Friday, October 20, 2017

Jagga Jasoos: Review

There’s a moment, some 10 minutes into Jagga Jasoos, which will probably represent a way into the film for some, and a departure point for others. Anurag Basu’s film, his first after 2012’s Barfi!, begins with a botched arms drop in Purulia, West Bengal, in 1995. We see the incident first, then the reports on TV, during which something strange happens. As Pritam’s music swells in the background, newscasters and studio guests start to sing their lines instead of speaking them.

If viewers laugh at this spot of invention, and not with it, the film could be in trouble. In this moment Basu is signalling two things to his audience: that Jagga Jasoos will be fairy-tale whimsical, and that it’s a wall-to-wall musical. The first isn’t too much of an issue: when you have 34-year-old Ranbir Kapoor playing a schoolkid and Katrina Kaif as a successful investigative journalist, what’s a little more suspension of disbelief? The second barrier could prove trickier. Dialogue and music intruding on each other’s space is the Hollywood conception of a musical. We’re used to song and dance in our films, but only as self-contained packages. We may move like some combination of James Brown and Fred Astaire, but we don’t sing dialogue.

In Basu’s film, almost everything is sung. Jagga (Kapoor), an orphan who lives in a hospital in Ukhrul, Manipur, has a debilitating stutter. At the suggestion of a kindly gent (the terrific Saswata Chatterjee)—whom we saw in the opening arms drop—he attempts to sing his thoughts, and finds he can do so without faltering. This is an idea that’s been explored in films from Rocket Science to The King’s Speech, though I haven’t seen it used as all-consumingly as it is here. Nearly all of Jagga’s spoken lines from this point on are rapped or sung; more often than not, those replying to him end up singing too.

Though the musical conceit is new, the palette is familiar. The surfeit of charm, the piling up of eccentric detail, the manicured beauty of every frame—all of this seems like a continuation of the Barfi! aesthetic developed by Basu, cinematographer Ravi Varman, editors Akiv Ali and Ajay Sharma, and designers Rajat and Parijat Poddar. Not that outside influences aren’t easy to spot. “Wes Anderson-like” as shorthand for studied whimsy has long passed the point of overuse, but the parallels between Jagga—a gifted schoolboy who’s serious like a grownup—and Rushmore’s Max are impossible to ignore. There’s the obvious reference to Tintin in Jagga’s talent for detection, and in the tuft of hair sticking out the side of his head. There’s also a dash of Indiana Jones in the film’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along plot, which is ostensibly about Jagga and his journalist friend, Shruti (Kaif), investigating an international arms cartel.

Most Hindi films feed us our dramatic vegetables with the tacit understanding that dessert is soon to follow. Jagga Jasoos, though, has no use for a balanced diet: it’s all dessert, all the time. Like a less frenetic Michel Gondry film, the screen is constantly coming alive with little bits of invention. Many of these details serve no dramatic purpose—you can almost picture Basu saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a Russian dance troupe swaying to "Kalinka" on a train moving through the African countryside?” and his producers mopping their foreheads. This is a film with giraffes, leopards, elephants and ostriches; a clock-tower scene out of Vertigo; a biplane (because biplanes are cool); a fictional region in Africa called Shundi, which is likely a reference to the magical kingdom in Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Baagha Byne.

Is everything weaved together successful? Not quite. The political references are largely toothless and perfunctory, except for one song about farmer suicides and people dying in riots, which is so extreme a mismatch with the material that it took my breath away. The singing stratagem occasionally gets in its own way, with dramatic scenes rendered silly by characters breaking into song. There’s also the baffling decision to cast, opposite Bollywood’s nimblest male star, the slow-reacting, risk-averse Kaif. Still, when it’s firing, Jagga Jasoos taps into the sort of rhythm that propels scenes from within—whether it’s a simple gag, like a police officer trying to figure out which of his six phones is ringing, or a setpiece, as when Jagga and Shruti, running from a gunman, find themselves on stage and improvise a little dance. Kishore Kumar did something similar in the Woh Ek Nigah Kya Mili sequence in 1962’s Half Ticket. It’s nice to know that, these many years later, Hindi cinema hasn’t lost the ability to be sublimely ridiculous when it wants.

This review appeared in Mint.

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