You know it's fair to expect more from a film when its maker is a former film critic and one of its writers tweets about the latest Roy Andersson film. You also know that a satire, which is what Karan Anshuman’s Bangistan is supposed to be, is pretty much dead in the water if the loudest laugh of the movie is an unintentional one.
In a scene towards the end, wherein emotional gears have suddenly shifted and tonal consistency has been swiftly disposed of, two ‘terrorists’ have a fight in a restroom at a convention centre in Krakow, Poland. One of them, Hafeez Bin Ali (Riteish Deshmukh) feels betrayed by something Pravin Chaturvedi (Pulkit Samrat) has done. “You turned out to be a terrible actor,” he says, bringing in the film’s most truthful moment.
Confession: I have never watched a film starring Samrat before but my sincere hope, for his sake, is that this is his worst performance. Because if it isn’t, then any website out there that decides to do a clickbaity listicle along the lines of ‘5 Actors Who Seem To Have No Idea They Can’t Act’ has found at least one of its entries without having to make much effort.
It isn’t for lack of effort that Samrat’s performance as well as Bangistan fall woefully short of potential. The former glares, grins, and lip-quivers his way through a laboured performance that never succeeds in convincing us that he isn’t that kid from Kyunki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. Similarly, Bangistan, with its quirky plot elements, movie geek in-jokes (characters are named 'Polanski' and 'Wai Kar Wong'), perfectly symmetrical frames and split-screens, and usage of animation never really succeeds in winning you over.
The title comes from the place the film opens in — a fictitious, conflict-ridden island in the Indian Ocean that may as well be a highly reductive version of India. North Bangistan is dominated by fundamentalist Muslims; the south by their Hindu counterparts. Both groups hate each other even though their religious leaders are on friendly terms and keep in touch via Skype. Their way out: to groom Bin Ali and Chaturvedi to go on the exact same suicide bomb mission, which involves transforming each into a person of the other religion.
It is established very early on that this film is firmly in heightened satirical territory. We see the Bangistanis live traditional and pious lives while consuming fast food from ‘FcDonald’s’ and ‘Star*ucks’. Some of the detailing is impressively imaginative… or perhaps we’re just so starved of it in the average Hindi film that even this much works for us.
However, while Anshuman and co-writers Puneet Krishna and Sumit Purohit take the trouble to create such a world, it is examined only at a superficial level and doesn’t really try to answer larger questions, which is the first thing that proves to be dissatisfactory. How do minorities live there? How did it get this polarised to begin with? If they hate each other so much, what is stopping them from attacking each other? And where are all the women? Seriously, counting Jacqueline Fernandez’s ‘special appearance’ there are all of four female characters with speaking parts in this movie and they’re of no significance whatsoever.
Even if you can skip past all these problems, surely it is impossible to forgive the movie’s biggest sin: of not being funny. You chuckle here and there at a moment or two, but largely, situations such as the two having an argument at an airport appear so ‘scripted’ that you can see the tired punch-line coming in a mile away. To make matters worse, an omnipresent and sometimes infantile background score (the kind that spells situations out for you a la ‘galat ghar’ from Kal Ho Naa Ho) robs the film of breathing space and never allows jokes, however bad, to be absorbed. If you really think the audience is so stupid that you need the soundtrack to reiterate what the film is showing you, then why even bother with all the fancy shot-taking (props to cinematographer Szymon Lenkowski for ensuring that the film at least looks good) and the layers?
Deshmukh is watchable enough and at least succeeds in being consistent throughout. Kumud Mishra plays the fundamentalist leaders from both sides and does as much as his one-note double role demands. Meanwhile, Aarya Babbar gives us yet another opportunity to wonder why he hasn’t found another line of work (to be fair, he has written a ‘best-selling’ novel… in SMS lingo).
Bangistan looks like it must’ve started as a good enough idea on paper before it got compromised for reasons best known to its makers. There are glimpses of a superior product in the way some shots and sequences are executed, but the overall product is an insult to their own efforts. Wes Anderson and Anees Bazmee is not a combination to aspire to. Ever.