Dir: Rohit Jugraj. With: Diljit Dosanjh, Neeru Bajwa, Mandy Takhar, Jas Heer. 141 mins. Cert: PG
The Indian popular cinema’s best-kept secret is that it’s actually several cinemas in one. The Hindi movies that dominate the box-office obscure the Punjabi, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu productions emerging from separate regions of this vast country; though directors and stars have been known to switch between them, each cinema retains its own distinct tenors and textures (and, indeed, audience). If Sardarji, the new vehicle for actor-singer Diljit Dosanjh, is in any way typical, Punjabi filmmakers are happy to push beyond standard Bollywood broadness towards full-on wackiness: here is a cinema where the sound of the pennywhistle still enjoys some comic currency.
The tone of Rohit Jugraj’s film can be discerned from the early episode that finds Dosanjh’s Jaggi, the Punjab’s foremost ghost hunter, called upon to cleanse a classroom haunted by a stick-in-the-mud schoolmaster. Jaggi, whose MO is to engage with his spectral quarries on their own terms, quickly assumes the role of diligent student, and finds himself mired in a debate about milk’s effect on human digestion; the conversation concludes with the tutor’s admission that he’s been feeling terribly constipated since passing over – a revelation that cues a loud farting noise, as if to underscore the fact we are many, many miles from Kipling.
This encounter actually serves some narrative purpose, for Jaggi – having bottled his prey – realises he needs the schoolmaster’s linguistic skills for his next mission: to rid an English stately home of its resident white witch. You know heritage cinema is back when even Punjabi filmmakers are poking around reject Downton locations, and the script’s suggestion of unfinished business between India and the UK is mildly intriguing: one of Jaggi’s catches bemoans the domestic legacy of colonial rule – that men still treat their women like slaves – while the finale, with its Queen Elizabeth cameo, imagines a scenario wherein Her Maj might make up for the Raj.
One further loose end is that the spook Jaggi is after turns out to be an old flame, whose demise in a belltower accident appears another of the movies’ myriad Vertigo homages. Still, all comparisons stop there. At best, Sardarji exudes a naïve charm: its modest effects sequences recall those European knockoffs – think Ghost Chase or High Spirits – which flooded the VHS market in the years between Poltergeist and Ghost. For 141 minutes, however, it holds no more depth than the selfies Jaggi insists on taking: it’s silly rather than especially funny, and its obvious budgetary limitations negate any claims to blockbuster entertainment.
Though the usual London landmarks are ticked off, the film succumbs to the same bathos as numerous poverty-row Britflicks, and it hardly helps that 21st century Indian cinema, of whatever stripe, has yet to recruit a single credible English-speaking native. (Where do these actors, with their mangled speech patterns, come from? Is someone carving them out of Chippendale furniture?) It’s not an unpleasant watch, the affable Dosanjh this close to bursting into lovelorn or rabble-rousing song throughout. Yet the zaniness isn’t enough: there’s no character beneath the quirks, merely ghosts of jokes, whose presence requires punching up with sound effects.
Sardarji is now playing in selected cinemas.