Okay, I am going to TRY to find a “larger theme” here, but I really doubt I will. But maybe! Fingers crossed! It can’t just be about neon clothes and lipliner.
What makes a surprise twist work? It works because it surprises us. Duh. And why do things surprise us? Because we have a certain expectation of how things are going to go and then something else happens. In order for a twisted movie to work, it has to find an expectation that will be shared by the whole audience. The surprise is the easy part, establishing the surprise by finding a shared expectation is the hard part.
Abbas-Mustan are very VERY good at finding those shared expectations among the audience. Young love is true love, a wife always loves her husband, brothers will not fight, etc. etc. Most of the time they use the shared expectations of Hindi film audiences, the things the movies have taught us. So they aren’t exactly challenging social norms, the way something like Ittefaq does by making us question what a housewife is like. They are just challenging movie norms. Which is why they feel fun and silly more than “ooo, that made me think.”
That’s also why Abbas-Mustan movies are SO fun for performers! They get to play the same standard “types” they usually play, but ever so slightly over the top and just plain ridiculous. Ajnabee is totally worth watching for Akshay and Kareena! Akshay has the juiciest part and really rips into it. Kareena has an underwritten part but makes it work. And then Bobby and Bips essentially play their normal roles, but in a plot that makes those regular roles seem silly.
Oh, and then there’s Jonny Lever. Who is irritating, as always. But just the fact that he is there tells us that this is a crazy fake world that operates by crazy fake rules. Which makes it all the more shocking when those rules are broken!
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Bobby and Kareena are a young couple who got married after a whirlwind romance and moved together to Switzerland. They are thrilled when another young couple moves in next door, wealthy Akshay and his sexy wife Bips. The two couples become close friends and go on a trip to Mauritius together. While there, Bips starts coming on to Bobby, Akshay suggests a wife swap and Bobby beats him up. They return home, estranged. But make up for Akshay’s birthday. Akshay gets Bobby drunk and then brings up the wife swap again. Bobby goes into Akshay’s house and Akshay into Bobby’s. Next morning, Bobby wakes up to learn that Bips is dead! Akshay blames him. Bobby is arrested, Akshay visits him in jail and explains it was all an insurance scam but he is willing to share the profits with Bobby. Bobby escapes and convinces Kareena of his innocence. They work with Sharat Saxena, the insurance investigator who suspects Akshay. They track Akshay down and learn BIPS IS ALIVE!!!! And it was all a complex plot. Akshay and Bips were lovers, Akshay found and married a rich woman planning to kill her. He and Bips picked out Bobby and Kareena as the perfect patsies. Once Bobby was alone with Bips, she knocked him out and then Bips and Akshay killed Akshay’s real wife who had just arrived by plane. Bips went into hiding and Akshay joined her as soon as he got the insurance check. Bobby and Sharat attack Akshay, Akshay fights back, Bips accidentally dies in the fight, Akshay shoots everyone, Kareena runs away, Akshay chases her with an ax, Bobby finds her and saves her. HAPPY ENDING.
What makes this movie mildly interesting is Jonny Lever! It’s an early 2000s NRI film, back when the on screen NRI world was made of a mix of tightly knit people from different backgrounds. In Switzerland, Bobby is working as a Polo coach, part of the mainstream world. He doesn’t want to spend time with the weird middle-aged Bengali and the weird middle-aged Punjabi couple who welcome him and Kareena to the neighborhood. Kareena can’t even cook Indian food, just exotic food from elsewhere. She almost never wears traditional clothes, and Bobby NEVER does. They are a young new age cool hip global couple, they want nothing to do with the unintegrated older generation.
Enter, Akshay and Bips! They are strangers (thus, the title), but they are everything Bobby and Kareena WANT to be. They are even more integrated into the mainstream, even cooler than Bobby and Kareena. Bips is sexy, modern, free. Akshay is rich, wild, rule breaker. Bips introduction is riding a bike in spandex, while listening to an ipod. Kareena’s introduction is going to a series of temples and churches to pray she does well on a test.
The reason this movie works as a thriller is because we believe the “couple love” idea. Young vibrant cool modern people should be friends with other young vibrant cool modern people. Bobby and Kareena hate spending time with Jonny? We ALSO hate spending time with Jonny!!! Of course they should resisted the boring old folks and leap for the other young hip folks.
The twist of “oh wow, we really knew nothing about them” works because it reveals to the audience our own assumption that they DID know things about them, that just because they have a couple love song together, they are Friends 4EVR. The little bit of social commentary is about how that assumption is especially dangerous in the NRI world. You don’t have the social background of India to protect you, we see that at the start when Kareena and Bobby meet as “strangers” but quickly learn their families know each other, Bobby is applying for a job at a club where Kareena’s father is a member, Bobby gets to meet Kareena’s father and know who he is. After marriage, there are surprises like Kareena not being able to cook and Bobby never drinking, but ultimately they aren’t “strangers”.
When you meet a cool young hip couple overseas, you don’t have that protection. Akshay says he and Bips are married and he is a successful businessman, how can Kareena and Bobby check that? They don’t have the massive friends and family network to cross-reference. But at the same time, when you are used to having that friends and family network, you assume everyone is telling you the truth. You forget they only told you the truth before because they knew you COULD check. That’s not true any more, anyone could be saying anything to you and you can’t trust it. Everyone is really a “stranger”.