Some movies are like candy. Wrapped in bright plastic and frequently too sweet for your own good, they act as sunny, unsurprising treats that lead to sticky, syrupy smiles. Disney Pictures is founded on these spoonfuls-of-sugar, on these simplistic stories of larks and laughter (and Happily Ever After). Now, the first Hindi release prefixed by that iconic, firework-veiled castle fittingly stays away from grandiose cinematic ambitions and, instead, wears a delightfully large grin.
Shashank Ghosh’s Khoobsurat is a bright red lollipop. It is a remake of the similarly-titled 1980 Hrishikesh Mukherjee film, which, in turn, was a retread of the director’s own 1972 classic Bawarchi, a far better film. Mukherjee — perhaps the finest of all Hindi movie storytellers — was himself retracing familiar ground, and the result, while earnestly sweet and remembered with nostalgic fondness, isn’t a film that has aged particularly well. The best that can be said for that film’s leading lady, Rekha, never the finest of actresses, is that she’s constantly brimming with enthusiasm, and now — in this role that celebrates well-dressed klutziness — so is Sonam Kapoor, more comfortable in her skin than we’ve recently seen.
Her Prince is a fellow who makes women melt. Fawad Khan, rightful ruler of Pakistani primetime television, is a shark with stubble, a handsome and suitably haughty fellow with piercing eyes and, as his heroine observes, “itni lambi lashes.” She says this in her head, Ghosh peppering his film with these subtext-subtitles a la Annie Hall, and while the mid-dialogue voice-overs don’t quite work at the start, the director persists and the thought-bubble lines give the film its own simple charm. The film is set in a sternly-run palace where things are thought, not said, and Kapoor’s Mili — visiting as the half-Bengali physiotherapist to the King (who doesn’t try to speak any Bengali, thank heavens) — is trying hard not to make an ass of herself. (Trying, and failing.)
The dictator in these parts is the queen, played smashingly by the glorious Ratna Pathak Shah, in grand tribute to her mother Dina, who, as the imperious mother in the 1980 film, was the best thing about it. Shah’s Rani-Sa flings daggers with her eyes, keeps her dialogues frosty and, in a moment where she disdainfully kicks off a rubber slipper, shows why she is one of the finest performers we have. Theatre veteran Aamir Raza Hussain, in a delightful role as a wheelchair-bound king — think Captain Haddock in The Castafiore Emerald, were he married to Castafiore — is a warm and fuzzy character, a perfect foil to his cold queen. And miraculously enough, these actors being what they are, they sneak some chemistry into the few moments they have.
This film, in fact, is doused with chemistry. Many a Disney film focusses too pinkly on the princess and leaves its blond, blue-eyed princes relatively interchangeable; I dare you to name the leading man in Anne Hathaway’s Princess Diaries without looking it up. But the filmmaker is here aware of the relative dishiness of both his actors, and cleverly constructs them as preening characters aware of their own looks. She wears rouge when massaging a cricketer’s foot, he — tightly ravelled in formalwear — even once wears a necktie to bed. Mili and The Prince don’t get off on the right foot, but she thinks he’s hot and he can’t help stare at her legs. As a result, when they do kiss in the film, they keep breaking away, only to gaze at each other more hungrily.
In every way, this film offers up the expected — only it does so with a smirk. The kind of knowing, genial smile an old, elaborately-moustached khidmatgaar might give a guest he particularly likes while serving them surreptitiously spiked coffee. Mili, who thinks dressing up to meet a neighbouring Maharajah means wearing a ballooning pair of stars-and-stripes pants, isn’t made for the palace life, and the palace, stuffed into place by its elegant dictator, isn’t quite ready to be shaken up. But, as the template dictates, she breezes through and all is eventually made better.
Kapoor, also the film’s co-producer, has chosen well, playing a clumsy character and tossing aside vanity to essentially play a clown in a baseball cap. In many ways, this role of a long-limbed girl who doesn’t often know what to do with her hands and feet suits her well. She spends the film making overdone, gif-worthy faces — be it when laughing inappropriately or when she’s bawling uncontrollably sitting between her father and a poster of Cary Grant — and that is just what Disney heroines should do. Khan, as a Prince who doesn’t even bother to say bless-you to a nearby sneezer, is a great find, an actor who doesn’t need to overplay his smugness, one who wears royalty lightly and well. He’s understated, exceptionally good with dialogue, and naturally, as per the brief, Charming.
There are a few bum notes, not least of which is Kirron Kher who, while warm, is too much of a caricature even for a Disney movie. She’s the William Wallace of Punjabi Mothers, an iconically cringeworthy character who doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Neither, it must be said, does Ghosh, the quirky director here wearing mouse-ears and colouring neatly within cliched lines. Yet his Khubsoorat was always meant to be a lozenge — and, when unwrapping candy, it’s always best to know what we’re in for.
Rating: 3 stars
First published Rediff, September 19, 2014