Halfway through Calendar Girls, the new film by Madhur Bhandarkar, a young actress is shooting a film when she’s sidetracked by the revelation that some superstar is shooting nearby. She bolts, thrilled, toward the celebrity, and while one might imagine a Khan cameo, the star in question is Bhandarkar, playing himself. There are a couple of scenes where the ingenue OMGingly gushes over his work as the filmmaker puts on a consciously grave baritone, while dressed in bright red and yellow fleece jerseys Shah Rukh Khan may have discarded during Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.
This is all unbelievably meta. Bhandarkar, a maker of tacky cliché masquerading as so-called ‘realistic’ cinema, sitting opposite an actress played by — of all people — Ruhi Singh, who we last saw in Nisha Pahuja’s terrific documentary The World Before Her, which showed Singh’s frightening focus on the Miss India title. Now, as an ambitious actress clambering up the Bollywood rungs, Ruhi seems almost to be playing Part 2 of that true story while Bhandarkar smiles and plays mentor — Which, I suppose, he is doing in real-life by giving the girl her first break. The conversation is singularly bizarre as Bhandarkar says he wants to cast her in a film, but complains she’s already signed another film with some random producer. “Oh sir,” says the girl, chirpy and unperturbed, “I only did that because I wanted to buy a flat in Oberoi Springs.” To this Bhandarkar nods and hmmms with (grave) empathy, as if he condones the act, for that is how things ought to be done.
Look, either Madhur Bhandarkar is messing with all of us and is genuinely waging war on the way the industry works by sacrificing his own brand at the altar of truth, or he is blessed with a complete and utter lack of self-awareness.
The latter is more likely, considering the way this film has been made. It’s a preposterously sloppy production, a film where the casting brief apparently insisted on excluding all those with any talent. A few new girls are wrung through an excruciatingly bad script and the film is inconsistent on every level: visually, tonally, and in terms of narrative. Take the name off the poster and it’s hard to believe this film has been made by someone who makes films. Sadly, Bhandarkar might not even get the difference, and thus the scene plays out — entirely without irony — as he poses smilingly for selfies with Singh.
The film is about five young ladies who make it big as Calendar Girls, following which they are all expected to have a career in the world of glamour. One of them becomes the aforementioned actress and charges money to attend funerals, one (in a cruel moment of unintentional hilarity) becomes the brand ambassador of a spastic society and then marries a millionaire, one ends up seducing cricketers to fix matches, one is Pakistani and because Indians can’t stand the sight of Pakistani actors (but don’t tell Fawad Khan that) she ends up turning into an exclusive escort — in this she’s schooled by Mita Vashisht, wearing bottle-openers for rings and breathily saying “power-broker” as if it were the opposite of a safe-word. (Yes, it’s like several rejected Vishesh Films story-ideas all moved in together.)
Girl 5, meanwhile, goes to a party and hears that the head of her talent management agency is spreading scurrilous rumours about her. In a strange scene she confronts the man who nudges her about the gossip and so, mid-party, he calls up the owner of the agency and puts the phone on speaker — all while one token white guy looks alarmed by the goings on. “What’s going on?” he wonders, like the rest of us, but is quickly shushed as the owner, sitting in a club, boasts graphically on the phone about his conquest of Girl 5. The next scene has Girl 5 walking into an office and slapping the boss, but while he and the time of day seem to have changed, her dress hasn’t. It just goes to show how little has been thought through before making this movie. But at least Kyra Dutt, who plays Girl 5, does something that resembles acting.
The rest are a trainwreck. There are spin bowlers who introduce themselves hopefully at a party, saying “Hi, hope you know me?”; there are women saying “Setterday” and, delightful as it would be to have a day celebrating Irish Setters, they just mean Saturday; wine-glasses are used as accessories; and then there’s Kiran Kumar talking about philandering as grand tradition, while Suhel Seth plays Vijay Mallya.
My sensibilities need a shower.
Back during that unforgettable director cameo, Bhandarkar complains about an actress making him wait on the sets, declaring that“I make heroine-oriented films because heroes have too many hang-ups, and now look at the heroines.” Indeed, Mr Bhandarkar. How dare heroines act like heroes? How dare female characters in your movies dream of a slightly better life? Ah, but do remember we all live in — as one of your Calendar Girls calls it — “a free choice world,” and we can thus choose not to watch your sexist, racist, stereotyped films.
After a while, I often try and tune out horrible narratives and focus on the extras. The people who try and put their best foot forward come what may, in the hope that maybe they’ll get noticed. By someone, anyone. The waiters, the nameless models, the random Rajasthani turban’d footmen, the young man leading a chant outside the Pakistani model’s house in Bandra… They’re all trying to get noticed by standing out, and Bhandarkar never seems to care that each of these aspirants — in their desperate urge to be different — renders the entire scene incoherent.
Either Bhandarkar magnanimously chooses to allow all of them a platform, or he doesn’t know better. Or wait, have I just given him the idea for his next, Extras? Sorry, world.
Rating: Zero Stars
First published Rediff, September 25, 2015