Dir: Karan Anshuman. With: Riteish Deshmukh, Pulkit Samrat, Jacqueline Fernandez, Rajesh Sharma. 135 mins. Cert: 12A
Yes, Bollywood has made a comedy about suicide bombers, and yes, it really does feature a man singing and dancing while fitting a vest with explosives. Praise be, then, that critic-turned-director Karan Anshuman approaches his task with smarts and sensitivity. Anshuman knows he’s handling incendiary material; equally, he grasps that fundamentalist freedom fighters appear to be fighting fundamental freedoms, not least our right to sing, dance and laugh. His response updates Chris Morris’s Four Lions via the methods of last year’s Aamir Khan megahit P.K.: working beneath a chador of broad comedy, he sneaks out sly, satirical points about the ill-informed rage with which the world now burns.
The eponymous backwater divides up along recognisable real-world lines – rocky North Bangistan a Muslim stronghold, the more prosperous South home to Hindus – while permitting no comparable separation of church and state: each faction is tied to political parties for whom stirring up religious tensions (and fears their land will be overrun) has become expedient. Anshuman’s overriding gag is that these sides are so alike they should arrive at the same idea: to dispatch a young supporter wearing the other side’s traditional garb to the World Religious Conference in Krakow, in order to carry out an attack that will discredit the enemy.
Though Muslim Hafeez (Riteish Deshmukh) and Hindu Praveen (Pulkit Samrat) are established as stooges, Anshuman demonstrates a serious understanding of the ways in which the young come to be radicalised. For Hafeez, the mission is an escape from the drudgery of a call centre chiselled into North Bangistan’s mountains (one of several production coups here); for preening, privileged drama student Praveen, it’s an opportunity to give the eye-catching performance he’s long dreamt of giving – and here, we might see how fundamentalism can warp the revolutionary urge in frustrated creatives, driving them away from acts of creation and towards destruction.
The idea of job-swapping rival terrorists, obliging them to walk however many miles it is from Bangistan to Poland in one another’s shoes, is a sharp one, and yields a very funny stretch as each tries to improve the other’s religion from the inside. (Upon entering a cremation, Hafeez suggests that a pyre would provide a more efficient burn.) Yet the premise depends upon the leads becoming interchangeable, and soon enough they’ve become that comic standby, two guys walking into a bar: neither sure whether, as Muslim-passing-for-Hindu and Hindu-passing-for-Muslim, they should drink, both realising they may be more alike than first taught.
Anshuman’s amused doodling means there’s almost always something to chuckle at: Praveen’s beardy welcoming committee, with their “Keep Calm, I’m Not a Terrorist” T-shirts, the Polish potato farm that conceals a terrorist home shopping network, the North Bangistan branch of “FcDonald’s” [sic], with its figurehead stationed forlornly out front in Muslim clownface. Ram Sampath and Puneet Krishna’s songs turn the usual lush strings and tabla beats to atypically sardonic ends (sample lyrics: “I will smite the blots that they are/And rule the world on my whim”), with disco-infused standout “Saturday Night” making a hi-NRG case for the bacchanalian benefits of co-existence.
Throughout, the conception is shrewd enough to push Bangistan into that sweet spot where silly meets sophisticated, and its cleverest touch comes readymade for farce: a hole in the infrastructure of the boys’ dingy lodgings, which allows each to peer directly into the other’s room. Via this carefully managed device, an analogue to Bajrangi Bhaijaan’s torn-down fences, Anshuman can further propagate his own message: that closer viewing banishes those misconceptions by which some would divide us. It’s a modest proposal, but a heartening one – and its puerile gags may just help Bangistan reach those suggestible souls who most need to hear it.
Bangistan is now playing in selected cinemas.