Tuesday 21 March 2023

Call the whole thing off: "Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar"

The entire Indian film industry has spent the past week basking in the glow of the Academy Award newly (and rightly) bestowed upon those behind
"Naatu Naatu" from the global Telugu hit RRR. Yet the powerful glint coming off that gong has in some way obscured one of the many crises Bollywood in particular has been navigating of late: a pronounced dearth of what Deepika Padukone rather charmingly referred to on Oscar night as absolute bangers - the songs that have typically driven the best Bollywood productions forward, or revealed an even greater depth of feeling. Musicians and lyricists working in Hindi appear to have developed much the same creative yips as their screenwriter and director colleagues; the last chorus to truly lodge itself between my ears was that of "Radha" from 2017's Shah Rukh vehicle Jab Harry Met Sejal, an otherwise entirely middling timekiller to which few will have returned in the intervening years. Some good news, then: the new release Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar features a whole EP's worth of propulsive, expansive, radio- and chart-friendly songs, the prolific composer Pritam (the maestro responsible for "Radha") writing with the muse either close to his shoulder or draped across his piano like Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys. The breakout hit, wedding-party stomper "Show Me the Thumka", isn't anything like as rude as it sounds, sadly, but invites selling and listening as the new "Naatu"; even the obligatory sad song, "O Bedardeya", is well north of average in the sincerity of its keening. Yet the against-the-grain triumphs of these songs and their meticulously choreographed routines (thank Ganesh Acharya, overseeing a troupe of hundreds) only go to point up the multiple sorry failings of the film around them. The musical numbers represent the only time writer-director Luv Ranjan is able to pass some life - some energy, some electricity - through the limp, dead tissue that constitutes the bulk of these three hours.

I don't reach for that image lightly; there has, it seems, been some graverobbing going on. It's not acknowledged on screen or in the credits, but someone behind the camera has to have seen the 2018 Kiwi comedy The Breaker Upperers (widely streaming on Netflix), with its premise of an agency set up to ease cooling lovers into and out of romantic splits. In that film, the agency was staffed by women; Ranjan and his co-writer Rahul Mody have switched the sexes, which casts a very different light on their opening setpiece. Here, it's revealed that the agency in question has artificially inflated an oblivious young woman's self-esteem (having actors bat their eyelashes at her in the street, boosting her social-media followers) so she doesn't feel so bad after she's ditched by the sappy bloke who's called upon the agency's services. From the word go, TJMM isn't funny - it's making light of manipulation - and the set-up doesn't get any funnier after we find agency chief Rohan (Ranbir Kapoor) and his family bellowing about stock prices. It gets sunnier, but no better, after everyone decamps to Spain and Mauritius to demonstrate yet again that comedies in warm climates rarely function as they should. (However picturesque they may appear, bronzed beaches and clear blue waters aren't conducive to the hard work of generating laughter.) Here, at least, a plot starts to take shape. Rohan takes time away from his busy lifestyle of monetising misery to pitch woo at bikini-clad fellow traveller Nisha (Shraddha Kapoor), at which point Ranjan invites us to disregard the scattered red flags and believe this caddish protagonist is actually a dyed-in-the-wool romantic, heartbroken when Nisha resists his lovebombing and, indeed, in the big pre-intermission development, calls in Rohan's own agency to put permanent distance between the pair of them.

You'll have to overlook Rohan's failure to recognise his sweetheart's voice when she makes that call, but then the entire movie takes place in a moneyed bubble where normal rules don't apply. Ranjan visibly has more cash to dress this twaddle up than he did in his Pyaar Ke Punchnama days: Rohan has an underdefined second job that involves walking through a garage loaded with Mercedes-Benzes on a semi-occasional basis. Yet if his bank account is looking healthier, his filmmaking has fallen subject to arrested development. His interiors only ever look like sets; some of that location work has been poorly green-screened in; and I refuse to believe anyone took longer than five minutes to think through the characterisation. Rich twits have sustained plenty of romcoms down the years, but these rich twits don't talk or act consistently from scene to scene, so you can't get much of a handle on them and their motives, let alone start to care about their fates. It's even more baffling when, out of nowhere, two half-decent scenes crop up: a heart-to-heart where Ranjan pauses the wacky sound effects, instead allowing his stars to register as real people who've been hurt by love, and then an in-car phone conversation where the pair admit the extent to which their whole relationship has been a negotiation. This director can do it when he wants; he just prefers to trade in mindless inanity, either because that's where he made his money in the past, or because it's easier than checking he's getting the basics right. So you sit there, try to shut out the worst of this first-draft screenplay, wait for the next song to come along, check your watch between ten and fifteen times, chuckle at Ranjan's belief that the odd bleeped swearword makes any of this adult, check your watch another five times during the ridiculously overextended last-reel dash to (you guessed it) the airport, sigh at the unremitting maleness of its perspectives, and understand anew why certain film industries are making efforts to bring more women into the fold. Given he has not just one of the finest actresses of her generation but one of the best judges of scripts at his side, it couldn't hurt Ranbir to take a note or two from Alia. After all, another stinker like this might well constitute legitimate grounds for divorce.

Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar is now playing in selected cinemas.

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