Thursday, 15 September 2016

About time: "Baar Baar Dekho"


Baar Baar Dekho is Old Bollywood masquerading as New Bollywood: two young, eminently capable and photogenic stars (Katrina Kaif, Sidharth Malhotra) who've done challenging work in the not too distant past (Phantom, Brothers) find themselves shoehorned into an update of the kind of splashy, colourful, not to mention conventional wedding-based romance their predecessors were skipping through a half-century or more ago. A time-travel element shakes up the chronology a little, granted, but the basic story beats are almost entirely predictable; the title translates into English as a pun on the phrase "Look Again", but the film could just as easily - and, at this stage in summer 2016, almost as resonantly - be called Cold Feet.

Two childhood friends spend the first act on the fast track to marriage. Jai (Malhotra) is a somewhat reticent and insecure physics professor, hunky enough at the blackboard to inspire a high attendance rate among his female students; Diya (Kaif) an artist seen doing not a single creative thing over the course of this two-and-a-half-hour movie. (Despite this, she appears to have an exhibition every ten minutes.) On the eve of his wedding day, Jai receives multiple reminders of the life he might yet lead as a singleton: a move to England (which the bride's father has long ruled out) to pursue a career in numbers and figures that might seem secondary to Diya's far sexier career. 

After an argument, he hits the bottle, blacks out and wakes up ten days into the couple's Thai honeymoon; next day, he wakes to find Diya heavily pregnant in a snowy Cambridge; the day after that, he's standing in a divorce court in the year 2034. As the Sam Beckett of Quantum Leap would say: oh boy. Clearly, something has gone amiss within the space-time continuum that only our brainbox hero can figure out and fix, although Jai's discombobulation at his altogether swift passage into wedded bliss and fatherhood allows writer-director Nitya Mehra (an Ang Lee and Mira Nair protégée) to dramatise the common sensation of time flying beyond our grasp: the one minute, her hero's a dashing young blade around town, the next a greying father of two.

And yet his predicament doesn't really us grip us in the same way, say, George Bailey's in It's a Wonderful Life or Phil Connors' in Groundhog Day did. Part of the problem is that these future-flashes are all but indistinguishable from Jai's previous, picturesque existence; rather than any vacillating young man's worst nightmare, they instead look like scenes from the same pretty picture - and this is a very pretty picture - spliced in in unorthodox places. (Its vision of the far future isn't dystopian so much as a bit rubbish: a couple of guys on those segways people are already twatting about on, and a blight of long, asymmetrical fringes that suggests a Flock of Seagulls revival will kick in circa 2025.)

The fixes Jai must engineer to reverse time are so simple and obvious (don't play around; listen; accept your course) as to fall somewhere between weightless and actively insulting - although I grant that, in the context of modern India, there might be instructional value in having a female writer-director instruct muddle-headed blokes on how to comport themselves around the opposite sex. Still, everything else in Baar Baar Dekho is aligned in such a way as to sell Jai (and us) on the pleasures of domesticity - it's conservative to the core on the subject of what's expected of the good young men and women of India, and invariably bland with it.

We get a couple of good gags: a pandit who conveys remote blessings via iPad, and the burbling Jai's hospital evaluation by a doctor who transpires to be a mental patient (an old joke, but still a funny one). And it's a very promising sign of sweetness on Mehra's part that she at every turn refuses to make Diya the scold an American movie working from this conceit might: she's instead a funny, spirited soul - an obvious catch, whatever Jai's misgivings - who may also be the only woman alive to heat up when she hears her husband calculating square roots. Elsewhere, alas, platitudes prevail: inhabit the moment, enjoy the ride, show up at your son's soccer matches. (Yes, it's one of those movies.) The leads do what they can with this material, but they're acting on a treadmill, one carrying us all rather too smoothly from first-night nerves to happy ever after.

Baar Baar Dekho is now playing in cinemas nationwide.   

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