Wednesday 17 May 2023

United by music: "Jodi"

The last time we saw Diljit Dosanjh was in 2021 with Honsla Rakh, which offered the crown prince of Punjabi cinema the kind of transitional role all dashing movie swains have to attempt upon entering their thirties: the gadabout forced by circumstance into fatherhood and responsibility. Jodi, which stealthily entered cinemas and the UK Top 10 last weekend, actually predates the earlier film - it was shot at the tail end of 2019, and held over as cinemas and cinemagoers negotiated Covid - which possibly explains why it fits more squarely in the Dosanjh wheelyard: it finds the singer-turned-actor playing a struggling musician who's also something of a big kid, trying to make his way in the Punjabi recording industry of the late 1980s. It opens strongly, with a 1972-set prologue that introduces us to the cheeky pre-teen version of Dosanjh's Amar Sitaara: the kids are charmers, there's a nicely mischievous scene in which a teacher upbraids Amar for singing about domestic scuttlebutt rather than anything more uplifting (his choice response: "I write what I see around; the day I see patriotism, I will write about that"), and - in passing - an extraordinary song lyric in "Your dreams of high flying will be eaten by fire ants". (You hardly expect to stumble across such poetry in the multiplex.) 
When we join Dosanjh's older Amar, he's being underappreciated as a songwriter and backing singer for a gruffly arrogant provincial crooner, but he finds greater success in the duo of the title, paired with the outwardly meeker Kamaljot (Nimrat Khaira). She's introduced patiently hearing out a boorish record executive, who bats his eyelashes at her before insisting "people are not there to listen to a lady's songs; they are there to see her". Different times, as they say. Writer-director Amberjeet Singh reportedly began work on this script in 2011, but it's clearly been contoured both by the entertainment industry's recent efforts to address longstanding imbalances and the concurrent spiking in intolerance. The framing device has Amar and Kamaljot approaching a roadside ambush - armed men waiting in the wings - en route to one gig; they set out on this journey as the Punjab's own Sonny and Cher, and around the intermission scene start to remind us of the movie Bonnie and Clyde.

A broad outline suggests Singh may have had a sweeping musical epic in mind, perhaps something to set alongside The Bodyguard, A Star is Born or its tremendous Konkani equivalent Nachom-ia Kumpasar. Jodi doesn't really have the budget for that: even at its noisiest, it's more intimate backyard jam session than spectacular stadium gig. (I don't think Beyoncé's promoters have anything to worry about in the days ahead.) Yet that has the effect of drawing us in, and it's quite well written - at least, written well enough to withstand some pretty abysmal English subtitling. In their early duets, Amar and Kamaljot share a microphone but sound entirely at odds. She's lamenting the industry's injustices; he's still hymning the party-hearty bachelor life, resulting in some decidedly broken-backed bangers. (She's Taylor Swift; he's LMFAO.) One wedding-party gig ends in disarray after the flatbed truck they're performing on is driven off mid-song. Time and love will smooth their path and refine their sound, but Singh never lets us forget there's one more, potentially deadly obstacle in the road. The leads steady our nerves, up to a point. Dosanjh keeps Amar performing, relentlessly shooting his mouth off in the hope it might produce another lyric. (More typically, it gets him into trouble, although it also generates a funny aside, as a pal advises him to substitute the phrase "the moon and stars" for more risqué material so as to circumnavigate any censorship.) I hadn't seen Khaira before, and she appears a bit hesitant in her introductory scene - in retrospect, it may be deliberate, the reticence of any woman setting foot in the boys' club of the music/film business - yet when she opens her mouth, she's funny; she gives as good as she gets, and in repose, she has a face that reminds you of the great Indian actresses of the past. (You could easily imagine her playing an overlooked spouse in a late-Fifties Ray movie.) They work well together, which is the crucial thing. As a director, you don't need hundreds of cheering extras when you have such rhythm and harmony at your disposal - though Singh also notes these are fragile qualities in an unbalanced and less than harmonious world. For a pleasant couple of hours, Jodi gets the levels right.

Jodi is now showing in selected cinemas.

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