Why is it so joyful to beat up Ranbir? I just don’t know! Is he a symbol of all indulged Indian men in the world? Or do we hate him just for himself? Does it really matter? Anyway, here is a review of his one and only movie as a producer which I hated very very much and which he produced so terribly he literally ended a studio (UTV, RIP). The paragraph where I rip into Ranbir is in bold.
We all know what “high concept” is, right? It’s when you come up with a very original easily communicated idea to build off of. Like, “It’s an action TV show but it all takes place within 24 hours and each episode is one hour of the day”. Whereas “low concept” is when you stay with a really simple idea that will require multiple subtle variations and character work to make it stand out, like “a murder mystery writer investigates a murder every week”.
The thing is, the “high concept” and “low concept” ultimately meet in the middle. The story is the story, the characters are the characters. The “concept” is just a writing tool to get you started. Some writers work better under constraints, the “high concept” is a challenge to get them started. And sometimes a crutch to lean on when they don’t have any ideas besides the concept.
(“Ranbir and Katrina go to Africa and ride an ostrich” is very high concept. “Ranbir and Katrina sit down and have a conversation” is low concept)
To put it in upcoming movie terms, A Gentleman looks very high concept. Incredibly complicated plot but, based on the trailers, the director wants it that way and is excited to experiment and play around with the possibilities of the idea of two identical guys, one a super spy and one a boring office worker, being mistaken for each other. On the other hand, Jab Harry Met Sejal looks very low concept. Mostly just about two people hanging out, not plot elaborations. Which is also good, the bits we have seen really sell their chemistry, we wouldn’t want to be distracted from watching them by plot complications.
The key with a low concept film is to manage to build minor events up into a natural flow until a plot emerges from the low stakes common situation. Dear Zindagi, for instance, is a classic low concept film. Woman goes to therapy, events occur. That’s it.
The key with a high concept film, whether the concept is setting or style, is to move past the concept into something deeper. Paheli, for instance, starts out with this idea of a ghost falling in love with a human woman. But from there, it just turns into a woman falling in love with a man she isn’t supposed to love. And we come to care about the characters for themselves.
Which brings me to this film! The concept is original-ish. A teen detective story framed by a book release with a child chorus. Oh, and lots and lots of sung/spoken dialogue. And a kind of bright comic book style look to it.
But, see, anyone can come up with a high concept. Here, I’ll give you 3 right now: a world where all the women are purple and all the men are green; an entire movie that takes place in a movie theater with the big screen behind the characters reflecting their emotions; a movie set entirely in heaven.
(no, see, this was in heaven’s waiting room. I mean actual heaven)
The idea is easy, the execution and turning it into more than just an idea, that’s the hard part. Here’s one that worked really really well, Pleasantville. Starts out with the idea of a modern brother and sister being pulled into a black and white idyllic sitcom. And then expands to question what it means to be awake, why change has to come to the world, all kinds of incredibly big ideas that really truly required this concept to work.
To put it in Indian terms, what about Paa? I’m not saying it’s the perfect movie, but the “gimmick” of Amitabh playing Abhishek’s son was a little more than a gimmick, it was the best possible casting, it allowed the director to explore the idea of father-son relationships in a new way, and overall it was still in service of the story, not the other way around.
The thing with high concepts, especially in your face style ones like Basu likes to use, is that they can kind of blind you to the emptiness inside. Think a really really pretty actress that it takes people a long time to realize is actually not talented. And think how you, a person who maybe is not susceptible to female beauty, get SO FRUSTRATED by how blind everyone else is. That’s how I feel about this movie.
Basu took a so-so grab bag of ideas from Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Adventures of Tintin, and a handful of other films. And then he found an a few gullible producers to throw money at them, enough money to make them all look really really pretty. And now there are a bunch of gullible reviewers looking at it going “Look! It’s different! And expensive! It must be good!” Emperor’s new film syndrome. And I kind of feel like the small child going “Yes, but the film is empty on the inside! There’s no there-there!”
(Except Pritam. Pritam manages to put a there-there whenever one of his songs is playing for real, instead of some stupid chopped up sung/talked thing)
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Whole plot in one sentence: Ranbir Kapoor is the coolest best teenage boy ever and beautiful 25 year old women need him to rescue them.
Whole plot in one paragraph:
The framing device is a book fair at which Katrina is telling the story of the comic books about Jagga Jasoos, claiming he is a real person. Jagga (Ranbir) was raised in the hospital where he was born and his parents abandoned him until he saves a man, Saswata Chatterjee (who must have had a shock going from Kahaani to this), after he falls from a train and brings him to the hospital. Saswata adopts him, they have a brief period of happiness, then Saswata abandons him at a school in Assam after being given a mysterious offer by a strange man, and sends him birthday video tapes every year teaching him special agent skills. Katrina arrives in the Assamese town, an investigating reporter who constantly needs to be rescued, Ranbir helps her, she promises to help him whenever he needs anything. Ranbir’s father dies, he is approached by his father’s superior who says his father was a secret agent, working for him. Ranbir does trust the guy, convinces Katrina to work with him to find his father on their own, they go to Africa to his last known location. The father’s superior chases them, they learn that he is an ex-RAW agent who is now a full-time blackmailer and was just using Saswata to help get information on the top arms dealer so he could blackmail him. Ranbir and Katrina also track down this arms dealer, there is a chase on trains, and then Ranbir and Saswata are reunited. Which brings us back to the framing device, the bookfair where Katrina is telling this story to bored children, and Ranbir and Saswata are brought out. And then twist ending, the lights suddenly go out, and come on again to show Ranbir and Saswata kidnapped by the arms dealer they were chasing, who is played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a 2 second cameo. THE END.
Do you know why Ranbir’s hair goes like that in the poster? Because it is the way his father, Saswata, used to brush it when he was a little kid and he misses his father. The film shows us that once. And the rest of the time, we are just shown the hair. This is what I meant in my post on the trailer about showing us the sign for the sign of the thing, instead of any real “thing”.
Instead of seeing Ranbir miss his father, or feeling that emotion from him, the purpose of the missing is just so we can get this cool hairstyle that the director liked the look of. The look comes first, and then the meaning, in everything. There is a lot of sung dialogue. The in universe explanation is that Ranbir stutters and has to sing. But we get plenty of scenes of him stuttering and talking, and plenty of scenes of other non-stutterers singing. I’m not saying it is illogical, just that again it feels like the idea was to have cool sung dialogue, and then the stutter came after.
It’s not just the emotions that came after, EVERYTHING came after the “look” of the film. The script is in so many different parts, you could have cut all but the last hour and lost nothing. Lost nothing except a bunch of really “cool looking” action scenes. Well, not that cool, some of the green screening is really not good. But if they had tried to do it with real effects, it wouldn’t have been as “cool”, so we the audience have to settle for poor green screening instead. And the dubbing is really bad! They spent all this time on the “cool” sung dialogue and then didn’t make sure it actually matched the character’s lips when they sung/spoke.
But mostly it’s the emotions that came second. Our main characters are animals, who stroll through the world connecting to nothing and no one outside of their own selves. People are gunned down in front of them, and it doesn’t matter, it’s just a cool adventure. You may not notice that when watching the film, but that’s the point, that you DON’T notice that. The filmmaker has no humanity, no sense of the broader connections of human beings, all humans (besides his 3 main characters) are just props.
It’s incredibly colonial. In that, all the world is an adventure waiting to be had by our “golden boy” hero. This is the same thinking as Tarzan, as Kipling, and the reason in the real world we all idolized that murderous sociopath Henry Morton Stanley (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume”). The film is supposed to be anti-arms dealers, but it does so in a way that supports the underlying reasons that arms dealers thrive.
(Put Ranbir’s head on Stanley’s body, and this could be a still from Jagga Jasoos)
We never learn why the Assamese around Ranbir might want to rebel, might not be satisfied with their life. We never learn the underlying economic and social reasons that the African country they visit might have such a gun problem. It’s Africa! They’re just like that there! We never think about why Katrina is at a bookfair with well-dressed well-fed children selling a book written in English in a country with a massive illiteracy and poverty problem. Because that would require actual thought, actual feelings, when it is so much simpler to just glorify the perfect intellectual hero.
It’s always the intellectual hero, isn’t it? The director standin? The boy who reads and wears glasses and has a hard time relating to others? I don’t mind that as a hero, what I mind is that I am supposed to relate to him because he reads and wears glasses and has a crush on a pretty girl. No further effort required. As though all the world, and the whole audience for this film, is made up of people who are just like that. Because in Anurag Basu’s mind, it is. The entire world is just a mirror image of himself/his hero, everyone else is there merely to shine a light on his own wonderfulness.
The issues are all intellectual-spoiled-male issues too. The most important relationship is a boy and his father. Not a child and parent, a boy and his father. Katrina’s family? Who knows! Doesn’t matter! Women don’t need parents. All the woman in Ranbir’s life who helped raise him before and after his father appeared? Don’t matter! Literally the first thing we see “grown” Ranbir do is coldly investigate the murder of one of his female teachers by the other of his female teachers. That is how little they mean to him.
Oh, and let’s take a moment for “grown” Ranbir. It’s very disturbing. Why would a grown man feel the need to play dress up as a teenager? The only times I found him a pleasure to watch onscreen were the few moments when, accidentally, in the middle of a song or another sequence, he dropped the “little boy” act and made a gesture or an expression that belonged on a 30-something man’s face.
This is also when I realize how incredibly UNtalented Ranbir is. He is great in Wake Up Sid. He is great in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. And then you watch Rockstar. And Tamasha. And start to realise, I think he can only play teenage boys? Either as an actor, or maybe as a person altogether, he doesn’t know how to grow up. How to play the responsible one, the one in control of his own life, the one that doesn’t have to be graded on a curve of “well, he’s doing very well for his age.” Because, he’s not! He is 35 years old. That’s the same age as Priyanka Chopra. And Prithviraj. Why do we hold them to such a high standard, and Ranbir still gets “time to grow up”? Especially with this movie, a 35 year old playing small child, and surrounding himself with a small child’s view of other characters (well, that’s more Basu’s fault, but Ranbir is the one who agreed to star and produce in the film).
Katrina Kaif suffers the most through authorial disinterest. As an actress, she was fine. Did what she was directed. But what she was directed was OH MY GOSH!!!! I honestly thought, after her introduction, that there might be a freeze frame and a voice over saying “ha-ha, that would be silly if we did that! Obviously a smart woman who falls down all the time and a beautiful girl who wears glasses are the kind of thing that aware people joke about now because they are such stupid tropes.” And then it didn’t happen. That really is her character. Not pretty because she wears glasses. Not perfect because she falls down and needs to be rescued.
(See the way she is sitting behind him and holding on? That’s what she does for 90% of her screentime. Because all intelligent successful 25 year old women just need to cling to teenage boys who are showing them the way)
Does Anurag Basu not know how to read? Or does he not know how to read English? Has he never heard of the “Mary Sue”? Never read any of the many many many many many articles pointing out the stupidity of the “beautiful clumsy woman” idea?
Oh, and on top of that, we also get the “25 year old woman sexual attracted to a teenage boy”. They dress it up a lot, but that’s what it is. Because isn’t it the fantasy of the whole audience for a beautiful older woman to fall in love with them as teenagers? Oh, just the fantasy of straight former teenage boys? Well, that’s the only audience that matters anyway!
All of that is why it insults the intelligence of children. Children know when something is real and when it is fake. Maybe they can’t understand all the ins and outs of a story, or have the maturity to grasp a full moral conundrum. But when someone is being lazy, when someone is saying “oh, it’s just a children’s story, they don’t care about characters/deep thoughts/cohesive plots”, then children can tell.
(I’m not talking about Cars 3, that’s not trying to be anything more than it is. I’m talking about movies like this, and those really boring books your spinster aunt always gave you as a kid because they were “good” for you and told “wholesome” stories)
The reason it insults the intelligence of adults is something else entirely. Through out the film, at the “book fair” framing device, Katrina is bring out this chorus of child actors to do incredibly choreographed songs and dances. Which, by the way, is another thing that is not for kids! Kids like seeing kids onscreen, sure, but they like seeing kids having a good time, running around, DOING stuff. Not little perfectly regulated performing children, that’s what adults who don’t like children, like. Anyway, halfway through some of the “audience” children get bored, and Katrina responds by leading a song about how “we don’t care about all the ills of society because we have a magic token by our door that protects us.” As in, “recognize your own blindness and the futility of the superstition that you are protected.”
(Also, if you need to see adorable performing children, this is the way to go. Notice that the kids get to actually “act” and DO STUFF in this show, not just stand there like little robots singing)
Okay, fine. But if you are saying that I am bored watching this movie because I don’t care enough about the problem of illegal arms sales, then I think you missed the point. As a filmmaker, it is your job to MAKE me care! I don’t have to want to watch your movie, and if I don’t want to watch your movie, that doesn’t mean I don’t care about what it is saying. It means this is a BAD movie. And it is a bad movie because instead of actually putting some effort into making it a good movie, you put in a song directly telling us that we should enjoy it and if we don’t, the fault is ours.
One final thing. I stayed through most of the credits, as I always do. You know one big issue the film did not address onscreen and contributed to off screen? The death of the Indian economy. From two directions.
First, OH WOW did they overspend!!!! Something as simple as the number of staff listed for each of the stars, much much higher than I am used to seeing in end credits. Even the top stars, we are talking, like, 3-5 staff members. I think Jackie Shroff in the last movie I saw him in had, like, 1. And then the music houses and the VFX and everything else, SO MANY PEOPLE.
Like I said, I always watch the end credits. So this isn’t me being unaware that end credits include everyone on a film, even the random intern. I know that. Even by that marker, these were way way too long. This was people being given way too much money and spending it on whatever they wanted, like some kind of prom queen in a mall (did I mention I am writing this in the mall food court?). No thought for tomorrow, no thought for sustainable profit, no thought for anything but taking everything they could grab today.
(this is Anurag Basu and Ranbir Kapoor shopping for this picture. Except not, because Alia’s character was smart enough to know what looked good on her and what were the best brands, not just spending money because Western press told her you just had to have a sound mixer, even if he had never dealt with Indian style dubbing before)
Secondly, NOTHING WAS DONE IN INDIA! VFX, music performers, everything that could be done overseas, was. And not because it was cheaper or anything, just because it is “better” overseas. They used a choir from Nashville! Oh, and of course they could use that choir because the film was so so so so so American. I can’t think of a single moment that was unique to India, either as a setting or as a style of filmmaking, in the entire movie. Including the music. Well, Pritam did a good job, I have to say that (music was the best part of the film), but the director’s vision restricted him to this stupid sung/spoken choir type style which is just not Indian. Remember my Arijit Singh concert experience? Indian singing isn’t about a choir, it’s about one incredibly well-trained and talented person, sometimes working with one other incredibly well-trained and talented person. Not 50 people who kind of know how to sing joining together so their voices sound impressive.
This is the movie that drove Disney out of India, that drove Siddharth Roy Kapur out of UTV, that drove Ranbir out of producing, that drove Katrina away from Ranbir, and I have to say, now that I have watched it, I can see why.
(But hey, just because it was the worst experience of my life watching it, and the worst experience of their lives making it, that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it!)