Netflix India has a new film out (it’s an acquisition) and it’s consistent with their strategy of stocking up their Indian inventory with a catalogue of mediocrity. Whether it’s an original TV series (Bard of Blood) or film (Mrs. Serial Killer) or ill-advised acquisitions (Drive), there’s no competing with Netflix India on delivering stale goods (Sacred Games being an exception, but, come on, it’s been a while)
Megha Ramaswamy’s What Are The Odds wants to stamp a Wes Anderson aesthetic onto the streets of South Bombay and while it manages to claim a few visual victories, it struggles to create whimsical characters worth rooting for or caring about. It also fails in its desire to explore Bombay as a lyrical fantasyland, creating an awkward clash between its attempted aesthetic and its ultimate expression. It feels like the film wants to dabble into magic realism but is afraid to fully commit to it.
The result is boredom and exasperation.
Vivek (Yashaswini Dayama) is an awkward teenager who’s born into wokeness and wants to register her protest. While she ((Vivek is a girl) has many ideas, mainly with conformism, her present problem is with the school exam (while schools can be critiqued for perpetuating an authoritarian culture, this isn’t that film). She devises a way to skip her exams and through a convoluted setup, another teenager, Ashwin (Karanvir Malhotra, reminiscent of a younger Imran Khan), gets embroiled in her plan. Both escape from the school and what follows is supposed to be, as per a press release about the movie, an “honest, often rapt exploration of growing up in contemporary India devoid of its cultural specificities.”
No, we don’t know what that means either.
Once away from school, Vivek and Ashwin bump into a strange group of street performers, a man who appears to be attempting suicide but says he was doing ‘su-su,’ a talking goldfish named Bunty, another man who would steal their borrowed bike while disguised as a tree, an artist who says things like “sometimes art is pain” (Don’t know about that but it can certainly be painful to watch) and a pop musician with a penchant for plagiarism.
While it’s abundantly clear that Ramaswamy wants to subvert tropes associated with coming-of-age dramas by going on a freewheeling whimsical ride, recycling tropes from Wes Anderson dramas and reframing them in a local milieu isn’t the most original idea.
Until close to the one-hour mark, What Are The Odds doesn’t establish either intention or obstacle, leaving one very little to remain invested with. Characters that confuse the Maharashtrian last name Kirkire with Kurkure and Bhukmari ki Samasya with Bhikari Ka Samosa are more reflective of uninspired, trite writing than they are of eccentricity. So much of the film feels like someone in the writing room said, “Hey, how about we have that character chew the paper instead of binning it?” and everyone just went, “Wow.”
If the creators were going to make a point about the radically free imagination of teenagers (Vivek appears to have tendencies to spin yarns), the characters just don’t leap out from the pages onto the screen. Both Yashaswini Dayama and Karanvir Malhotra are very gifted actors but here, they seem burdened with a verbose, literary script that makes them sound like they’re reading from a page, instead of saying something they feel. As a result, there’s little authenticity in their camaraderie, the awkwardness never transcending into something endearing. Why are we watching this again?
A backstory involving Abhay Deol’s character and Vivek’s feelings for him had the potential to create some dramatic tension. To be fair, it’s the only track that demanded curiosity given the complications it inspires. However, it’s handled with a sense of hurriedness, the otherwise reliable actor appearing disinterested and, much like the viewer, bored.
And so, What Are The Odds, despite a soothing soundtrack that matches the hyperreality of its visuals, is quite a wasted opportunity, a film that has high ambitions but not enough skills to deliver on those. It’s a film that desperately wants to be quirky and witty, spunky and sarcastic, while still managing to make sweeping statements on conformism, but it doesn’t quite get there.
Or, perhaps, I sat through it and missed some subliminal messages, despite my best attempts to untangle and assess the film. My favourite bit came from actor Priyanka Bose, whose talent is left entirely unexploited here. Her character, that of an artist, says (without a sense of irony) “Because we’re creating art and sometimes art is pain. It’s everything. Human suffering, escapism, and hope. And all the emotions that are very, very, very meaningful. Sometimes, people won’t get it. No, people just won’t get it.”
Maybe she’s right. We just don’t get it.