Okay, let me throw some titles out there for you: Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Desperado. Johnny Gaddar. Burn After Reading. Dishoom. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Bang Bang. Get Shorty. Jhankar Beats. Now, are you smiling? Are you happy? Are you remembering good times? Or are you rolling your eyes because these are all stupid worthless fluff films? If you are one of the first people, this is the film for you (and also, we should be friends). If you are one of the second people, this is not the film for you (and we can still be friends, but maybe should only watch classic movies together not new stuff) (spoilers review here)
I loved this movie, my friend Dina loved this movie, and everyone in the theater with us loved this movie. Constant laughter and smiles the entire time. The only thing is, I’m not sure if anyone else will love this movie.
It’s an incredibly specific thing, which is why it is so funny. I’ll give you an example, our hero and his fellow desi friend from the office have lunch every day from the hot dog stand in front of the office, “Patel’s Veg Hot Dogs”. The “Patel”, the ludicrousness of a “veg” hot dog, and the idea of two desi guys from a computer office casually having lunch from it every day and talking with the uncle who runs it, all of that is so funny and so perfect for an audience of desis in America, and for people like me and Dina who grew up around them. But will that audience find this movie? And will that be enough?
(Yes, I know this movie is wonderful and hilarious. No, I still haven’t gotten around to watching it)
You have to be willing and ready to laugh at yourself. This isn’t a movie that is going to make you think “oh I am so proud of my Indian heritage”. This is a movie that makes you think “oh that is so true! Indian Americans are ridiculous and funny.” I mean, part of the plot is activating the desi shopkeeper network, showing a bunch of gas station owners, convenience store owners, and of course motel owners, getting a call and agreeing to help. This isn’t the fantasy of the American dream, not the fantasy that the Indian audience likes, or the fantasy that the Indian-American audience likes to pretend is true, this is the reality. And then laughing at the reality.
Oh, and mixed in is super light black comedy action film. There is no higher moral value, there is no deeper meaning, it’s just a guy accidentally getting shot and then us all laughing at it. But clever! I mean, he is accidentally shot in a really great way.
Just overall watching it, I was very aware that this was not an “Indian” film. It didn’t hit those beats the way it would if it had been made out of India, it didn’t have the big emotional moments, the moments of spectacle, the romance. Even the structure wasn’t quite Indian. There was a definite interval moment (although no actual interval, at least at the theater we saw it at, which was odd), but otherwise it didn’t really follow the pattern. There was no build over the first half, no slow part before the finale, no song 20 minutes in, none of that. And the characters certainly didn’t fit exactly right, our hero isn’t the usual kind of tormented action hero, and our heroine is certainly not the usual saintly heroine.
(They get a really pretty love song, but it’s a love song over having sex in a motel)
However, it was also not not-Indian. There were constant visual homages to the past of Indian film, ranging from a Sholay napkin holder, to Agneepath appearing on the TV. This is an Indian film made by people one step removed, who grew up with those old movies and love them and connect with them, but can’t make something exactly like that any more, who have other influences as well. So there’s a lot of stuff, really most stuff, that is non-Indian. But there is nothing that is definitely unIndian. We still have a couple who have a sweet love story that will naturally end in marriage. We still have a loving respectful relationship between parent and child. There’s nothing that felt aggressively disrespectful of Indian film values. It just wasn’t that kind of film that they were making. Heck, they even put in songs!
(Although not this song, you have to stick through the end credits to hear it)
Here’s the thing I found really fascinating. I knew Raj & DK, the writer/directing team, were Indian-American, but I didn’t realize that most other people on the film were as well. Watching through the end credits, there were a lot of American companies listed. And it was a Fox Star Searchlight production as a whole. But almost all the names in the credits, the people who worked in the American companies on this film, were desi. The location shooting was handled by a company called “Bollywood/Hollywood productions”. This isn’t like Jagga Jasoos, it’s not a film made entirely by overseas artists. And it isn’t like Bareilly Ki Barfi, made entirely by Indian talent. It’s something new, a film made by and for the overseas market.
And now, for SPOILERS! SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
HA! I WAS RIGHT!!! I rule all!!!! I am SO HAPPY!!!!! The twist that I hoped was the twist was the twist, not the other twist that could have been the twist. And I’m happy not just because I am clearly a GENIUS, but because the twist I hoped was the twist is so much better than the other twist would have been.
Whole plot in one paragraph:
The first half cuts between two Siddharth’s. Siddharth 1 is a nice boring guy who works in an office in Miami and just bought his first house and dreams of proposing to his vivacious friend Jacqueline and having a bunch of kids with her. His best friend Hussain Dalal keeps trying to bring him down to earth and remind him that Jacqueline doesn’t seem interested in him that way, and his dreams are kind of old-fashioned and ridiculous, but it doesn’t touch Siddharth 1. Siddharth 2 is a hardened secret agent, working for “the Colonel” (Suniel Shetty), and stumbling through missions with a lot of getting shot and making mistakes. Siddharth 2 is disillusioned with his life, and beginning to realize that he may not be doing missions for “the country” any more, but rather just for corrupt companies paying off Suniel Shetty. At the same time, Siddharth 1 has his proposal to Jacqueline sort of turned down, and is offered a chance to go to India to close a sensitive business deal for his company. Siddharth 2 is convinced to do one last job for Suniel Shetty, meeting someone carrying secret information on a sensitive deal. We think the two Siddharth’s are going to come face to face, but NO! Siddharth 2 meets someone else, does the deal, then goes on the run, takes his identity, and 5 years later, he IS Siddharth 1!!!! Living his dream from back when he was an underground operative, just to have a nice house with a backyard and a family. Only, while he was in India, his face was captured in a funny youtube video and now Suniel is sending his old team to track him down. They call a hilarious local desi gangster for help, Amit Mistry who I hope is in more stuff, and Siddharth’s friend Hussein gets pulled into it too. Until finally Jacqueline is kidnapped along with Siddharth, he rescues them and she realizes her boring friend Siddharth is actually super action guy Siddharth. They go on the run together, have sex, then go back to his new house for one final shoot out with the bad guys. Everything comes together, all the things Siddharth knows from his boring life in the past, to put together a final plot to get Suniel Shetty caught and his old gang arrested. And then Siddharth and Jacqueline drive out of town with new identities and 11 million in an off shore account. And End Credits song!
I am SO HAPPY with this twist! First, because I went to see the movie with my friend Dina and we have been fighting since the trailer came out over what the twist would be, with her sticking with “TWINS!” and me sticking with “SPLIT PERSONALITY THING!” So as the reveal was coming, we were sitting in the front row cheering on our particular sides like we were at a horse race, and when I “won”, there was a moment of jumping up in joy, while Dina silently beat herself on the forehead. And then we both calmed down and watched the rest of the movie. I have no idea what the people behind us thought of this whole thing, hopefully they didn’t mind.
(If I could have, I would have started playing this on my phone just like I do when I finish a tricky blog post)
The other reason I am happy is because this twist is so much better than the twin twist. Because this way, Siddharth is a two dimensional character. There isn’t a “bad” Siddharth and a “good” Siddharth, there is just the one guy who is sometimes good and sometimes bad.
And the “good” and “bad” Siddharth are also a statement about the immigrant experience. In India, you are a bad guy and a tough guy and all of that. And then you come to America, and we all see you as just a nice desi guy. Siddharth cynically takes advantage of that, playing into the whole “nice marketing guy” persona with the nice house and saying “hi” to the cops at the donut place every morning and singing sappy old love Hindi love songs at office karaoke. No one could ever think he was dangerous or bad or had any secrets in his past.
It’s treated in a ridiculous fashion in this film, but ultimately this is what happens with all desi immigrants to America. You could be the toughest bad boy at your university back in India, but you come here, and we just assume you are a nice sweet safe guy. Heck, you can be born here, listen to gangster rap, be part of a gang in high school, have a series of girlfriends in college, and still we will see you as just a nice sweet safe guy.
(Penn Masala! For the win again! For some reason this isn’t on their official youtube channel, but it’s their song.)
That’s Siddharth’s real “superpower” in the second half of this film, his superpower and the superpower of all the other American desis we see. They know how to navigate America with their magical powers of invisibility. When the Indian-Indians show up at the end, striding around like they own the place, being big and scary and obvious, the Americans easily turn the tables on them, setting up a nice “us” versus “them”, where the “us” are the Americans (Indian heritage or otherwise) and the “them” are the Indian-Indians who just don’t get it.
But then, the Indian-Indians could have turned into American Indians if they really wanted to. That’s what our hero did. He was sick of his dangerous empty sad life in India, so he came to America and made himself over. And that’s what his friend Hussein did, and the owner of Patel’s hot dogs, and Amit Mistry the local gangster and the rest of his gang. But you can go too far, that’s why we have the very specific character of “Billy”. The office suck-up who goes by “Billy” and sings novelty rap songs with the white guys at the office at karaoke night. Whose accent is from where his family used to summer in India. A guy born at the top of society in India, who came to America and figured out how to stay on top here. Now that’s just gross.
Jacqueline’s character is a slightly different kind of immigrant experience. Partly because she is a woman. An American-Indian guy, he is always emasculated and non-threatening. An American-Indian woman, she can be a whole variety of exotic, and in some ways that may not have been available to her back home. And so Jacqueline is mostly herself, not herself as she has been transformed by the American-Indian experience, but just herself as she probably was back in India too, but it is easier to be like that in America. She didn’t fit in India, but she fits here. Sexy clothes, loud personality, she’s just a lot. But she isn’t “broken” or wrong by being a lot. Her character is very similar to her character in Dishoom, but in that she had a whole backstory to explain it, a tragic childhood and so on and so on, because obviously an Indian woman couldn’t just be like that, there has to be a reason for it. But in this movie, no reason! She was born like that, and that’s okay, there’s nothing that needs to be changed of explained.
(See? Hindi song, big sexy dance number, that’s all okay, these things can exist together)
But at the same time, she isn’t a terrible person. She is a good friend to Siddharth, needy and asking for help a lot, but not mean to him. Sincerely enjoys spending time with this “good boy”. And she is a good daughter to her parents, meets them at the airport, is polite to them, clearly likes them even if they irritate her.
My favorite part is that she isn’t a superwoman. From the trailers it looked like the random American girlfriend also happened to be an action heroine. But they very carefully avoided that. She is brave and perky and quick to roll with the situation, but then that is what attracted Siddharth to her in the first place, of course the woman he fell in love with would have that dangerous side to her. In terms of actual skills, she knows how to shoot a gun because “this is America” (totally believable, I’ve never shot a gun, but in places with less restrictive gun laws I know it isn’t unusual to have at least one experience in your life of going to a shooting range just for fun and learning enough to know how to shoot, even if you can’t do it well. Jacqueline seems like the kind of person who might have done that on a date at some point), but can’t aim it and isn’t told to aim or anything, just shoot a lot. And she can drive really fast, but we saw that right at the beginning, Siddharth has to keep helping her out with traffic tickets. Besides that, no special skills or abilities.
That’s the best part of the action scenes in this film, they aren’t effortless. Even Siddharth complains and curses and gets beat up. Action can get so boring when there is no risk to it, when it feels like “well of course the hero will win, he’s the hero!” But in this film, they are exciting and funny and clever, because everything goes wrong all the time!
I guess that’s the big “message” of this film, if there is one, that everything can always go wrong, there is no “perfect” life, whether it is Siddharth 1’s life in Florida with the minivan and the house, or Siddharth 2’s action team in India who are supposed to be so perfectly trained and dedicated. They both mess up, all the time, and then they pick themselves up and keep going. In an odd way, this film is inspirational!
(Oh, and also the soundtrack is great. I really hope this is Sachin-Jigar’s break out year, they’ve already done Hindi Medium and Mere Pyaari Bindu, and they’ve got Simran and Bhoomi coming up after this)