WHO SAYS a rom-com cannot be shaped with an invigorating voice and vision? But why is it in Hindi?
Romantic comedies aren't the most bountiful breeding grounds for fresh talent. The terrain is terrifyingly minimal, allowing little scope for ambiguity, and like a schoolboy poised before a xylophone to play Happy Birthday, there are a few simple and familiar notes that the filmmaker has to hit – the meet-cute, say, or the inflection points where annoyance curves into attraction, attraction into affection and love. Without these notes, there is no rom-com. Your only way out is to clothe these must-haves in the latest fashions, leaving the impression that you're doing something different but nothing too different.
The recently released “Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu”, directed by Shakun Batra, begins like one those films where we're going to be hoodwinked into thinking that we're watching something different when all we're seeing is the same thing we've seen a hundred, a thousand times before. Boy is the kind of repressed control freak who wears bow ties and irons his socks. Girl, meanwhile, is one of those irrepressible free spirits that screenwriters love to unleash on somber, sock-ironing young men. They're opposites, they're going to attract. Am I right, or am I right?
As it turns out, not quite. “Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu” only looks like a rom-com, thanks to its exuberantly in-love posters and promos, and the initial contrivances of Boy running into Girl. Otherwise, Batra pulls off a rather neat trick. Scratch off the romantic veneer, and this is really the story of Boy becoming Man. In other words, it's less a rom-com than a coming-of-age story like “Wake Up Sid”. Even the impediment to the Boy-Girl romance isn't what you'd find in the traditional romance, where external agents precipitate the couple's falling out (before, of course, they get back together at the end with a tight clinch).
Like Gautham Vasudev Menon's “Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaayaa” (whose Hindi remake opens this week as “Ekk Deewana Tha”), the troubles lie within. Boy and Girl are frustrated in love because of who they are and not because of what others do to them. But Batra's tone is lighter. The romance that registered as angsty in Menon's film comes off as breezy here. “Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu” is definitely the work of someone with a voice, someone very clear about what he wants to do and how he wants to do it.
This voice — a droll one, aided by witty, deadpan and obsessively controlled staging — could be described as Wes Anderson-lite (or harking back to another generation, Hal Ashby-lite, especially considering Harold and Maude), where tectonic shifts of emotion are rendered like placid pools. If your antennae are turned a particular way — namely, if you are likely to be tickled by the idea of a hyper-controlling father chewing out his son while, on a nature channel on television, a lion pounces on a luckless zebra — this is a very funny film, except that most of the laughing takes place inside your head.
The only thing that may leave you quibbling is the director's decision to make the film in Hindi. If you're staging a gag with a little boy leafing through Freud for Beginners — and you're obviously expecting your audience to get this gag, otherwise you wouldn't have put it in — why bother that the interiors of India may not flock to your film if the dialogues were entirely in English? After all, the title cards that break the story into chapters are in English, and the characters speak of white wines being aphrodisiacs and of PMS-ing and of “screwed-up relationships.”
Did this need to be a “Hindi film” simply because of the infectious Aunty- ji song sequence and because the producer's first huge hit needed to be acknowledged through a sequence soundtracked to “Koi Mil Gaya”? When are these niche multiplex films going to stop pretending that they're somehow speaking to all segments of Indian audiences simply because the characters deign to touch upon the occasional Hindi.
Isn't it time for the Bollywood English film, made for those Indians who talk and think in English? No gripes about the ending though, which is wonderful, simply wonderful.