, you can just read my SPOILERS section.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
We start backwards, with a police briefing, a police officer who is investigating a businessman running a rapidly growing hair oil company that he suspects is a scam. And then we go to the company and see just how the scam is done. With a massive group of phone salesman who are congratulated for talking people into placing orders and paying over the phone. Asif Ali is the best of these salesman, succeeding by juggling multiple identities, becoming whoever is needed to make this particular sale, Hindu or Christian or Muslim, friendly or serious. But in real life, he can barely talk to women, blinking and shy. A co-worker invites him to her birthday and he misunderstands, is too shy to talk to her during the party and then runs after her to give her a present and tell her he loves her. She is a little brutal in response, telling him she was just being nice and would never fall for someone like him.
Asif is so upset he skips work, knowing that everyone is laughing at him, and his boss (the businessman running the scam) gives him some friendly advice, if he is interested in a girl, he has to understand what she likes and figure out a way to make himself into that. It’s not great advice, he is still suggesting lying to a woman, tricking her into liking you. But at least he is making Asif see that he has to make some effort, he can’t just expect a woman to fall into his lap after she gives him the slightest sign of interest.
It all comes together when he picks up his roommate’s phone to find a woman’s voice on the other end. His roommate has been lying a little too, making himself sound slightly better than he is, an executive instead of a salesman, and part of that was talking up his roommate Asif as a little better too, an overseas trained writer. And Asif finds himself going along with it. Suddenly it is like he has a superpower, a secret life. He listens, learns about woman in the area, finds out their numbers, and calls them, pretending to be whatever they want. A lonely writer for the fantasizing housewife, a successful police officer for the young police woman, and a good traditional man for the traditional girl.
Asif loses himself in his stories, it’s not just that he enjoys the interaction with women, it’s that he enjoys being someone else, seeing himself as someone else. There’s a lot of possibilities for how this story could go, it could explore the theme of distant connections, how Asif is getting so much from these phone calls but forgets the reality of people in front of him. Or it could explore what men do to women, how Asif sees them as an audience for his stories, not as people with their own needs.
But instead it goes the boring route and just explores how Asif is losing himself. Blah blah, man pain. Bhavana is his final conquest, a fan of a rock star who is trying to contact him in order to arrange access to his family home as part of her research on the paranormal before her overseas studies start. Asif fakes his phone number on the rock star’s autograph, she calls him, and he easily turns the call into flirtation instead of a practical conversation. They talk and talk, get serious enough that she wants to meet in person.
And then Asif is mugged and left in a trash heap. And wakes up with only vague memories of who he used to be, confused between his multiple identities. And with a phone filled with numbers labeled simply “Honey 1, Honey 2” and so on. None of them seeming to know who he actually is. And then, the final twist, in his confused state he runs into Bhavana! Who is similarly in a confused state, having just gone to the house of her rock star lover to ask him to marry her and save her from an arranged marriage only to discover he has no idea who she is, and is also gay.
Bhavana ends up helping Asif to find himself, and finally striking a deal with him that he has to pretend to be her fiance so she can get out of her family’s control and go to the graduate program in Europe she wants. Asif, slowly, freed of the weight of his past, comes into his own. Learns from Bhavana how to dress well, do his hair right, be confident, and so on.
It’s very much a male fantasy, he doesn’t have to do any work, she will make him into the perfect guy and he just has to follow the directions. Plus, he gets to wipe out all the uncertainty of the past and start fresh and happy in the present. Perfect.
But it’s not a total fantasy. At least Bhavana has a few needs of her own, she needs to escape marriage, needs to go over seas, and so on. Only her needs are the only ones that matter, all the other lessor women who he talked to don’t seem to exist for him or the movie, they are just there as voices on the phone and images in his head. And, as I said, Bhavana is introduced very late, there is a lot of time spent with Asif and then a very hurried introduction of Bhavana’s issues.
And the ending is kind of clever in how brave it is. Asif finally remembers everything and chooses not to tell Bhavana. At least, not tell her everything. He rushes around and confesses his love, but not that he was the one talking to her on the phone, that she was one of his mystery women. That’s a gutsy ending, to leave a confrontation undone like that.
And it also, almost gives us a meaning to it. Now that Asif has finally grown up, has learned what it is like to be in a real relationship, he can leave his fantasy phone behind, can understand how shallow and meaningless that original relationship was, not even worth mentioning.